JOHANNESBURG — As the final ballots of South Africa’s fifth post-apartheid election were tallied on Friday, the results handed the governing African National Congress a victory with 62 percent of the vote — nearly the same share it won in 1994, the year it assumed power under Nelson Mandela in the nation’s f irst truly democratic election.
But the nearly identical results mask glaring differences between the two periods, during which the party has been transformed from a liberation movement that inspired South Africans, as well as Africans on the rest of the continent, to a political party buffeted by corruption, popular disillusionment and widespread complaints that it has strayed from the masses it says it represents.
The A.N.C.’s vision for South Africa earned it 62.7 percent of the vote in 1994, a margin that would keep rising for the following decade. This time, with 100 percent of the ballots counted, the party’s share shrank for the second consecutive election, to 62.2 percent. Solid as it is, the victory is almost one by default, thanks to the liberation dividend, the political machine established over a generation and the absence of a major rival.
In a nation troubled by income inequality and growing frustration among many black South Africans, the A.N.C. lost a small but significant share of voters to a 10-month-old party whose leaders, wearing red jumpsuits and military-style berets, pledged to nationalize the nation’s mines and other economic assets without compensation. The party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, vaulted past many older parties to become the nation’s third biggest, with 6.4 percent of the vote.
“Those two percentages mean different things, but they also represent a shift in the direction of the country,” said Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the spokesman for the Economic Freedom Fighters. “In 1994, it meant democratization and the political legitimacy of the A.N.C. That is not what it means now. The percentage is back there precisely because the grounds are shifting towards a different future.”
The results guarantee a second term for President Jacob Zuma, whose popularity has been eroded by corruption allegations over the years, and who was found in a report released in March to have misused $23 million in public funds to upgrade his homestead in Nkandla.
The A.N.C. fell short of Mr. Zuma’s stated goal of a two-thirds majority, but came in safely above the psychologically important threshold of 60 percent.
With the victory, Mr. Zuma is expected to press ahead with a business-friendly economic plan focusing on infrastructure and investment, which is opposed by the A.N.C.’s union allies.
The official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, came in second place, drawing 22.2 percent. By reaching out to black voters, the party, whose base has traditionally consisted of whites and South Africans of mixed race, made significant gains nationally since the 2009 election, when it finished with 16.7 percent.
At a news conference, its leader, Helen Zille, said that the party’s support among black voters grew to about 6 percent, from less than 1 percent five years ago.
The A.N.C.’s rivals capitalized on the growing perception that the party pursues the interests of a politically connected class and does not represent the interests of average black South Africans. Youths angry about the living conditions and meager services in poor townships have been demonstrating against the government. Former high-ranking A.N.C. officials have broken away from the party, as have some longtime allies like the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, one of the nation’s biggest trade unions.
The transformation of the A.N.C., the 102-year-old organization often seen as Africa’s greatest liberation movement, has also been regarded with disappointment by many Africans, including some who participated in anti-apartheid activities on college campuses a few decades ago, just as American students did.
Abiodun Aremu, secretary of the Joint Action Front, a pro-labor civil coalition in Nigeria, was a leader in Nigeria’s 1980s student movement, which fought for democracy at home and supported the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa.
“The A.N.C. represented to us a great hope for the African dream, in terms of building a human society and leading an African renaissance,” Mr. Aremu, 50, said by phone from Lagos, Nigeria. “So in that context, they have come short of our expectations.”
To many Africans living under authoritarian governments or in shaky democracies, South Africa’s racial reconciliation and peaceful evolution after 1994 was a model. But in the past decade, South Africa has followed the path of other African nations that, after independence, were ruled by an often corrupt elite, said Kayode Soremekun, a professor of international relations at Covenant University in Ota, Nigeria.
“I no longer see the A.N.C. as being a model for the rest of Africa,” Professor Soremekun said, adding that he now considers a country like Ghana — where two dominant parties peacefully exchange power in a competitive political system — as a more suitable example.
The results of the election here suggest, however, that South Africa is slowly moving in that direction. As more black voters drift away from the A.N.C., and as older voters loyal to the memory of Mr. Mandela give way to the “born free” generation of young voters with no direct experience of apartheid, a shift could take place.
As a political realignment takes place in South Africa, with major unions possibly forming a party, the A.N.C. will most likely lose power to a coalition of opposition parties, said Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst at the Helen Suzman Foundation, a private pro-democracy group in South Africa.
“It is significant that the A.N.C. has fallen to its 1994 threshold,” Mr. Matshiqi said. “If, in 2019, the A.N.C. loses even more support, all we have to speculate about is the number of elections it will take for the A.N.C. to eventually lose power.”