They don't get it': South Africa's scarred ANC faces voter anger (The Guardian), 30 April 2019
Major Mgxaji, a retired union official in the poor township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town, was repeatedly jailed and tortured by apartheid authorities for his political activism with the ANC in the 1970s and 80s.
“It is not the same party as back then,” the 67-year-old said in an interview in Khayelitsha, where rolling power cuts in recent months have been widely blamed on corruption at the national electricity provider. “The ANC people have developed the struggle of the belly instead of the struggle to better the lives of our people. That is very dangerous.”
Twenty-five years after its victory in South Africa’s first free elections ushered in a new democratic era for the “rainbow nation”, the African National Congress has called on voters to rescue it from a “moral crisis”.
The country it rules is deeply troubled, and critics say the ANC is part of the problem, dogged by repeated corruption scandals and a continuing failure to deal with a flagging economy, collapsing public services, soaring unemployment and high levels of violent crime.
For many, the hopes and dreams they held following the collapse of the repressive, racist apartheid regime have been disappointed. Even senior officials at the ANC, in power without a break since the 1994 elections, say the general election on 8 May will be a “referendum about rescuing South Africa and securing [its] future”.
Many voters spoke of how the ANC no longer “understood how society had changed” in recent years and how its vocabulary of “anti-imperialist struggle” felt out of date. Rampant inequality has also fuelled anger.
“These guys don’t get it. Nothing has changed. [Nelson] Mandela sold us out to the whites, and this ANC with their big cars and their houses aren’t going to change anything,” said Lucy Sithole, a 23-year-old student in Cape Town.
Esethu Plaatje, 26, who was attending a demonstration in Cape Town against ANC efforts to prevent the sale of a book detailing the alleged corruption of senior officials, said: “Mandela made mistakes but people were dying back then. It is too easy to criticise him now. But the ANC has changed a lot. It is not the ANC we once knew.”
The ANC’s strategy for next month’s election is to admit mistakes but to ask the 27 million registered voters to give its leaders a mandate for internal reform.
“We should not have to rescue the fundamental values that Mandela and others suffered for … but for the first time an ANC president needs support on a scale broader than his party base in order to deal with those who created the problem within our own party,” said Ebrahim Rasool, a senior party official.
There is little chance that the ANC will fall to its first electoral defeat, but poor results could dramatically weaken its dominance of South African politics and possibly trigger rapid decline.
The party is split between reformers close to the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who took power following a bitterly contested internal party election last year, and factions that gained strength under the near decade-long rule of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
Rasool said it was certain that Ramaphosa would remain in power – the elected parliament chooses the president, and even the most pessimistic projections give the ANC a majority – but any effort to “deal with the deep moral crisis within the party” would be made more difficult if he lacked obvious popular support.
“How strong will his hand be? This time we are not dealing with an external colour-coded enemy but with our own comrades,” said Rasool, who leads the ANC’s election campaign in the key Western Cape province.
ANC officials argue they are still struggling to overcome decades of deliberate impoverishment of most of the population by white supremacist apartheid rulers, and point to achievements such as the construction of 2.8 million houses over recent decades.
The party lost ground in municipal elections in 2016, ceding control of key cities including the commercial capital, Johannesburg, and the administrative capital, Pretoria, to the Democratic Alliance (DA), a centre-right opposition party.
The DA, which is polling at 10%, has previously been criticised as a party representing South Africa’s white minority. Jonathan Moakes, the head of the DA’s campaign in Western Cape, said the charge was unfounded.
“The DA is a profoundly different party even from 2014. With Mmusi Maimane we have a black leader who has put a different brand on it. We are a party of governance. The electorate is thinking less about the past and more about issues,” Moakes said.
Ramaphosa is a former labour activist who was twice imprisoned under apartheid. Though thought of as a successor to Mandela in 1998, he was marginalised politically by others within the ANC and left politics to make a fortune in business. He is a reformist and moderate, and seen by many voters as an honest and committed public servant.
However, his years as vice-president under Zuma have left him open to charges of complicity. Last year Ramaphosa told the Guardian he would appear before a judicial anti-corruption inquiry to account for his actions as a senior official during what he described as a “very dark period of our recent history”.
Though Ramaphosa has spoken of “a new hope in the ANC”, he has been unable to bring about major changes in the 15 months he has been in power, and the long-term trends are not good for the party.
“There is a leadership crisis in the country. There is a sense of a vacuum, no sense of direction, not even pointers as to where we are going, and that creates a lot of uncertainty,” said William Gumede, an analyst and executive chair of the Democracy Works Foundation.