ZITHOBENI, South Africa — As the first generation born into a fully free, post-apartheid South Africa gets ready for its first election, you would think the country would be awash in good feeling and civic engagement. Not so.
The dusty main drag of Zithobeni township could well be ground zero for South Africa’s angry masses.
Here, young mobs rampaged through the streets in February to protest the poor delivery of electricity and water, burning down the local library, police station and government offices. Four months later, the rubble remains — heaps of charred books lie beneath twisted metal and blackened bricks.
The people of Zithobeni, like many others in the townships and shantytowns of South Africa, are frustrated, furious and increasingly desperate about the lack of improvement in their lives, two decades into democracy.
Much of the anger is focused at the African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela that has ruled since the first non-racial, fully democratic elections in 1994. But rather than vote the ANC out, a growing number of people are simply not voting at all.
The disaffection has spread to youth who are just beginning their political lives. For the first time, South Africans born after the 1994 elections — the “born frees” — are eligible to vote. But surprisingly few of them have even bothered to register for elections — only 33.6 percent of those born post-1994. In comparison, 60 percent of South Africans in their twenties are registered, and more than 90 percent of people older than 30.
Grace Phiri, 23, lives in a shack in Zithobeni and said she is unhappy with the lack of electricity, and the often dirty water that comes delivered from trucks. She graduated from high school in 2011 but has yet to find a job — and without a job, she can’t afford further studies.
“I don’t see any reason why I have to vote,” Phiri said. “The ANC says it is making South Africa better. But it’s not better.”
A litany of grievances
As Zithobeni burned in early February, similarly violent “service delivery” protests, as these demonstrations over utilities are called, took place in two other nearby townships. In Bekkersdal, two hours away, the unrest continues, burning tires and barricades blocking ANC officials’ recent attempts at campaigning.
The number of these protests has increased significantly in the last few years, from13 major incidents in 2004, to 470 in 2012, according to a University of Johannesburg study.
In the first three months of 2014, the number of protests averaged out to roughly one every second day, according to Municipal IQ, a data and intelligence service.
Another major grievance is South Africa’s high unemployment rate, which stands at 24 percent, rising to 34 percent when you include people who have stopped actively looking for work. Youth unemployment is even higher.
A more recent gripe is President Zuma’s fancy rural homestead in the town of Nkandla, which benefited from taxpayer-funded upgrades worth $23 million including a swimming pool and chicken coop, according to a recent report by South Africa’s public protector — like an ombudsman. Nkandla has become a byword for dodgy government spending.
Where to go, in a political landscape without Mandela?
Some voters have been inspired by an upstart left-wing party called the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema, the 33-year-old enfant terrible — complete with revolutionary-style red beret and Louis Vuitton sneakers — who led the ANC’s youth league until his expulsion in 2012.
Malema is facing charges of fraud and corruption related to road works contracts, along with $1.6 million in back taxes from South Africa’s revenue agency. Nevertheless, he has drawn impressive support, in particular from young people.
Surprise Mokoena, 18, a first-time voter, feels alienated from the ANC, the party of his parents.
“People are living in shacks, you see,” he said. “I’m going to vote for EFF to see how Malema could change things.”
Lufuno Ramutangwa, 21, a university student from Johannesburg, will be casting her first vote for the EFF because of their promise to provide free education. Ramutangwa has struggled to pay for university after her mother lost her job.
“A lot of us here, our parents are not working, we cannot go to school, we cannot afford [university]” she said. “When your parents have lost their job how are you going to pay for school?”
Another option for voters is the Democratic Alliance. The DA, led by a white woman named Helen Zille, has gained steadily as an opposition party, with a stronghold in the area around Cape Town and growing numbers of voters around Johannesburg. But many black South Africans are reticent to vote for a party that some view as “white,” despite the DA’s efforts to diversify.
With no opposition party able to inspire broader swaths of disaffected voters, the ANC is likely to win another near majority in parliament. The latest survey by Ipsos puts the ANC at 63.4 percent of votes, with the opposition Democratic Alliance at 23 percent and the EFF at just under 5 percent.
President Jacob Zuma has pointed to the mere two decades since apartheid to defend his government’s record and explain disaffection.
“We forget that apartheid was very violent, as a government,” President Zuma said at a press briefing Monday in Johannesburg. “People for a long time thought that if you talk to government, talk to authority, you must be violent. This is a culture that we have not addressed as a country, as a society.”
It’s a defense that fails to account for the peaceful, record-long lines in the first free elections in 1994.
Precious Ndala, 28, who lives in a shack and sells tea and snacks at roadside, has voted for the ANC in the past but hasn’t made up her mind this time around. While she is unhappy with the government, and the lack of change in poor communities, the ANC is, after all, the liberation party.
“We feel guilty for leaving the ANC,” Ndala said. “Mandela was one of a kind. But now he is gone.”
Fanny Shelemba, 40, pushing a wheelbarrow past the burnt-out library in Zithobeni, said he has voted for the ANC in every election since 1994. But he is tired of the violence and lack of jobs in his community, and is switching allegiances in the hope that life will improve.
“Jacob Zuma doesn’t do the right things. He does corruption,” Shelemba said. “I’m going to vote for the DA.”