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The African National Congress (ANC), the party that has ruled South Africa since the end of the apartheid era, was battered in local elections earlier this month. While it is premature to assume this foretells the end of ANC rule, it should wake the party up and force it to get more serious about politics. It has lost the “right” to rule and must now prove its bona fides. It is a long overdue realization and one that should pay great dividends to the people of South Africa.

The ANC has governed South Africa since apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela, the human rights icon, came to power in 1994. The party has won every election since then, dominating politics at the national and local levels. The margin of victory has shrunk in recent years, although some of that stems from a split in the ANC in 2008 and the departure of several top leaders. That schism did not threaten the party’s grip on power, however.

In the local elections held Aug. 3, however, the ANC won just 54 percent of all votes cast. That is still a majority, but it is a symbolic defeat for a party that has won more than 60 percent of the vote at every national election since the end of apartheid. The damage was compounded by the defeat it suffered in several key constituencies, including that of Nelson Mandela Bay, which has been the home or birthplace of several ANC leaders, Mandela among them. The ANC’s rejection here — the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) won 46.5 percent of votes, while the ANC claimed 41 percent, a drop of 11 percentage points from five years ago — is the one of the most stinging rebukes possible. The DA is expected to form a coalition government there that will govern an area long considered an ANC stronghold.

The DA prevailed in several other key urban centers, such as Johannesburg and the municipality of Tshwane, where Pretoria, the capital, is located. The party also boosted its majority in Cape Town, winning more than two-thirds of the vote there.

That Cape Town result is especially disconcerting for the ANC, since the DA win is a vote of confidence, rather than a mere protest against ANC misrule. Most analysis of the vote sees the DA gains as a reflection of ANC arrogance and incompetence. Corruption allegations have swirled around the party and provided a steady drumbeat of complaint against President Jacob Zuma and tarnished his image as a man of the people.

More powerful, however, are South Africa’s economic woes. Growth is forecast to be zero in 2016 — the economy actually contracted in the first quarter of this year — while the unemployment rate has reached 27 percent. Basic services remain shoddy and haphazard, and inequality persists: While blacks constitute 80 percent of the population, whites, which account for just 8 percent of the population, control the majority of land and business interests. Dissatisfaction materialized in the form of protests during the election campaign. In several cases, demonstrations turned to riots and resulted in deaths. Not surprisingly, trust in the president has plummeted from 62 percent in 2011 to 34 percent, according to the respected Afrobarometer polls, and a year ago 64 percent of South Africans said the country is heading in the wrong direction.

The end of ANC rule is not assured. The DA only claimed 28 percent of votes nationwide, and it will be forced to rule in coalition governments across the country. There is little precedent for coalitions in the major cities and the DA is likely to find it hard to find common ground with some of the smaller parties with which it must partner.

For its part, the ANC remains the majority power nationally, even though it is much diminished in strength and prestige. If the party leadership takes the results seriously, and adjusts its behavior accordingly, it will be better prepared to contest the next round of national elections that are scheduled for 2019. The ANC’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, promised to do just that. “They think that we are arrogant, they think that we are self-centered, they think that we are self-serving, and I’d like to dispute all of that and say we are a listening organization.”

In some ways, the party will have no choice. The biggest immediate challenge it faces is economic recovery. South Africa’s credit rating has slid since political interventions rocked international confidence in its economic policy. It risks junk bond status unless it gets its fiscal house in order. That task may be complicated by the political negotiations that follow this month’s elections and the political battles — and possible paralysis — that could ensue over vital legislation in key economic sectors.

Hanging over these discussions is the embattled president. For many voters and analysts, the ballot was a referendum on Zuma’s rule and the results speak for themselves. He has fended off a series of challenges to his rule, however, and his term is scheduled to run to December 2017. Afterward, he will retain considerable influence over ANC decision-making and he will likely do whatever is necessary to protect his interests and those of his allies.

Given his tenure, that means that the ANC will continue to slide in the polls and the opposition will be more successful. The ANC will no longer be able to claim without challenge the allegiance of black voters. That is good for South Africa’s democracy, but it portends instability as a new normal emerges.

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