When South Africa held the first democratic elections on 27 April 1994, the ANC was the party of choice for the black majority. It was the party of the anti-apartheid struggle; it was the party of Nelson Mandela; it was the party of hope. But as Fred Khumalo reports, 20 years on, and as the country prepares for general elections in May, hope is still just that, for the majority of blacks who are still taking home a harvest of thorns from the post-apartheid political freedom which has come with few economic benefits.
I n 1994, the ANC won with an overwhelming majority. Even though it ruled the country as part of a government of national unity – alongside the National Party – the ANC was the majority party. It was therefore in charge of the economy. But of course it had inherited an imperfect society. Under apartheid 73% of land was in so-called “white areas” and many blacks had been forcibly uprooted and removed to tribal areas.
With next month’s elections fast approaching, this has not changed a lot, because the government has been handling the matter with utter sensitivity, in a climate where the world is looking on with concern as it considers how the government of Zimbabwe handled the question of land redistribution. The South African constitution lays an emphasis on property rights, with a willing buyer/ willing seller formula – where the government cannot just unilaterally decide to expropriate land and redistribute it as it deems fit.
But this, and other related economic and infrastructure issues are causing impatience among black South Africans and concern among white farmers that South Africa may go down the route of Zimbabwe. The issue of land and other economic disempowering issues already figure highly in current electioneering, and debates on what 20 years of the post-apartheid era has achieved or failed to, are in overdrive, increasingly igniting public protests reminiscent of those during the days of apartheid’s political and economic disenchantment.
Blame for the current wave of what is being termed “service delivery protests”, is unsurprisingly, being attributed to the ruling party. Indeed, since the end of the Government of National Unity (with the minority white-rule National Party leaving in 1996), the ANC has been on its own. In 1999 it increased its majority, putting the party within one seat of the two-thirds majority that would allow it to alter the country’s constitution.
Ten years later, with [former president] Thabo Mbeki, who had succeeded Mandela, out of the way, the ANC majority was reduced to below the two-thirds level. It achieved 65.9% of the vote, with the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) winning the province of the Western Cape and increasing its overall share of the vote to 16.7%. COPE (Congress of the People), a breakaway from the ANC founded by some of its staunch stalwarts, Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mluleki George, attained 7.4%. Jacob Zuma was sworn in as president on 9 May 2009.
With Zuma at the helm, the ANC has hurtled from scandal to scandal, and in the process has increasingly lost the public’s goodwill. Nearly 75% of South Africans aged 20-29 did not vote in the 2011 local government elections. Studies have shown further that South Africans in that age group are more likely to take part in violent street protests against the ANC, than vote for the ruling party.
South Africa is a young country. About 40% of its population was born after 1994. Nearly two million ‘born frees’ (as those born after the anti-apartheid struggle are commonly referred to) can vote in the forthcoming elections. This is a relatively small percentage of the 23-million-strong electorate. However, the “born frees” will make up about a third of voters in the 2019 presidential election, according to census and election data.
In the meantime, apart from the DA and COPE which contested the last elections, there are now two new parties – the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) headed by Julius Malema, who was kicked out of the ANC, and Agang SA, formed by academic and businesswoman Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Of the two new players, the EFF has a more popular profile, appealing as it does to the youth, and espousing some radical utterances about things that stir public sentiment: economic redistribution and land restitution. With the DA, COPE, the EFF and other smaller parties all chipping away at the ANC behemoth, the ruling party faces its toughest election yet. However, although it is a fact that many South Africans, more so the youth, are disaffected with the ANC, consensus abounds that the electorate is not confident enough to throw their voting might behind the other parties. Therefore, come May, the ANC will of course, still win the election. However, it is not going to be an easy ride, with some political observers saying the question of a divided vote will, for the first time in the history of South African elections, be one of the major deciding factors in how the country moves forward after May, and it may have extra impact in the absence of the country’s unifying figure, Nelson Mandela.