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President Jacob Zuma is fond of saying that the African National Congress will rule South Africa until Jesus comes. Now that the party has been voted out of power in all but one of South Africa’s major cities, there is speculation on social media and on bumper stickers that the second coming is at hand.

But South Africans might have to wait somewhat longer for a sighting of the Messiah.

The next national election is in 2019 and while the era of the ANC one party dominance that began with the end of apartheid in 1994 has ended, the party remains the overwhelming favourite to retain power.

What lies ahead is a new era of competitive democracy that could be messy and conflictual, but could also see the country evolve into a genuinely mature and accountable democracy that will restore the global standing of the nation of Nelson Mandela.

Until August 3rd, the ANC had secured huge majorities in every election since 1994. As of this week, it occupies the opposition benches in Cape Town, the home of Parliament; Tshwane (Pretoria), the administrative capital; Johannesburg, the economic powerhouse; and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), the capital of the ANC’s erstwhile Eastern Cape heartland. All have governments headed by the opposition Democratic Alliance in coalition with smaller parties.

To look at it another way, the ANC declined to a minority of the votes in the industrial core of Gauteng and was almost completely annihilated in the Western Cape. These two provinces are the engines of the country’s economy: they account for more than 50 percent of the country’s GDP, most of the black and white middle class, the highest ranked universities in Africa and the rising knowledge economy.

The ANC lost its majorities in 28 other municipalities but retained control of Durban – where the Zulu factor ensures residual loyalty to President Jacob Zuma – and the smaller cities of Bloemfontein and East London. It remains dominant however in rural and small town South Africa, parts of which are on life support and highly dependent on the economic centre. South Africa is now truly a country of two nations.

The municipal battle was not simply about ideology: even the Democratic Alliance, the successor to a liberal party that once participated in the all-white Parliament of apartheid, claimed the mantle of Mandela. Instead, the DA pointed to its record of clean and efficient administration in Cape Town and the Western Cape, where it has been the party of government since 2006. It claims superior competence and the ability to better deliver services to people, a contrast to some of the ANC’s corruption plagued and failing municipal governments.

Having dramatically declined to 54 percent in this election – down from 62 percent only two years ago – the ANC is only five points from where a coalition of other parties could team up and remove it from power in the 2019 national elections.

Though this remains unlikely, it is no longer unthinkable. Some will say that the ANC’s illustrious brand as the party of liberation is no longer sufficient reason to vote for it. But in fact South African voters always had good reasons to vote for the party.

The ANC’s stewardship of South Africa since the end of apartheid under its first two Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki was successful in growing the economy while imposing fiscal discipline, in spawning a new black middle class, in raising the living standards and human rights of the previously disenfranchised and in uniting a racially fractured society.

But it was a work in progress. The gap between the rich and poor and the unemployment rate remains untenable, and the education system is still not fit for purpose.

Under Zuma’s lacklustre and scandal-prone leadership, the country moved backwards: the economy slowed and the state came increasingly to resemble a patronage machine captive to insiders and elites who are out of touch with the people in the streets.

As the tier of government most visibly responsible for failing to meet the needs of the people, the ANC run municipalities were a natural target for protest.

The question now is how the ANC deals with this new situation: will it become more defensive and authoritarian or will it seize the opportunity of its congress at the end of next year to shake up its leadership and to renew its mission to transform South Africa?

Many ANC supporters stayed away on August 3rd. The question for future elections is whether these voters will return home or start migrating to other parties.

In order to win them back, there is pressure on the ANC to elect a new leadership with fresh ideas and energy, free of the taint of the Zuma years and willing to show their supporters that they will no longer take them for granted.

Demographics are still heavily in its favour. The ANC remains the party of the African majority. The DA is the party of the white and colored minorities, though there are signs it is cutting into the emerging black metropolitan middle class. Its success in the metropoles was driven largely by a massive turnout of voters from the suburbs.

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, though restricted to less than 10 percent of the vote, could yet become a home to younger, disillusioned ANC supporters. This week they proved themselves strategically clever by helping to vote the ANC out of power in Johannesburg and Pretoria without compromising their brand of radicalism by entering into awkward coalitions with the DA.

Once scorned as a buffoon, Malema is a master of the media and has been able to convey the image of a rising charismatic political star, contrasting with the more measured and less bombastic Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, who is regarded as the biggest winner in this month’s election.

In order to break through, the DA is now challenged to prove that it is capable of administering the large cities of the north and that it can deliver not just to its base in the leafy suburbs but to the urban poor. Success is complicated by the fact that the national and provincial governments remain in the hands of the ANC, a relationship that could prove testy.

One thing that just about everyone is agreed on is that real change will only come to South Africa after the ANC is gone. The macro-economic goals and development challenges that the country faces can only be dealt with at the national level.

The ANC has been put on notice that it must get its act together if it wants to remain the party of power. The smart guess is they get at least one more chance before Jesus lands in South Africa.