A Long Way to Fall

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Since the racist apartheid regime in South Africa ended 30 years ago, the African National Congress party, whose crusaders brought down white minority rule, has won every election, with support in the high double digits. That track record of success is predicted to end, however, when South Africans go to the polls on May 29, wrote CNN, arguably making this election the most pivotal in post-apartheid history.

The reason for this shift is simple – many voters believe the ANC has failed them. Violent crime is rampant. Unemployment is high. Electricity blackouts, shortages of water, corruption scandals, and other issues have led to unprecedented levels of frustration among the populace.

“It’s very sad,” said Tumelo Georgy, 39, who holds a degree in political science but recently failed to secure even a job at a Johannesburg solid waste management firm, during an interview with Agence France-Presse. “That’s why we are having criminals, because people have studied and are hungry.”

Already, the election has been marked by “an epidemic of assassinations,” – 40 recorded since the start of last year, mainly targeting local officials, politicians and activists, wrote the Washington Post. This is fueling voter anger at the ANC even as the party itself has grown concerned about the hijacking of local administrations by violent criminal networks.

At the same time, these developments have made inequality a major issue, added the BBC. The wealthiest 20 percent of South Africans hold about 70 percent of the nation’s income, making it the most unequal country in the world. Meanwhile, the poorest South Africans, who comprise around 40 percent of the country’s population, receive only 7 percent of the income. More than half the country’s 62 million citizens are under 35, too, with 44 percent of these young people “not in employment, education or training.”

Qunu, the hometown of the freedom fighter and South Africa’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela, has lacked running water since 2016, for example, noted Reuters. As a result, jobless youths “while away their days drinking beer.”

As a result, young people are seeing fewer reasons to support the ANC, whose support is perilously close to dropping below 50 percent of the electorate for the first time.

The ANC has also suffered divisions. South Africa’s top court, for example, recently ruled that ex-President Jacob Zuma was disqualified from appearing on the ballot because in 2021 he was sentenced to prison for 15 months after failing to appear in court to answer corruption charges, the Guardian explained. Zuma had been forced to resign in 2018 because of corruption allegations. In December, the 82-year-old created the uMkhonto WeSizwe political party and sought to run again.

Other former ANC leaders have also split off and launched new parties, Deutsche Welle reported.

ANC officials have tried to stem the loss of support in a push to reelect the incumbent president, Cyril Ramaphosa. They worked overtime, for instance, to improve the country’s electrical system in recent months. This success has led critics to charge that they only took action to improve people’s lives when they saw their support faltering.

Last month, the ANC polled at around 40 percent, followed by the pro-business Democratic Alliance (with 22 percent) and the hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters (11.5 percent), whose leader, Julius Malema, was forced out of the ANC. Zuma’s party follows with 8 percent and even if he can’t run, he’s still on the ticket.

If the election results fail to give the ANC a majority, it would force the party into a coalition – a first for South Africa. South Africa has 14 political parties currently represented in parliament and more than 300 parties registered nationally.

Still, coalitions at the local level, however, have not been very successful at delivering services for frustrated citizens, the Associated Press wrote.

Even so, South African commentators say the mood among voters is one of wanting to punish the powers that be.

“What is at stake now is a reckoning with the fact that the country that we live in now is not the country that we hoped for 30 years ago,” Redi Tlhabi, a South African journalist, told Foreign Policy. “The ANC has been the torch-bearer of really shocking corruption acts in our country,” he said, adding: “And I think there are people who want to see them pay the price and be held accountable.”

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