Current temperature in Boston - 62 °
Get access to a personalized news feed, our newsletter and exclusive discounts on everything from shows to local restaurants, All for free.
Already a member? Sign in.
The Bay State Banner
The Bay State Banner

Trending Articles

In letter, Holy Cross classmate breaks with Clarence Thomas

‘Gatsby’ at ART reimagines Fitzgerald’s classic tale

A letter to a brother that I once thought I knew


South Africa facing watershed elections as ANC support slips

Brian Wright O’Connor
South Africa facing watershed elections as ANC support slips
(clockwise from top left) Jacob Zuma, John Steenhuisen, President Cyril Ramaphosa, Julius Malema COURTESY PHOTOS

When Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress party swept South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections in 1994, hopes were high for an economic and social transformation of the country.

Thirty years and six national election cycles later, poverty and inequality remain endemic, crime rates have skyrocketed, the power grid is failing and trust in the governing ANC has eroded after serial corruption scandals.

When voters head to the polls on May 29, the once-dominant ANC is facing the possibility of losing a majority in the 400-seat Parliament and being forced into putting together a coalition government. And to many observers, that’s the best outcome for the party that took power from the white government under Mandela’s leadership.

Double the size of Texas, South Africa has 62 million citizens, 81 percent of them Black. Millions of the country’s majority population live in sprawling townships of tin-roofed shacks and face punishing commutes to distant job-sites — if they can find work at all. Meanwhile, senior ANC government figures have visibly prospered over the years.

The discovery of over $500,000 in U.S. bills in a sofa cushion at the game ranch of President Cyril Ramaphosa — a stalwart union leader in the apartheid era — is just one of many incidents that have raised questions about the ANC’s honest governance and put the party on the defensive. Jacob Zuma, the former president, was ousted in 2018 after corruption charges and has formed a new party to challenge his one-time ANC ally.

Even in Cape Town, South Africa’s idyllic port city with a picturesque bay and whales cavorting offshore beneath the majestic Table Mountain, the stunning landscape can’t hide economic fissures at the heart of frustration with ANC rule.

At one of the downtown hotels, a young waitress with her hair knotted in dyed cornrows told a visitor about rising at 3 a.m. to catch a private mini-bus to the city center to start work at 6 a.m. She lives with five siblings and her mother in a two-room shack they built in an informal community in a valley far to the north of the coastal capital. The return trip is just as brutal — six hours of commuting for a job with low pay and few prospects for advancement.

Just down the same coast, in a seaside town of gated villas, residents gallop on horses on the expansive beach and play tennis and golf at country clubs where the members are white and workers Black.

That’s not to say there have been no gains in Black income or growth in the Black middle class since the end of apartheid. High-end restaurants and nightclubs in Johannesburg are packed with Black patrons spending plenty of money. According to research from the University of Cape Town’s Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing cited by the New York Times, “in 1995, just 350,000 Black South Africans lived in households that were among the top 15 percent in income.” By 2022, the study said, that number had grown to about 5.6 million. But that is still a small slice of the Black population.

The ANC’s Freedom Charter, a 10-point manifesto dating from 1955, dedicated the party to achieving parity in such areas as housing, governance, education, courts, jobs, and wealth. With 32 percent unemployment — much higher among youth — the promise of equal access to jobs remains a distant promise. As for wealth, another study cited by the Times showed that Black South Africans “had a stake in only 29 percent of the companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and not a single entity on the exchange was fully Black-owned.”

With vast mineral wealth, robust industries, natural beauty and a flourishing high-tech sector, South Africa has the continent’s most dynamic economy. But the persistent disparities — along with a rapid deterioration in public services — are coming home to roost for the governing party.

“Most people want their essential services to work regardless of the politics of the parties,” said Heetan Kalan, a South African native who protested apartheid and now lives and works in Boston as a foundation executive. “They want their electricity, their water and transportation systems to function. South Africans have seen government-owned enterprises ruined through internal corruption. The country has the money, has the people, has the resources to make it work. But it’s not working.”

ANC hopes that Ramaphosa, 71, will serve a second and final five-year term as president hinges in part on how the generation known as “Born Frees” cast their ballots among the main parties and a plethora of smaller ones. Presidents in South Africa are chosen by members of Parliament rather than direct vote. South Africans born after the fall of the white-minority government are considered politically volatile and not as tied to the ANC as their parents and grandparents.

Anger at the ANC over contract scandals in state-owned enterprises going back decades — with billions of rands siphoned from public coffers — has left many voters looking for new leadership, according to polls.

The major opposition party, the centrist Democratic Alliance, is headed by John Steenhuisen, 48, a white Afrikaner who pledges to reverse the ANC’s history of corruption and mismanagement. The DA took 22 percent of the vote in the 2019 general election to the ANC’s 62 percent. The DA controls the Western Cape Province, which includes Cape Town and the nearby lush winelands — the only territory not run by the ANC. Its harsh attacks on the ruling government include a widely watched video showing the South African flag on fire, saying the country is headed to the same fate if the ANC remains in power.

The third major party is the Economic Freedom Fighters, led since its founding in 2013 by Julius Malema, 43, whose firebrand left-wing rhetoric led to his expulsion as leader of the ANC’s youth wing. His Marxist-tinged support of redistributionist policies — for land, income, and wealth — has become increasingly appealing to disaffected young people. If the ANC fails to win an outright majority in Parliament, Malema’s EFF is a possible coalition partner to keep Ramaphosa in office.

Meanwhile, Zuma, 82, last year formed his own party, uMkhonto we Sizwe — Zulu for “Spear of the Nation” — named after the former armed wing of the ANC. Zuma’s party has thus far survived court challenges to running candidates in the country’s nine provinces. But Zuma himself has been excluded by the Supreme Court from holding a seat in parliament and will not be eligible for selection by the newly seated legislative body. However, he remains the party leader, with his photo on the ballot in spite of his exclusion from taking office once again.

Zuma’s attacks on the ANC and Ramaphosa as a tool for “white monopoly capital” echo Malema’s criticism. Zuma’s geographic base of support is in Kwa-Zulu Natal Province in the country’s east. His use of court appearances, where he’s fighting corruption charges, as campaign rallies have boosted his polling as the Trumpian “man of the people” fighting a biased system.

During the April 27 commemoration of “Freedom Day,” marking the date that apartheid officially ended after the 1994 vote, Ramaphosa signaled the tack the ANC was taking to remain in power — invoke the glories of the peaceful change that brought Black rule to the country while conceding the need for improvements.

The May 29 vote will turn on whether South Africans can forgive the shortcomings of the party that led to both Black liberation and Black economic stagnation.

African Nationalist Congress, ANC, John Steenhuisen, Julius Malema, President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa