The ANC used to stand astride South Africa like a colossus. At its zenith in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was easily the biggest party in each province and the dominant party in just about every municipality, apart from some holdouts in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

It reached its high-water mark in 2004, when it won nearly 70% of the vote, with the DA – under the leadership of Tony Leon at the time – being the only opposition party to manage more than ten percent of the vote.

Today, the situation is quite different. Although the ANC still casts a long shadow over our body politic, it is not the juggernaut it once was. The chattering classes are increasingly accepting the idea that the ANC could be out of government some day – perhaps soon – something that was literally unthinkable for many in the past.

Decline in cities

While ANC support is declining across South Africa, this is most pronounced in our urban areas. In the eight metros ANC support is declining rapidly, with the party’s proportion of the vote having plummeted by 20 percentage points or more in some metros in the space of only ten years.

For example, in the 2011 local government election the ANC won nearly 60% of the vote in Johannesburg. Ten years later it won less than a third. It experienced similar declines in the other two Gauteng metros. In Ekurhuleni, its vote share dropped from 62% in 2011 to 38.2% in 2021 and in Tshwane from 56.5% in 2011 to 34.8% last year. There were parallel declines in other metros around the country – in eThekwini, support for the ANC dropped from 61% in 2011 to 42% in 2021.

The ANC managed to secure over 50% of the vote in only two metros in 2021 (Buffalo City and Mangaung). Ten years earlier, in the 2011 municipal election, the only metro in which it did not win 50% of the vote was Cape Town.

It is clear that South Africa’s cities are turning against the governing party.

Even outside our cities, however, the party is under pressure, too. Evidence from recent by-elections, as well as last year’s local government election, shows that in the rural parts of South Africa, apart from the Eastern Cape and Limpopo (and to a lesser degree, Mpumalanga), the ANC is struggling to maintain the high-vote shares that used to be the norm in the past.


Evidence from municipal by-elections held in early June gives further credence to the theory that the ANC is haemorrhaging support in urban areas.

Of course, by-elections are not national elections, or even opinion polls. If we had to compare reading the electoral landscape to a weather forecast, then by-elections are not satellite images of the weather, which give one highly accurate information about what to expect. Rather, by-elections are like windsocks; they can tell you which way the (electoral) wind is blowing, and you can plan accordingly, just as a good meteorologist can make some extrapolations from looking at wind direction and wind speed.

In early June the ANC defended five wards in by-elections: one in Soweto in Johannesburg, one on Gauteng’s West Rand, one in rural KwaZulu-Natal, another in rural Mpumalanga, and the final seat in the Northern Cape.

While the party lost only two seats (to the DA in the Northern Cape and to the EFF on the West Rand), with the exception of the seat in Mpumalanga, its support levels declined markedly.

In Soweto, the ANC saw its support halved, from the nearly 60% it won a mere seven months ago to just above 30% now. If the opposition vote had not been split between the EFF, Action SA, and an independent, the ANC would likely have been turfed out in this Soweto ward. This would have been a remarkable result, as Soweto is in many ways one of the spiritual homes of the party, with Nelson Mandela having had a home there, which is now a museum. He is but one of many ANC luminaries with ties to the township.

In the other seat that it narrowly won, the ANC managed to finish only about 30 votes (out of over 2 000 cast) ahead of its two challengers in uMvoti in central KwaZulu-Natal. Only in Mpumalanga, in an election in the north-western corner of the province, did the party enjoy support of above 50%.

One other by-election has been held since and the pattern remains the same. In Mnquma (Butterworth) in the Eastern Cape, the ANC defended its seat in a by-election in the middle of June. However, it did see a relatively significant decline in support. In last year’s local government election, the ANC won over three-quarters of the vote in the ward – in the by-election the party managed 54% of the vote.

And these results are not outliers – if one looks at the various by-elections held since last year’s local government elections a good general rule of thumb is that if the election is not in the Eastern Cape or Limpopo, the ANC could be under pressure to retain its seat. (Of course, this is a bit simplistic, as many other factors also have to be taken into account. But, as a general point, it stands).

ANC a conservative party

All of this is, perhaps, because the ANC is now effectively a conservative party. Across the world cities are less likely to vote for parties that are less radical and which support gradual change.

For example, in the UK, places like London, Manchester, and Birmingham are strongholds for Labour, while those in the countryside are more likely to vote for the Conservatives, or Tories, as they are also known. And this is a pattern that generally holds across the world.

Now, some may contest my characterisation of the ANC as a conservative party, but it is clear that that is what they are – after 28 years in power, and for all their revolutionary posturing, they are now the party of the establishment.

The ANC certainly does not want to change the status quo, which includes a moribund economy with a large number of unemployed people, where the benefits of the economy accrue to a small elite. If it did want to change how South Africa worked it would jettison policies such as black economic empowerment, which distort the economy and do nothing for ordinary South Africans in general, and nothing for poor black South Africans in particular.

At the same time, it would stop putting forward proposals which will only hamper this country’s economy further, such as the National Health Insurance and Expropriation without Compensation. If the ANC was not a conservative party, it would try to grow the South African economy, so as to create jobs and opportunities for South Africans. But it will not, because it would rather preserve the status quo, like the conservative party it is.

There is no evidence that the ANC will change its thinking about the economy or in other policy areas. This means that it will continue inexorably to lose votes.

And votes are to a political party what blood is to a living organism; lose too much blood, or too many votes, in too short a period of time, and death is inevitable. The ANC should look to staunch the bleeding. On current, evidence it won’t.


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Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.