A referendum on ending apartheid was held in South Africa on March 17 1992. The referendum was limited to White South African voters, who were asked whether or not they supported the negotiated reforms initiated by then State President F. W. de Klerk.

De Klerk proposed to end the apartheid system that had been carried on since 1948. The referendum was a huge victory for the "yes" side, which ultimately resulted in apartheid being lifted. Universal suffrage was introduced two years later.

On February 2 1990, in his opening address to Parliament, De Klerk announced that the ban on certain political parties such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party would be lifted and Mandela would be released after 27 years in prison.

De Klerk announced that capital punishment would be suspended and that the state of Emergency would be lifted. The State President said in his speech to Parliament that “the time to negotiate has arrived”. This statesperson-like proclamation will be remembered for years.

Much water has since flowed under the bridge, as it were. Now after 30 years, when President Ramaphosa announced the final results of the 2024 general elections, he said “Our people have spoken.”

Precisely 30 years earlier, South Africa had steered a historical and smooth transition of power by ending apartheid. Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) facilitated this.

Many around the world who watched the striking image of Nelson Mandela and his, then, wife Willie Mandela walking out of the Victor Verster Prison were in stunned awe. This image was in stark contrast to the harsh reality of the apartheid days.

Only a year previously, I was in one of South African Townships and asked a young black man: “How do you see the future”? His answer was one of despondency: “We, the blacks of this country, see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

I chose not to preach about the ‘power of hope’ knowing it would fall on deaf ears. But, I made it a point to go to his township a few weeks after Mandela’s release and he simply embraced me with tears of joy flowing from his face.

Today, the world witnesses an equally momentous event of history that is unfolding in South Africa. The political landscape of South Africa has witnessed a radical transformation.

The dominant majority of the ANC after 30 years in power has been snatched in a dynamic political process which, until now, underwent a near single-party political system. The absolute dominance of the ANC in the political landscape was never going to make change uncomplicated.

A birds-eye view of previous results and the ANCs dominance is evident by the election results: 1994 (62.65%), 1999 (66.35%), 2004 (69.69%), 2009 (65.90%), 2014 (62.15%) and 2019 (57.50%). The ANC was always in pole position with a sway on the majority of the population.

The ANC’s early years were a success story. From 1994-2009 there were significant strides on various socio-economic indicators. Even the World Bank attested to the fact that South Africa had made considerable strides to improve the well-being of its citizens since its transition to democracy in the mid-1990s.

Unhappily, much of fine work done was severely compromised by the capture of State institutions. It resulted in the looting of state funds, a retardation in the economy and state-owned enterprises (SOEs), decaying infrastructure and a downturn in public services, and downright corruption.

Unemployment rose dramatically and left over 30% of young jobless. Crime levels rose steeply accompanied by low economic growth and high levels of income inequality. The unemployment rate stood at an elevated 32.4% in 2023, with women and youth persistently more impacted.

Inequality in South Africa remains among the highest in the world, and poverty was estimated at 62.7% in 2023, based on the upper-middle-income country poverty line, only slightly below its pandemic peak. Poverty rates have risen to levels not seen for more than a decade, reversing years of progress.

Add to all this, there is massive unemployment, lack of access to land, weak educational systems, gender discrimination, and poor health systems. To compound these problems there is enormous external dependency, a situation in which 'the world's poorest region overall' is reliant on donors.

The extreme levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment in South Africa are not just manifestations of a non-inclusive growth path, but are also constraints to growth itself.

Inequality in South Africa has long been recognised as one of the most salient features of our society. South Africa is consistently ranked as one of the most unequal countries in the world, an empirical fact that has its roots in the history of colonisation and apartheid.

In addition to being extremely high, South African inequality appears to be remarkably persistent. Despite many efforts by the government to reduce inequality, it has fallen short. This is both systemic and, as well, the acute absence of political and economic engineering that should have been punctuated by justice.

It was for all these reasons that the political collapse of the ANC swiftly came about under peaceful conditions. By 2019, the ANC fell to 57.50% as an outcome of the local government elections of 2021 that pointed to the sign of things to come for 2024.

The ANC could only muster support of 46%, down from 57% in 2014 and this fall in support was ongoing. The ANC support reached its peak in 2004 with just shy of 70% of the national vote and has declined steadily since then as a plethora of opposition and breakaway parties, some short-lived, have chipped away at its support.

In 2024, the ANC had a vote share of only 40.19% which converted into a colossal 17 percentage loss in votes. This represents a seismic shift in South African politics.

The conversion and passage of a society from the liberation struggle to democracy and one-party dominance has, for now, concluded in a coalition-led government in a relatively short span of 30 years. The people dismissed their sentimental attachment to the ANC for their significant role in the liberation struggle.

After all, the struggle was not the ANC’s alone, even if they held primacy in their contribution to liberation. The message of the people was this: Simply because you led our liberation does not licence you to rule without completing the full content of what liberation is all about.

It was heart wrenching for many to vote against a party that had become synonymous with the hope and aspirations of the majority of South Africans and associated with the iconic Nelson Mandela. The people discarded emotions and chose a pragmatic shift to prioritise service delivery.

Disillusionment had set in. Even the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke out after 20 years of ANC rule. “I would never vote for the ANC” he said. Expressing his aggravation with the way ANC was ruling the country, he unequivocally stated, “Apartheid is back again”.

Political compulsions will now demand a tangible coalition, something the ANC never had to formerly contend with. It now seems that they must negotiate with the centre-right Democratic Alliance, which received the second largest number of votes at 21.80%, the radical left party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which received 9.52%, and The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which is an ethnic Zulu based party that received 3.85% of the votes.

There is polarity in the coalition but political divergence is the reality of South Africa and the ANC will have to learn to rule by consensus and abandon its pretence of political dominance.

As South Africans absorb the birth of a new era in national politics and the sun sets on the dominance of the ANC, it is understandable that the excitement generated will be replaced by uncertainty as potentially complex coalition negotiations unfold. For South Africa, this is a defining political moment.

There is fear that a coalition government can be fractious and unstable. They are ill at ease as they move the country into untried territory.

But this is ‘realpolitik’ and the uncertainties it brings demands and dialogue which results in a formula that takes the people forward in unity rooted in the wisdom, mood and vision of 1994, developments that have evolved signify the evolution and maturation of South Africa’s democracy and the strength of the democratic institutions over 30 years. It has set an important political precept for pluralistic politics in the rest of the continent too.

The ANC will likely continue as South Africa’s most dominant party, with a national support in the mid-40% range, which would allow it to form the nucleus of a coalition government. Alongside, South Africa has entered a new era of coalition politics at a national level.

The ANC, whilst remaining a major party, has lost its parliamentary majority and its ‘soft power’ monopoly. The world will keenly watch with as much interest as they did when they saw apartheid crumble. South Africa has a new story to tell, and only time will reveal the outcome of this next chapter in South Africa’s notable passage.

Ranjan Solomon is a writer and human rights activist who developed his interest in the struggle against apartheid when he visited South Africa during the fag-end of the struggle, and continued to work with the YMCA to restore a just and stable society. Views expressed are the writer’s own.