Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) suffered only small losses and stays in power. The opposition made some gains but remains weak. Nevertheless, things will not remain the same, says DW's Claus Stäcker.
Jacob Zuma has survived the elections relatively unscathed. The president of South Africa and of the African National Congress (ANC) suffered only slight losses, with unofficial results putting him above the magic 60 percent mark - that's no less than Nelson Mandela achieved in South Africa's first free elections in 1994.
From a western perspective, the electorate should have punished Zuma and his party more clearly. The mood in the country has worsened to such an extent in the last few years that there were pre-election predictions that the Mandela party could fall back to close on 50 percent. Now the result looks like a triumph for Zuma. However, Mandela's popularity as president was rated around 80 percent whereas Zuma's sank to a low of just 58 percent.
Votes for the ANC, not Zuma
It is clear that the electorate makes a clear distinction between the ANC alliance - which includes the union federation COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP) - and its highest representative. They vote for the ANC not because of Zuma but despite Zuma. The fear is too great that the powerful, white-dominated economy could turn back the pages of history, together with the pro-business, white-dominated opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
They are using their votes to defend post-apartheid democracy, the improved chances for black South Africans, the social and economic advances that have been made. That all weighs heavier for them than the corruption and abuse of power committed by the Zuma camp.
It was above all in the structurally weak, rural regions that the ANC achieved dream results. Zuma is still benefiting from the liberation struggle and the Mandela legacy. The ANC has now successfully played this trump card in an election for the fifth time since the end of apartheid, thereby avoiding a political earthquake.
Nevertheless, things have changed. The liberal DA with its tireless leader Helen Zille and young, sharp-tongued, black leader of the opposition in parliament, Lindiwe Mazibuko, at its head, increased its share of the vote to 22 percent. There is additional potential in an alliance with respected, black ANC critics, something that so far has failed to materialize. One reason is that the DA is widely seen as a party for a white or, at best, high earning clientele. Critics do not believe it can rule the country better without endangering the achievements of the past 20 years.
Danger from the left
The biggest threat for the ANC is to be found on the left of the political spectrum. The would-be revolutionary with his red beret and Louis Vuitton shoes, Julius Malema, won 6 percent in his first election as leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). It is mainly radical young South Africans who support his leftwing populist calls for a more just distribution of the country's wealth. Other young voters - the so-called 'born free' generation born after the end of apartheid - are generally more apolitical, still undecided or already disillusioned.
What is lacking is an attractive, inclusive and credible alternative to the ANC. Experts say this alternative should preferably be leftwing, close to the unions, with a social democratic flavor. Some union branches have already cut their ties to the ANC. Should the gap between workers' representatives and the ruling party widen in the next five years under Zuma, the formation of a powerful new party cannot be ruled out.
If that does not happen, then South Africa will continue much as before. Despite Zuma, the country will continue to function - because the ANC does not do everything wrong, because South Africa has a strong, self-confident, heterogenous civil society as well as a sovereign, independent legal system, a vocal media landscape, and a solid, diversified economy. But the power of the ANC will continue to erode. At a slower rate if there is less of a headwind. Faster if the social storms intensify. At some point the Mandela credit will be exhausted. The ANC will not rule "until Jesus comes back," as Zuma once proclaimed. All liberation movements, be they in Africa, India or Mexico have come to realize that, sooner or later.
Claus Stäcker is the head of DW's Africa service.