The mandate, just short of a two-thirds majority of the vote in last week's elections, given to South Africa's ruling African National Congress, is a poisoned chalice. It is clear that the election of Jacob Zuma as ANC leader in 2007 has energised South Africa's electorate. Voter turnout was more than 70% in this election. Some white South Africans, who seemingly gave up on politics after the loss of political power in 1994, have returned. Many appear to have voted to prevent Zuma's ascendancy, by casting their ballot for the traditionally white Democratic Alliance (DA) or the Congress of the People (Cope), the party formed by ANC dissidents last year.
Many middle-class black people, also opposed to Zuma, have broken their allegiance to the ANC and voted for Cope. But poor blacks, who had drifted away because of the party's poor delivery record, have returned to vote for the ANC persuaded by Zuma's promises. Party leaders have successfully presented themselves as almost a new ANC that will be more pro-poor, accountable and less corrupt – blaming government failures on the leadership of outgoing president, Thabo Mbeki.
Sadly, the election campaign brought few details of how to deliver the promises. Zuma's challenges are formidable: improving public services, assembling competent staff – which means not purging senior civil servants critical of him – tackling corruption, and restoring the credibility of democratic institutions.
Having turned out in their millions, the challenge now is for South Africans to stay politically active. They must hold the new government accountable, to prevent the abuse of power we have seen in recent years. It is also clear that South Africa has too many opposition parties, with few policy differences. Some of them will do well to merge, or even to become NGOs.
Desperate black voters, who gave the ANC this victory, did so in a last-ditch hope that its leaders will turn their liberation struggle promises and good intentions into action. That calls for Zuma to roll up his sleeves from day one. He is unlikely to have the honeymoon period that previous ANC governments had. If the ANC does not deliver this time, people are likely to plunge back into apathy or protest strongly, even violently.
To capture the presidency, Zuma assembled a disparate coalition and made often diametrically opposed promises to each group. We now face the possibility that disappointed expectations and infighting in the coalition may trigger another fracture of the ANC. In the successful campaign to get the corruption charges against Zuma dropped, democratic institutions were damaged, and their credibility is now in tatters. Zuma must steer clear of appointing uncritical acolytes, and make the ANC internally democratic.
The DA has won in the Western Cape, giving it the opportunity to show it can govern competently and inclusively. Zuma must refrain from withholding resources to this region. Cope, given that it lacked the resources and was only launched last December, did well to capture more than a million votes. These parties now have enough support to hold the ANC more accountable.
South Africa desperately needs a serious party on the left of the political spectrum, with roots in the "struggle". The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist party had planned to form such a party, but were persuaded to back Zuma. The ANC under Zuma is too broad a coalition to turn into a leftwing party, as some of the trade unionists and socialists backing him hope. Yet dashed expectations and failing to deliver on promises may still trigger a leftwing break within the ANC, and herald a major reconfiguration of party politics.