As South Africa elections approach, disillusionment is leading

A woman rests outside her home near an African National Congress party campaign poster in Bekkersdal, near Johannesburg, South Africa. The party is expected to hang on to power in Wednesday's national elections.
(Kim Ludbrook / European Pressphoto Agency)

On a red-dust wasteland at the edge of this South African shantytown, little white pegs in the ground mark the government’s assurance that it would provide running water and electricity before Wednesday’s national elections. It was a promise never kept.

As South Africans vote in their first balloting since the death last year of former President Nelson Mandela, a profound sense of disillusionment is sweeping the country. The ruling African National Congress party, which Mandela helped create, is seen by many voters as corrupt, out of touch, poorly led and committed to self-enrichment more than the delivery of decent government services.

Despite that, polls suggest the ANC will continue to rule this nation after the elections, though a slip in popularity could feed dissent within the party and even encourage challengers seeking to replace Jacob Zuma, the nation’s unpopular president.

The road through Zithobeni, 35 miles east of Pretoria, is an undulating track potholed with promises never kept under ANC rule. Last year, the local Tshwane municipality government, led by the party, ordered people living in shacks with access to power and water to move to this dry stretch of town, saying utilities would be provided before election day.


“That side was better because it had water and it was clean,” said Poppy Themba, 31. “They said the changes are coming, and what, what? We’re still waiting. After the vote, they’re dumping us.”

Like most black South Africans, Themba has for years been loyal to the ANC, which freed the nation from apartheid.

“They bring freedom, but not for all of us. Last time, I didn’t vote, because I didn’t see the changes. For now, we are looking for the DA,” she said, referring to the opposition Democratic Alliance, whose leader, Helen Zille, is white.

Such anger may not dent the ANC’s control of the government: Polls suggest the party will maintain its two-thirds vote share. It has done so in the last decade in part because of apathy, as voter turnout dwindled from 87% in the first democratic elections, in 1994, to 77% in 2009, the last national elections.

The party maintained its hold by vacuuming up the voters of smaller parties such as the largely Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, whose support has collapsed in recent years. The government remains buoyant in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province.

The Democratic Alliance has seen its vote share increase from a few percentage points in 1994 to nearly 17% in 2009, with polls suggesting it will grab about 23% of Wednesday’s ballots. The ANC showed its alarm over opposition gains when the party’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, told one disillusioned Limpopo voter in November that if people didn’t vote, “the Boers will come back to control us,” a reference to the former white government.

Government leaders have often responded to public anger by blaming the legacy of apartheid, but that message is unlikely to resonate with members of the “born free” generation, which came after the end of white rule. Many of them are jobless, even unemployable — but also apathetic. Only one-third of the 1.9 million 18- and 19-year-olds eligible to vote have registered.

But apathy isn’t the issue in Zithobeni. Anger is the prevailing sentiment.


Downhill from Themba’s squalid squatters camp, the municipal government building is a burned-out brick shell, its roof collapsed and acrylic windows melted like charred black candles. Rioters attacked it in January, one of many violent protests over the poor delivery of services that frequently rack the country. They also burned down the police station and the library, leaving skeletal tables and feathery ashes of books.

The violence was sparked by increases in the price of electricity.

A Rhodes University study of seven South African municipalities showed that from 2009 to 2012 the number of protests doubled, to 1,048, partly because of what researchers said was glaring inequality. Seven protesters have been killed by police this year.

The Zithobeni municipal day-care center survived the rioting. Johanna Mokwena, a 59-year-old worker there and an ANC member all her life, said that “from the start, when I was born, I was always ANC.”


“The ANC made a lot of things for us,” said Mokwena, who was given a house by the government. “Me, I’m going to vote for the ANC.

“I’m not going to vote for Helen Zille. Helen Zille is white. We are black. She could take the grant away,” she said, referring to government welfare payments that have helped reduce poverty.

Mokwena represents the bedrock of black support for the ANC, especially among older people. But she also symbolizes the resentment that some feel. The party is widely seen as a warehouse offering scarce jobs, services or government contracts to members — but not to outsiders. Many complain that waiting lists for free government houses are manipulated, or that corrupt officials sell spots at the head of the line.

Precious Ndlala, 27, who sits on an upturned wheelbarrow selling hot dogs and tea on a street in Zithobeni, said many people are fed up, but “we feel guilty for leaving the ANC.”


“If Mandela was still alive, I would say, ‘I’m going to disappoint that guy.’ We were doing it for him,” she said, referring to voting for the ANC.

Corruption is only one problem besetting the country. For many, the main failures are education and health. A 2011 international survey of 45 developed and developing nations showed South Africa second from the bottom in mathematics and at the bottom in science, according to South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council. The country’s maternal mortality rate has worsened in recent years and was 300 per 100,000 live births in 2010, according to the World Health Organization, far short of South Africa’s Millennium Development Goals commitment of 38 per 100,000 by 2015.

Still, the ruling party has its defenders. On a sunny day in Soweto, Lwazi Makhaphele, a business management student, 19, was dancing with her friends, laughing and taking selfies at the upscale Maponya mall. She grew up in Soweto, where everyone she knew supported the ANC, going back as far as she remembers.

“The ruling party has been trying,” she said. “The only problem is corruption in the government, a whole lot of corruption.


“If you believe the ruling party is corrupt, you should stop voting for it,” said Makhaphele, who plans to vote. “It’s more important than any other issue, because it affects everything.”

Ndlala, the hot dog seller from Zithobeni, also plans to cast her ballot Wednesday, and said the free T-shirts distributed by the ANC at a recent election campaign meeting wouldn’t affect her choice.

“All of us want these T-shirts, because they’re free,” Ndlala said. “But when it’s me and that paper, it’s up to me. At the end, it’s me and the paper.”