South Africans are rapidly losing patience with a divided ruling party seen as arrogant and greedy.
Amid repetitive rows of housing units, Ncedo Kanti’s yellow container stands out as a burst of colour and modernity. The young entrepreneur’s phone centre has linked Guguletu to the outside world. And that, says customer Zola Ndzengu, “is more than our politicians have done”.
In the worst political crisis since the end of apartheid 14 years ago, the African National Congress (ANC) is tearing itself apart. Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu has threatened to withhold his vote in next year’s elections. And in Cape Town’s Guguletu township—where hundreds lost their lives in pursuit of black government—a tearful young woman comes running to Kanti’s container to phone a relative who might be able to transport her sick brother to hospital.
“Look at our terrible healthcare system, the crime and the pitiful state of our schools,” said Zola Ndzengu, a pharmaceuticals machine operator. “In Guguletu there are people going to bed on empty stomachs. I am so upset by our party. I am a member of the ANC, but I am so sad and confused. Things were bad already. And now to see the politicians behaving so badly. It’s just too much.”
Supporters of former president Thabo Mbeki, who was deposed last month by the ANC’s national executive, say they are ready to form a new party. The ANC, now led by Mbeki’s rumbustious rival, Jacob Zuma, insists it will meet the dissidents’ leader, former deputy defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota, on Monday to solve differences.
While economic indicators show that black South Africans have become better off in the past 14 years, they also show that one in 10 homes depends on state grants for at least half the household’s income. Crime, running at a national rate of 50 murders and 99 reported rapes a day, is still heavily concentrated on the townships and people in Guguletu say it has got worse with the advent of small pockets of township wealth.
Zuma’s ANC has relaunched “street committees” based on the vigilante groups that imposed party discipline during apartheid. But many residents fear this could lead to political violence. Guguletu, which means “our pride” in isiXhosa, was established in the 1950s when the apartheid authorities expelled black people from central Cape Town. It has a population of about 300 000, 40% of whom are estimated to be unemployed, and one of the highest HIV rates in South Africa.
To Sizwe Batwa (32), an alcohol sales rep, the ANC factions are irreconcilable. “In the ANC you have a group who served time in Robben Island jail, you have the group who were in London like Mbeki, and those who were in Tanzania. Then you have the communists who funded the armed wing of the party and who think they should have a say. These guys do not even know one another. It’s natural that they do not get on,” said Batwa.
“The movement is just too big, and some of them have become arrogant about their two-thirds majority. They have forgotten that the majority comes from me, the voter,” said Batwa. “And when I complain they say, ‘Go to your branch,’ but I don’t have a branch. I am just a voter.”
Fourteen years after the first all-race elections, the ANC is only now going through a painful transition from being a 96-year-old centralised liberation movement to becoming a democratic home for diverse ideas. Neither the Mbeki wing—which brooked no dissent while in power—nor Zuma’s vociferous supporters appear to have understood the profound transformation under way.
In 1994, 60% of South Africans voted for the ANC, with 28% backing the mainly white opposition and 12% supporting independent parties. In 2004, only 44% voted for the ANC, with 14% voting for the opposition and 42% backing independent candidates. Voter registration for the next elections, expected in April 2009, begins on November 8 and will be a test of the electorate’s patience.
Even as voters press for true multiparty democracy, the ANC monolith is blocking the path. The best it is offering is the assumed prospect of interim President Kgalema Motlanthe handing over to Zuma. But Zuma is seen by many as a bumptious Zulu whose only priority is to ascend to the presidency to avoid going to prison for alleged corruption. In the Western Cape, where the ANC rift is at its most bitter and pro-Zuma provincial secretary Mcebisi Skwatsha was stabbed in the neck at a party meeting in June, voters insist that tribalism is at work.
Kanti (25), who leases his phone container but hopes to buy it next year, said: “The ANC has gone crazy. Mbeki made mistakes, but the way in which he was thrown out like a dirty rag was a disgrace. I do not blame Tutu if he does not vote. He was there back then in the struggle and we take his views very seriously.
“I could never vote for Zuma or his sidekick [ANC Youth League leader] Julius Malema, who says he will kill anyone who does not support his boss. In the Western Cape we are Xhosas. We are known as the politicians, the smart, educated ones. Those guys with Zuma are not clever, they are just boys.”
As the tearful woman finished her phone call in the yellow container, community worker Thabita Mseleni (50) came running to see if she could help.
“Aids, the girl’s brother has it. It makes me weep,” she said. “We need drugs. We need help from the rest of the world. But all our politicians are thinking about is how to keep in power for long enough to make sure they get next year’s latest model of car.
“How can I vote for Zuma? If he is innocent, why are his supporters being so rude? Motlanthe seems to have good manners, but we do not know him. Tutu is right to speak out. I have not been able to vote many times in my life, but I am already having doubts about doing so.”—guardian.co.uk