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ANC Retains Bedrock of Support in South Africa

Times Staff Writer

When it rains in the Freedom Park squatters camp -- which happens often this time of year -- a river runs through Alfred Mokoena’s two-room shack of rusty corrugated iron. He taps his leg just above the ankle to show how deep it gets in a real downpour.

Five people share the shack, an oven in summer and an icebox in winter. Mokoena, 34, has no job. His mother, Priscilla, has no job -- in fact, she’s in the hospital after nearly dying of pneumonia. His brother, Paulus, 25, has never had a job, and neither has his sister, Mirriam, 18, who has a 9-month-old daughter to support.

But Mokoena hasn’t given up on the party that has ruled for the last 10 years of post-apartheid South Africa.

“I’m going to vote for the ANC,” he said, referring to his support for the African National Congress in elections today. “I’ve seen no changes, but maybe if I vote for them again, they’ll change.”

His comments illustrate the bedrock of support the ANC has among blacks -- even the poorest people, who have fared badly this last decade. Facing a weak opposition, the ruling party is expected to win easily.

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South Africa is still a divided country, and racial identification plays a big role in how people vote in a nation that is 75% black.

President Thabo Mbeki, until recently stiff and awkward when meeting ordinary people, has loosened up in the campaign, making a conscious effort to portray himself as a man of the people. Although often criticized for failing to show leadership on the country’s AIDS pandemic and for failing to condemn human rights abuses in neighboring Zimbabwe, Mbeki is certain to be elected president by the Parliament after the widely predicted ANC victory.

Analysts predict that the ANC, still closely associated with the immensely popular former President Nelson Mandela, will dominate South African politics for years to come.

“What motivates people to vote in this country is primarily their identity, which is not a distressing fact. Most of our pundits seem to think it’s somehow primitive,” said Steven Friedman, senior research fellow at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. “It’s a reality of our situation, so what that means is the majority of people in this country associate the ANC with freeing them from apartheid.”

Opposition parties warn that the entrenchment of one dominant party could undermine South African democracy.

“If we don’t get a better-balanced political system, then there’s a danger of a one-party state forming in South Africa, and that could take several years to undo,” said Tony Leon, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, the successor to the pre-1994 parliamentary opposition. The party has tried to broaden its appeal and has a number of black candidates.

“There’s a lot of hegemonic power-seeking by the ruling party,” he added.

Leon, who is white, claimed to represent most whites, most Colored or mixed race voters, most Indians and some blacks, and boasted of rallies attended by thousands of blacks from poor rural areas. But Friedman argued that there could be no credible white-led opposition in South Africa because of the past white oppression. He predicted that Patricia de Lille, a Colored politician who is leader of the Independent Democrats and an outspoken critic of the ANC, would take away white liberal support from Leon’s party.

The ANC’s performance has been mixed in the 10 years since it came to power in South Africa’s first democratic election. In the last decade, the government has built -- albeit often shoddily -- more than a million houses, and provided water for 9 million people.

Despite a lot of talk of an increase in living standards for blacks, a recent survey by the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that nearly half of South Africans said their living standards had been going down. The survey cited a study by the University of the Western Cape as saying average black income fell by 19% between 1995 and 2000.

The big disappointments this last decade have been education, jobs and, especially, treatment for those with AIDS, in which delays and denial cost thousands of lives. Mbeki has been criticized at home and abroad for refusing to accept that HIV led to AIDS and for the subsequent long delay in rolling out antiretroviral drugs. In a controversial comment last year, he was quoted as saying he did not personally know anyone who had died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Making antiretroviral drugs available just weeks before the poll came too late to neutralize the damage and sense of betrayal among many people suffering from the illness or who lost loved ones to it. Even some ANC members -- such as Johannesburg City Councilor Shirley Mofokeng -- said the timing was unfortunate because it looked like it was done to win votes.

Some of the main problems South Africa faces were inherited from the apartheid regime. A system that trained black workers for manual labor only has left the country with millions of underskilled and internationally uncompetitive workers who can’t get jobs.

The centerpiece of the ANC’s election campaign is a promise of 1 million jobs, but they are mostly temporary ones.

The ANC government has succeeded in creating a small black elite -- often ANC allies -- whose members drive Mercedes-Benzes and ply the country’s golf courses, according to the fortnightly journal Africa Confidential.

But life is harsh for South Africa’s vast underclass, with 45% of black households surviving on less than 600 rand a month ($91). Forty percent of the population is jobless, a figure that includes those who have been unemployed for so long they have given up hope of finding work. Official estimates put the figure at 31.2% -- a number that excludes those who have given up looking and are not classified as economically active.

“The reality is that Mbeki is consumed by issues of race and he’s obsessed with creating a black bourgeoisie,” Leon said. “He wants a black ownership class and black-owned businesses. So we have created a multiracial elite and a multiracial underclass, but we have failed to skill the middle class.”

He said the ANC was “obsessed with transformation issues. What people want in this country is relief from crime. It is negatively the most unifying feature of this country: people’s horror at crime.”

Leon’s big election promises are 150,000 extra police officers and a 110-rand ($17) monthly unemployment payment.

There is no government unemployment payment for people such as Alfred Mokoena. For many like him, the only income comes from payments given for children -- 160 rand ($24) per child a month -- and occasional odd jobs. But his sister, Mirriam, has no ID card, so she gets no payment for her baby. She has no hope of a better life.

“I don’t see any changes,” she said. “The only thing I see is being poor.”

After 15 years in the squatters camp south of Johannesburg, Alfred Mokoena also sees little hope of improvement.

“Maybe I’ll be living here another 10 years. Unfortunately, I might die before that 10 years is up,” said Mokoena, whose face was covered in scabs but who said he had no serious illness. “I have lots of dreams, but they can’t come true because I have no money.”

Five hundred yards away in another part of Freedom Park, Vincent Vilakazi, 46, and his wife, Mesline Khonazi, 41, live in a one-room corrugated iron and brick house with their three children. They are both unemployed and can’t pay their children’s school fees. But after moving out of the squatters camp and into this house five years ago, their vote, not surprisingly, will go to the ANC.

“The problem is jobs. They promise jobs,” Vilakazi said.

“They promised us a house, and they did give it,” his wife said. “But we want to see more.”

In the squatters camp, Violet Matlala, 44, whose 2-year-old son, Resoketswe, was tied to her back, said she was tired, hungry and did not trust the government anymore. Eight in her family share a run-down, two-room shack.

“I’m seven years here. We are so suffer. No job,” she said in broken English. “I voted for the ANC before but when I remember for these 10 years not working, we are so suffering. All people here say, ‘Don’t got to vote.’ ”

Matlala said the squatters camp was full of shooting and crime, especially sexual violence.

“The young boys like to rape the young girls. There’s too much guns here. We don’t sleep at night. At half past 7 it’s starting, ka-ka ka-ka-ka, for the whole night,” she said, conveying the rattle of gunfire.

In the 1994 election, people queued up for hours to vote. But Matlala’s husband told her that he wouldn’t vote this time. A decrease in voter turnout would send a strong protest message that the ANC has not delivered to its own constituency, because many blacks find it difficult to imagine voting for anyone else.

But Matlala is planning to vote today -- for Leon’s Democratic Alliance.

“I’m just crying for a job,” she said. “I don’t trust the ANC anymore. It’s better to vote for a white man.”


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