PRETORIA -- South Africa's fifth democratic national elections since 1994 and the end of white minority rule saw the ruling African National Congress retain power with another landslide victory.
This gives the ANC a strong mandate to continue the policies pursued by the administration led by President Jacob Zuma, since he was first elected president in 2009. Then, the party won with 65.9 percent of votes. This year it lost a few percentage points, winning 62.2 percent of votes.
In 1994, when Nelson Mandela became the country's first democratically elected president, it swept the polls with a 62.6 percent win. The next two elections saw its margin increase to 66.3 percent in 1999, and 66.7 percent in 2004.
The centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA) has steadily gained ground as the official opposition party, rising from 12.4 percent in 2004, to 16.7 percent in 2009 and now 22.2 percent.
The biggest change in the party political terrain has been the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by Julius Malema, who in 2012 was expelled from the ANC and the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and faces fraud, corruption and tax evasion charges. The EFF has won 6.2 percent of votes and will have more than 20 MPs in the National Assembly.
The other small parties have been roundly thrashed. The inauspiciously-named COPE (Congress of the People), which split from the ANC following the removal of President Thabo Mbeki in 2008, and wider changes to the ANC leadership the year before, won fewer than one per cent of votes. This is down from 7.4 percent in 2009.
Similarly, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), whose stronghold is in KwaZulu Natal won only 2.4 percent of votes, down from 4.5 percent in 2009, and way down from the 10.5 percent of votes it won in 1994. The IFP has long been the powerbase of the one-time Prime Minister of the KwaZulu bantustan, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The apartheid government used the IFP as a violent buffer against the ANC in the dying days of minority rule. Its steady demise reflects the unwinding of its historic standoff with the ANC.
The Afrikaner right-wing Freedom Front Plus has also steadily waned since 1994. Then it won just 2.1 percent of votes, but now only managed 0,9 percent.
Mainstream media political pundits have been quick to point to a rapid decline of the ANC's fortunes due to corruption scandals, lack of leadership and policy indecision.
Raging controversy over the amount of state spending on security upgrades to President Zuma's home in Nkandla has tended to obscure the government's policy impact. It is this impact, not blind loyalty, that in emerged in the countless community debates broadcast mainly on local media before the election as uppermost in people's concerns. There is a sense that though the ANC certainly has its problems, it is the only political force with the vision to tackle poverty and underdevelopment.
Since 2009, the government has scored big successes in cutting HIV-AIDS and the ensuring full availability of anti-retroviral treatment, and in improving treatment of the country's biggest communicable disease killer, tuberculosis. Life expectancy has increased by an average of five years.
The recent R22-billion [$2.1 billion] injection of state investment in the auto sector saved some 46,000 jobs and added a further 9,000. Government infrastructure improvement has transformed many townships, adding roads, clinics and improving schools.
A new R1-trillion [$96 billion] economic and social infrastructure program aims to transform many poor areas by building new roads, rail links, ports, universities and schools. The electrification of poor areas has increased more rapidly with a further 1 million households connected in the last five years, bringing the total to over 5.4 million connections since 1994.
Government has also started supplying free solar water heaters to poor homes, installing over half a million in the last five years. In the contested area of land restitution, the government has re-opened the process of lodging land claims, in the face of much protest from the political conservative opposition.
The significant downside is that in some areas of the country the demand for better basic services and infrastructure continues to outweigh supply. Nearly 3 million small, low-cost housing units have been provided since 1994, mainly to replace shack housing. Millions of water and sanitation connections have also been made since 1994. But the lack of housing and insufficient water supply, sanitation and health clinics in many rural townships and villages spark almost daily service delivery protests up and down the country. There were some 13 000 such protests in 2013.
Unemployment continues to be ruinously high. This is despite government schemes and increased higher education investments, including a strong nascent industrial policy focused on developing domestic production.
All this, coupled with corruption in local government, which drastically affects the supply and quality of services, has fuelled resentment at the pace of transformation in South Africa.
It is one reason why the popularity of the EFF has rocketed. EFF supporters proudly sport red berets. Many of its leaders wear military fatigues, and expensive red leather jackets emblazoned with the party's logo. Julius Malema, its portly leader, goes under the title commander-in-chief. Party functionaries are called commissars.
The EFF alleges that the ANC and its partners have sold out. It promises that under EFF rule South Africa would undergo rapid economic transformation, with nationalization of mines, land expropriations from white landowners, a massive increase in social benefits, the provision of high quality large houses for all, and strong minimum wages across all sectors.
Much of the EFF's language and iconography has been lifted from the traditional left, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). They form two pillars of the tripartite ANC-led Alliance, which has been more prominently included in all levels of government under the Zuma administration, and which was the key constituent of the ANC as a broad liberation movement during the struggle against apartheid.
The SACP charges that the EFF is reminiscent of the German National Socialists (Nazis) of the 1920s, which stole the language of the left opportunistically to force through far-right agendas, with murderous consequences.
Its support base is largely among disaffected township youth, including many who are new voters or had previously supported smaller parties. There is little evidence that the EFF has siphoned off much support from the ANC.
The big question now in many people's minds is how the EFF will behave in parliament, whether it will perform as a party of the left, whether it will cooperate with the ANC-led Alliance, and how it will pursue its policies, which overlap greatly with what the ANC, SACP and COSATU say though in more shrill and generalized language.
But the main opposition winner in the elections is the DA. ANC economic empowerment policies since 1994 have swelled the numbers of the black middle class and upper middle class. Ironically, the political and class allegiance of the newly enriched and financially empowered is starting to veer towards the conservative DA.
The DA has doubled its support among the ANC stronghold of Gauteng province, home to densely populated Pretoria and- Johannesburg, including Soweto. The party has also astutely courted support from the Indian and "coloured" populations, which have tended to be neglected by, or have less robust ties to, the ANC compared to the majority African population.
The DA currently draws its support mainly from the wealthy white population, which continues to dominate South Africa's corporate sector. Like the EFF, it appropriates the language of liberation, the Mandela legacy and the discourse of non-racialism in a fervid attempt to generate its township appeal.
So, while South Africa's 2014 election results in many ways announce a business as usual continuity in national government and ANC rule, the political opposition terrain is changing apace.
Photo: lines of voters queuing to cast their ballots at a polling station in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg, South Africa, May 7. AP Photo/Ben Curtis)