The party that ended apartheid has begun to lose its appeal among black South Africans, many of whom have grown frustrated waiting for the “better life for all” promised when the African National Congress won historic multiracial elections 18 years ago.
The disenchantment with the ANC, to be sure, has been gradually building over the years. But it has intensified in recent weeks amid ongoing, and often violent, labor unrest that has spread across the nation since police killed 34 strikers at a platinum mine in August, the deadliest police action in post-apartheid South Africa.
In newspaper columns, on radio talk shows, blogs and social media, the ANC is facing a public outcry, accused of being corrupt, ineffective, wasteful and out of touch with the hardships faced by South Africa’s impoverished masses. Even prominent anti-apartheid figures are publicly disparaging the ANC leadership, calling its credibility into question. Meanwhile, other critics, including senior ANC leaders, say the party is divided and facing a crisis of leadership, as President Jacob Zuma battles allegations of misuse of public funds to renovate his private residence.
“Now, the honeymoon is pretty much over,” said Robert Schrire, a political analyst at the University of Cape Town. “What we are seeing is that the average black South African is no longer blindly loyal to the ANC. That person feels angry and betrayed.”
When Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994, there was a burst of hope that a new era of equality was on the horizon. The ANC promised sweeping social change to redress the inequalities forged under apartheid, which oppressed non-whites through a system of racial separation enforced by harsh laws and police brutality to ensure the supremacy of South Africa’s whites.
But for many black South Africans, the initial excitement has fizzled into disappointment as they struggle with high unemployment and a lack of housing, education, clean water and other services.
ANC officials say the party has improved the lives of millions and describe any divisions as a normal occurrence in such a large and diverse institution. “There is no leadership vacuum or paralysis within the ANC,” said Keith Khoza, a senior party spokesman. “The ANC has no crisis of leadership.”
Despite its problems, no one is suggesting that the ANC will lose its dominance over South Africa’s political landscape anytime soon. But the anger and disillusionment, if they continue to grow, could trigger more protests and violence, potentially destabilizing the continent’s largest economy. Already, the number of violent protests this year, mostly over land, inadequate housing and poor services, has grown dramatically from previous years.
As many as 80,000 miners, or 16 percent of the mining sector’s workforce, are believed to be on strike, demanding better pay and benefits. Thousands more have already been fired. Meanwhile, thousands of truckers have also staged strikes, threatening supplies of fuel and food. South Africa’s credit rating has been downgraded, mining stocks have plunged, and its currency, the rand, has weakened. Foreign investors are apprehensive.
In Khutsong, a black township surrounded by gold mines 56 miles west of Johannesburg, many residents live in shack settlements, where electricity must be illegally procured and water hauled from outdoor taps shared by many families.
Public toilets placed on unpaved streets are so filthy that some residents prefer buckets or holes. Many have been waiting more than a decade for government housing.
Bafana Mashata grew up worshiping the leaders of the ANC. In school, he learned how Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other anti-apartheid stalwarts ended white rule. But Mashata deplores the ANC leaders who now run his nation.
“Mandela and our other heroes fought for our freedom,” said Mashata, 17, standing outside his uncle’s tin shack that had no electricity or running water. “But our black leaders now sitting on top of the chair don’t care about us. They care only about themselves.”
ANC officials said their policies have significantly eradicated poverty, but that 18 years later, they are still facing obstacles created by the nation’s apartheid and colonial past. “In terms of giving access to basic services, we have done well,” Khoza said. “At the same we acknowledge the task of reversing an apartheid and colonialist legacy that spanned over 300 years is not going to happen overnight.”
There has been progress. The black middle class, fueled by affirmative-action policies and other efforts to empower blacks, has grown in this nation of more than 50 million.