‘We didn’t fight for this’: ANC’s grip on power in peril in South Africa election

‘we didn’t fight for this’: anc’s grip on power in peril in south africa election

A boy plays in Kliptown’s freedom square. After 30 years in power, the ANC is in danger of losing its majority in South Africa. Photograph: Madelene Cronje/Madelene Cronje/The Observer

In the heart of Soweto, the birthplace of South African democracy has been burned, looted and stripped for parts.

Almost 70 years ago, in the early days of apartheid, more than 3,000 people gathered in a dusty square to draw up the Freedom Charter, demanding a series of rights and proclaiming that South Africa “belongs to all who live in it, black and white”.

When apartheid ended in 1994 and Nelson Mandela was elected president by a landslide, the charter became the foundation for the country’s optimistic new constitution. So it made sense, 50 years on, to mark its anniversary and turn this square in the Kliptown area of Soweto into a place that represented the new South Africa.

There would be shops and offices, a museum, a monument to freedom. To top it off, a new hotel opened, marketed as “the first four-star luxury hotel offering African hospitality in the heart of Soweto”. A flame of freedom was lit, surrounded by the words of the charter.

South Africa then was on the up. New homes had been built, and access to electricity and water extended across the country. While much of the country’s wealth still rested in a few white hands, a black middle class was growing and South Africa was preparing to host the football World Cup.

But if the first 15 years of democracy was a success, the same cannot be said for the last 15 years. And the impact can be seen vividly in the square where modern South Africa was born.

Poverty is rampant, unemployment is high and three years ago riots led to the burning and looting of shops. Everything that can be stolen and sold has gone, including the metal grates that covered the sewers. The hotel is still here but staff admit there are barely any guests. And in the monument where the charter lies, the flame of freedom has long since burned out.

As South Africa prepares to go to the polls on Wednesday, 30 years on from the first democratic elections, it is a nation in crisis. It’s the most unequal country in the world and among the most dangerous. The economy is stagnant, with almost zero growth in a decade and nearly half of adults are out of work.

Basic public services are falling apart. In many parts of the country there is no clean water, while rolling power cuts have become a regular feature of daily life. The government proudly points out it has been 55 days since the electricity went off, a streak that the more cynical expect to last until election day but not much longer.

And in the final week of campaigning, Johannesburg has suffered a strike by rubbish collectors, leading to piles of garbage on streets corners and strewn across pavements.

At the heart of it all is corruption. What was a minor issue under Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki exploded when Jacob Zuma came to power in 2009. By the time he was kicked out of office by the African National Congress (ANC) in 2018, billions was looted from the state, leaving almost every part of it bankrupt, from the national airline to the agency that ran the railways.

“The tax authority was effectively taken over by a syndicate of criminals,” says Anthony Butler, a professor of politics at the University of Cape Town. “It’s proved to be very difficult to rebuild those institutions.”

An inquiry into what became known as “state capture” concluded that “the ANC under Zuma permitted, supported and enabled corruption”, though Zuma himself denies any direct role in corruption.

After Zuma, the ANC tried to turn the page, choosing a former Mandela ally, Cyril Ramaphosa, as the new president. Despite admitting his party “made mistakes”, Ramaphosa has been unable to change the country for the better and is now haunted by the ghosts of the ANC past.

An unrepentant Zuma has formed his own party, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) – named after the former paramilitary wing of the ANC – which has peeled away support, particularly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Coupled with the strength of another populist leftwing party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema, a former ANC youth league leader, the opinion polls suggest the party of Mandela will fall to its lowest level of support since 1994, and could even slip below 50%, meaning it would have to rule as a minority government or go into coalition.

The size of Ramaphosa’s task can be seen on the streets of Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s largest townships and once an ANC stronghold. “It’s filthy, densely populated, ungovernable,” says Vusi Khosa, a softly spoken Alexandra native. “It’s anarchy. People do what they wish.”

Khosa used to work in construction, building RDP (reconstruction and development) houses, the government-built homes provided for free to millions of poor South Africans since 1994.

But like many here, the 46-year-old now struggles to find work. He lists friends who trained to be doctors and engineers but are now unemployed. “That doesn’t give a good picture, does it?”

He worries about crime too. It’s rare to see a police officer, he says – “We can wait until Jesus comes back, it’s not going to happen” – so some people have set up patrols at night. But one person’s neighbourhood watch is another person’s militia. “Some people take extreme measures,” Khosa admits.

For Queen Pungula, who works at a local creche, crime keeps her inside once the sun goes down. “By 6 o’clock I can’t go outside,” she says. Pungula lives and works in one of Alexandra’s hostels, built by the apartheid government in the 1970s to house migrants from rural areas who were allowed to come to the city to work. Her hostel is relatively safe, but others are notorious for overcrowding and crimes.

Housing remains a nightmare for most. Parts of Alexandra have expensive bungalows with high walls and manicured lawns, but across the road and round the corner it’s a slum – ramshackle one-room houses made of cinder block and corrugated iron, open sewers, people living cheek by jowl. None of the homes have toilets, so along one street hundreds of portable toilets are lined up along a wall. “We have no flushing toilets,” yells a passing pastor, Charles Mahumani. “This is an insult to us!”

The ANC will not have his vote, and it may not have Khosa’s either. He is an ANC member, but – he pauses, sighs – “I do not know. I do not know.”

Khosa is not alone. In most democracies, a ruling party that has been in power for 30 years and presided over such a horrendous series of interlocking crises, would be facing a long period in opposition. But the ANC is not just a political party – it’s a former liberation movement, and that makes a difference. People have a different attitude to a movement that won their freedom: for many South Africans, it’s a complicated relationship, and the decision to take their vote elsewhere is as much emotional as pragmatic.

There is a fear among older ANC supporters that their children’s generation are unaware of just how bad life was under apartheid, or just how vital the ANC was to ending the racist system. “I know where I came from,” says Frank Baloyi, a 56-year-old teacher in Kliptown’s freedom square, officially called Walter Sisulu Square. “I’m from apartheid. If you’re from that era, you understand. There was no silver platter. We suffered a lot.”

He describes the ANC’s failings as “minor mistakes” made by “human beings”. Young people, he says, “don’t understand what we went through”.

Those worries are present among the ANC’s leadership too. “We’re pleading with South Africans to give us another chance,” says Snuki Zikalala, president of the ANC’s veterans’ league and an ally of Mbeki, who has returned to frontline politics after the end of Zuma.

They are not just pleading, they are promising. The minimum wage has been raised by 8.5%, social grants have risen, and this month Ramaphosa signed into law a national health insurance bill giving access to healthcare for all. Left unsaid is how the government will pay for it.

Zikalala admits the party lost its way under Zuma, who “brought down the whole South African state. That’s why the country is in a mess. It took us 100 years backwards. It was all about himself and his family.”

Sounding perhaps more like an opposition politician than a governing party apparatchik, he adds: “We have everything in this country. If we can just have proper governance and run the country professionally…”

The ANC will still be running the country on Thursday, but if the polls are right, it will be in coalition. However, its potential alliances are fraught with problems. How can it do a deal with Zuma, a man who it now freely admits perpetrated one of the biggest corruption scandals of any government anywhere in the world?

How can it do a deal with Malema’s EFF, a party that wants to appropriate land and who Zikalala says “does not believe in the rule of law”?

Of the main parties, that just leaves the Democratic Alliance, a centre-right party opposed to the ANC’s social spending and, more importantly, still seen as dominated by and catering for white people.

Optimism is hard to find. But Butler, who wrote a biography of Ramaphosa, believes the president might be “the right person for this situation. He’s a consensus politician, a negotiator. He’s exactly the leader you’d want for a period of coalition government. This is his thing.” Also, he adds: “There isn’t anyone else. He’s all they’ve got.”

There is another question about what happens after the election: where does the anger go if things don’t improve? Several people last week muttered darkly about foreigners, accusing them of taking jobs and being responsible for crime.

Migrants, predominantly from neighbouring Zimbabwe, may make up just 3% of the population, but the proportion is higher in the poorest, most densely populated, most crime-ridden parts of the cities. South Africa has been hit by waves of xenophobic violence over the past 16 years and some parties have embraced an anti-immigrant position.

But there are reasons to be hopeful too. No one doubts the election will be free and fair – unlike in the US, there is no possibility of a coup attempt if the ANC was to lose power. The country’s institutions, especially the judicial system, have remained independent and strong. There is a free, vibrant press. And while the state has collapsed, business and civil society has stepped in, providing health and education, delivering social services, filling potholes.

Despite everything, South Africa remains a country of successful businesses, vibrant creative scenes and a thriving tourism industry.

But back in Kliptown, over the railway tracks from the square, Bob Nameng disagrees. The head of a local youth organisation, he points back over the tracks to the Freedom Charter and its proclamations about the new South Africa. “It’s bullshit, it’s a contradiction. You speak of land – us here are congested in a small piece. You speak of rights – there are no rights here.”

He won’t vote ANC – “I can’t afford to sell myself again” – and will instead support Malema’s EFF. Not that he’s is hopeful anything will change.

“Nothing is OK in our country. I can’t be lying. This is not what we fought for.”


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