In South Africa, the poor feel betrayed by ruling ANC party

ETWATWA, South Africa — The news that police killed 34 strikers at a platinum mine last month brought back painful memories for residents of this shantytown near Johannesburg — not of the apartheid era, but of more recent confrontations here with police.

Residents angered by the inability of the government to improve their lives were summoned to the office of the local councilor, a stalwart of the African National Congress, they recalled. The official promised to put their names on a list for new housing. But a scuffle broke out, and police were called.

“One policeman started to shoot. I was walking away and he shot me in the back,” said Eunice Mabona, 50, who suffered two gunshot wounds in the incident two years ago. Another woman was killed. “When I saw that these miners were shot, it brought back memories of what happened to me.”

The killings of the miners shocked middle-class South Africans. But for poor blacks, the shootings illustrated the reasons for their growing anger at the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela that came to power 18 years ago in a wave of black empowerment.


After suffering under apartheid’s institutional racism, poor, marginalized blacks now have a litany of complaints about the ANC, including authorities’ use of live ammunition to suppress antigovernment protests.

“People say under the previous government of white people, apartheid was affecting people, but at least we had jobs and water and things,” Mabona said. “But with this government, we only get freedom. We don’t get anything else.”

The ANC’s 1994 election manifesto was sweeping: Millions of jobs would be created by building houses, roads, schools, clinics and toilets and providing water and electricity.

The party’s most notable achievement has been extending social welfare grants, assisting several times the number of people since the end of apartheid. President Jacob Zuma told a union conference Monday that the ANC government had reduced dire poverty significantly. The government also built houses and infrastructure for many South Africans, but critics say that provincial and municipal ANC officials have often used building contracts to enrich themselves.


The populist Zuma, chosen to be ANC leader in 2007 and elected president in 2009, was thought to be a better choice than his buttoned-down predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, to represent the poor. But Zuma has been enmeshed in scandal since the beginning and now faces a challenge from the expelled leader of the ANC’s youth wing, Julius Malema, who is a master at articulating the anger of the poor.

Poor blacks put themselves in danger, according to one university researcher, when they try to organize themselves outside the ANC and its affiliates.

The wildcat mine strikes that led to the fatal confrontation are the latest reverberation in South Africa’s revolt of the poor against the ANC.

These days, furious demonstrations and roadblocks by angry shack dwellers are so commonplace that they are reported as routine traffic news. The conspicuous wealth of ANC stalwarts and their families has helped turn South Africa into what researchers describe as one of the world’s most unequal societies.


“This rebellion is massive. I have not yet found any other country where there is a similar level of ongoing urban unrest,” Peter Alexander, who holds the South Africa Research Chair in Social Change at the University of Johannesburg, wrote in a paper this year.

“It also has the highest levels of inequality and unemployment of any major country, and it is not unreasonable to assume that the rebellion is, to a large degree, a consequence of these phenomena,” Alexander said.

The police shootings at platinum producer Lonmin’s Marikana mine were a watershed.

The violence came after miners refused to stop their illegal strike and chased away officials of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, closely allied with the ANC, because of perceptions that the union and ruling party had not done enough for workers.


“They betrayed us,” said striking Lonmin rock drill operator Mandla Tonjeni, referring to the ANC government, “because it’s them that sent the police. It’s painful what happened because the police were killing us.”

Tonjeni, 45, who has seven children, is nowhere near the poorest of South Africans. Yet he’s frustrated that his dangerous work makes other people rich.

“I surrender up my life when I go underground,” he said. “Maybe I’ll come out, maybe I won’t. I’m just doing it so my kids can live.”

Unemployed slum dwellers usually begin by expressing their frustrations calmly. Committees are formed, meetings called, letters signed, petitions sent, requests for protest marches obtained. But critics say that ruling party members often fail to turn up for meetings, shuffle complaints from one department to another and routinely deny permission for marches. Eventually, frustrations boil over.


Education is seen by critics as perhaps the ANC’s greatest failure. This year, nongovernmental agencies had to sue the government in one province to force it to deliver textbooks. Unemployment levels haven’t budged.

Police violence against antigovernment protesters has been going on with little media attention for more than a decade, said Richard Pithouse, a Rhodes University academic who has researched popular protest movements in South Africa.

“What has been the common feature of repression in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg is that the people confronting repression are poor, they’re black and they have the temerity to organize outside of the ruling party structures. That is the line you are not allowed to cross,” Pithouse said.

Some protests, Pithouse said, are triggered not by the absence of the state, but by its heavy hand: evicting people from shacks or severing illegal electricity connections, the only way residents of informal settlements can access power.


In Etwatwa, many of the jobless and unskilled get occasional work on nearby farms. The red dirt tracks become a muddy quagmire in the rainy season. Resident Rosta Ngubane walks a mile to a faucet in a neighboring area three or four times a day to fill a six-gallon drum with water, carrying it back on her head.

Ngubane and her husband, Thomas Shiringani, are better off than many people here. Shiringani, 55, has been a shop assistant for 31 years and brings home about $175 a month. But an 8-inch-deep stream runs through their shack, and last week raw sewage from the neighboring settlement flooded their house.

Inside, there is little light, and the many holes in the tin walls shine like stars on a dark night.

Shiringani said he’s ashamed to do it, but he searched one entire day last year before he found someone willing to let him hook up a “snake,” or illegal electrical connection, for $20 a month.


“I feel like I’m stealing, even though I pay, because I know they’re not allowed to give me electricity,” he said with an embarrassed smile.

When authorities and police came in March to disconnect the illegal hookups, he went into hiding until they had gone.

“We feel betrayed,” Shiringani said. “We were supposed to get a better life, like other people.”

Outside every shack is a brick shed with a metal door, for a toilet, in a $2-million project that worked out to more than $3,000 per toilet. But in a potent symbol of government failure, the toilets were never installed or connected. Some people use them as sheds.


“When [ANC] officials come here, they must come with police,” said David Mathontsi, a local community activist from the Landless People’s Movement. “People want to beat those people.”

Mabona, the woman injured in the police shooting, lost her job as a domestic worker because the bullets lodged in her shoulder and she couldn’t use her right arm properly. She lives in a tiny shack with an ancient wood stove as her sole comfort. She supports her five children with a government grant of $105 a month, plus a few dollars from selling secondhand clothes.

“We have nothing,” she said. “If people start protesting, they get injured or killed.”

“The main problem is, we don’t see any change.”