Twenty years after independence, increasingly impatient South African youths (black) are demanding radical redistributive policies. Encouraged by Julius Malema, a charismatic and provocative firebrand, envying eyes are being cast across the Limpopo. South Africa’s white farmers are understandably concerned.
In 1994, the ANC won with an overwhelming majority. Even though it ruled in 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 percent 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 emphasis on property rights, with a willing buyer/willing seller formula, where the government cannot 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 political and economic disenchantment.
Blame for the current wave of what are being termed “service delivery protests” is, surprisingly, 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 percent 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 percent. 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 percent. 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 percent of South Africans aged 20-29 did not vote in 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 percent 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 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.
There is even more cause for concern following a recent surge in violent street protests, and the return of the anti-apartheid mantra “Burn, Burn, Burn”, which was popularly used as a rallying call for destroying any symbols of that ignoble white superiority regime — including police stations, schools and other tangible segregation edifices — by turning to ashes using Molotov cocktails. The fire can be both literal and symbolic: you see it on the streets, and you hear it in the speeches of youngsters burning with the zeal for change.
But to suggest that public protests are new would be an exaggeration. Protest has been at the percussively throbbing heart of South African life since the mid-1970s: there are peaks and ebbs in this social tide. The phenomenon of these “service delivery protests” in South Africa — where citizens take to the street to demand basic necessities such as housing, land, water and sanitation services — has seen the number of protests averaging 32 a day across the country since 2009. This is huge, even by South African standards.
These protests have degenerated into serious violence. In September 2013 the police reported that they had “made more than 14 000 arrests at protests in the past four years”. Co-operative Governance Minister Lechesa Tsenoli reported that: “One of the reasons the protests are hotting up, so to speak, is because of the (election) period we are in.” He hopes the protests will die down after the elections because more leaders are interacting with community members on a regular basis, to address issues that are central to the protests.
But also central to the protests is the reality that, while there is still a dire need for services, especially in townships and rural villages, there is a corresponding upsurge in the number of reported cases of government graft. One of the cases that have offended ordinary citizens are the public revelations about President Jacob Zuma allegedly diverting in the region of R215 million (US$20m) of public funds towards the construction and refurbishment of his private residence in his birthplace of Nkandla in KwaZulu, Natal (when he already has official residences in all major cities of South Africa).
Nkandlagate, as the scandal is called, turned into a major political controversy in South Africa, with ordinary people riled by how the black-led government and its leadership were leading lavish lifestyles, while they continue to wallow in increasing poverty. Twenty years after white minority rule ended, it is the ordinary people who not only bore the brunt of apartheid but went on to put the ANC on the pedestal of power, while they only remain harvesting thorns two decades later. It is no wonder the protests are on the increase in the lead-up to the forthcoming polls.
Needless to say, the protests have shocked the middle class and the business community and are raising a lot of questions.
For instance, with the death of Mandela, who was the glue that kept the nation together, is South Africa, tolerant and hopeful in the past two decades, about to revert to the divisiveness of the past? Is the country about to see a revolution that the masses were “too polite and considerate” to mount, while Mandela was still alive? Is the ANC, which has been at the helm for the past 20 years, on the way out? If so, which party might replace it?
These, justifiably, must be questions boiling in the minds of many, including members of the international community who can easily get confused by the fluidity of South African political realities.
An IMF dignitary visiting South Africa even went to the extent of making parallels between what is happening in South Africa with the Arab Spring which engulfed Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, where ordinary citizens spontaneously used their collective power to overthrow their governments for failing to deliver on long years of promises.
Not so fast, warns Steven Friedman, an analyst and director for the Study of Democracy. South Africa does not fit the Arab Spring bill.
Friedman says: “People (in South Africa) have something citizens of those countries did not have when they took to the streets — the vote. Citizens in working democracies don’t need to rise up against their governments because they can vote them out.”
But political observers are not only expressing concern that these “street protests” call for serious political pondering, but need addressing before the situation explodes to unmanageable levels. They probably have every right to worry.
For example, Julius Malema’s EFF appears to be taking full advantage of the service delivery protests.
Just last February, EFF cadres were captured on camera ferrying car tyres to venues where service delivery protests were taking place, and where they were then symbolically burnt in th protests that later escalated into violent clashes.
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