African business, politics and lifestyle
Will South Africa’s poor always back ANC?
It’s one of the biggest ironies in South African politics — the most loyal ANC voters are often those the party appears to have let down most bitterly.
For millions of poor, mostly black South Africans, life has barely changed since the African National Congress defeated apartheid under Nelson Mandela in 1994.
Year after year, they wait for the new house, the job, the running water and electricity, the decent education for their children that the ANC has promised. For many, that never comes. Yet most will still vote for ANC and its leader Jacob Zuma in an election next week.
The poorest residents of Munsieville, a township on the edge of Johannesburg, illustrate the contradiction.
Unemployed and tired of living crammed into one-room shacks with no running water or electricity, they are quick to list the ways their government has failed them.
Hundreds share one water tap, which sits next to a stinking mound of rubbish where dirt-smudged children play and stray dogs scavenge for food. They dig pits for toilets.
Many say they have languished for years at the bottom of waiting lists for decent housing. They were left behind while others enjoyed a decade of continuous economic growth that created a burgeoning black middle class.
Yet almost all recoiled in horror at any suggestion they vote against the ANC.
“Half a loaf of bread is better than no bread,” said 24-year-old single mother Rahab Modise, wringing out her family’s washing in front of her shack. “The ANC is going to help us. They are taking a long time, but I still hope they will come one day.”
It’s thanks to people like Modise that the ANC is virtually ensured of winning next week’s election despite a challenge from a new breakaway party and a string of corruption scandals.
But why do those who have gained so little display such unwavering loyalty?
Analysts say that until other parties such as the newly formed Congress of the People (COPE), formed by disgruntled ANC politicians, or the Democratic Alliance learn to identify with the poor, the ruling party will face little in the way of real opposition.
“Irrespective of how bad service delivery gets, the poor still think the ANC represents them,” said Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst at the Electoral Institute of South Africa. “The ANC’s image fits with what they see when they look in the mirror.”
Part of the appeal lies in the ANC’s freedom-fighter credentials.
COPE’s presidential candidate Mvume Dandala put it in simple terms during a recent township walkabout in a township.
“It’s like an abused wife — you get beaten every day but you keep going back to this man. and deep in your mind there’s some thing that says, were it not for this man I would probably never have been married.”
Zuma, a polygamist who enlivens rallies by kicking his legs in the air and dancing on stage, has helped cultivate that image.
He sings struggle-era songs to remind voters of the time he spent in jail on Robben Island alongside Mandela and hails from a rural area of the nation’s poorest province.
Rising to president-in waiting despite having no formal education, Zuma’s own life embodies the rags-to-riches fairytale many dream of, and when he pledges new houses, many believe him.
“We like Zuma because he’s one of us,” said Vuyo Tsotso, 26, who makes about 10 rand ($1) a day selling scrap wiring. “Zuma will give us grants and build houses. The ANC saved our lives because of what they did in 1994,” he said.
But there are also hints of change in Munsieville that suggest the ANC’s grip on power will not last forever, with a few younger voters expressing a willingness to at least consider other parties.
One had already decided to vote for the DA, headed by a white woman, Helen Zille — an option he had previously dismissed because of South Africa’s troubled racial past.
“Since 1994 the ANC has been making empty promises,” said Philemon Rakuba, 23. “They say a better life for all, but they’re the only ones living better while we’re still stuck here, and still voting for them.”
What do you think? Why do the ANC and Zuma command such loyalty from South Africa’s poor? Will the party always be able to count on such unwavering support?