Two weeks of anti-foreigner violence in South Africa have highlighted the growing disconnect between a public impatient for change and a governing party that claims a divine right to rule.
Although there is little prospect of the African National Congress (ANC) losing next year’s elections due to South Africa’s almost one-party democracy, genuine signs of anger among the bedrock support of the black urban poor have emerged during the crisis in which 56 people have died.
Even ANC president Jacob Zuma, known for possessing a common touch notably absent in head of state Thabo Mbeki, received a nasty jolt on a visit to one of the affected areas last weekend.
Facing a hostile crowd of 4Â 000 near an informal settlement outside Johannesburg, the man in pole position to replace Mbeki next year was told by a heckler that the people expected him to rein in runaway immigration.
“We are looking to make you our president, so beware. If you are a stumbling block, we are going to kick you away,” the man warned, as the crowd erupted in applause.
Only a fortnight earlier, Zuma had been pontificating about what he saw as the party’s God-given right to rule.
“Even God expects us to rule this country because we are the only organisation that was blessed by pastors when it was formed,” he said in a speech near Cape Town.
“It is even blessed in heaven. That is why we will rule until Jesus comes back.”
Frans Cronje, deputy director of think-tank the South African Institute for Race Relations, says the ANC has to snap out of its complacency and cannot trade off its leading role in the fight against apartheid forever.
“Now that they are running on empty on liberation mythology, we are seeing an electorate that wants results,” said Cronje.
“The next leadership of the ANC, when they sit down in Parliament next year, they should sit down with a sense of great unease because these next five years they need to convert policy into results.”
Numerous underlying reasons for the outbreak of violence have been advanced: some economic, linked to rising food prices and inflation and others to policy failures in key areas such as immigration, law enforcement and housing.
‘No democratic culture’
With many of the attacks directed at Zimbabwean immigrants, Mbeki’s failure to pressure Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who has presided over the collapse of his country’s economy, has also come under renewed fire.
“If South Africa was any other country, the ANC would have a tough time in the elections, but I have seen how ANC voters surprise analysts,” said Cronje.
He adds, however, the ANC “is certainly under threat for the first time”, but any swing in power “might take two elections to happen.”
The ANC has ruled with a commanding majority since the first multiracial elections in 1994, first under Nelson Mandela and then Mbeki.
The lack of a credible opposition and democratic traditions mean South Africans are venting their frustrations through violence rather than the ballot box, posits Donrich Jordaan, an analyst at the Centre for International Political Studies.
“Generally speaking there is no genuinely democratic culture in South Africa and the ANC regime has done its utmost to retain this status quo for its own narrow benefit,” he said.
For Mbeki, a proud champion of pan-African solidarity, the violence has been a personal embarrassment.
In an address to the nation on Sunday, he spoke of the “shameful” acts of xenophobia that he denounced as “an absolute disgrace.”
The press reaction was generally scathing, noting how he had still failed to visit any of the affected areas.
The South African leader left for Japan on Monday for a conference on Africa, which was immediately seized on by his opponents who said his trip was inappropriate at such a time.
“The impression you get is that he simply doesn’t care about what people think or what the newspapers write,” says Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies.
“This is sad for someone who is meant to be the head of the most powerful country in Africa.” — AFP