THEMB’ELIHLE, South Africa — The African National Congress has ruled South Africa’s government since the end of apartheid in 1994 and is expected to sweep Wednesday’s national elections with overwhelming support from black voters.
But one vote the ANC won’t get is that of Mkhululi Zulu.
The 35-year-old resident of this squatter camp 20 miles southwest of Johannesburg said that the ANC has pledged much but delivered little to the 20,000 people of Themb’elihle. Most residents live in makeshift houses — unbearably hot in the summer and painfully cold in the winter — with no electricity and no sewage system. Water taps have been recently installed, but only after residents paid for the installation themselves.
What is worse, Zulu said, is that the local government is pushing to evict Themb’elihle’s population from land it has occupied for 20 years.
“You are voting today,” Zulu said, “but tomorrow you will be forcibly removed from this area.”
When the ANC won the first election after the end of apartheid, it inherited a set of daunting challenges. The previous governments had created a society of massive inequalities where the black majority lacked everything from proper education and decent job opportunities to freedom of movement. The former liberation movement had to address the plight of South Africa’s black population while at the same time dissuading the wealthier white residents from emigrating en masse.
Over the past 15 years, the ANC-led government has achieved much. For the most part, white South Africans have stayed put and play a major role in the country’s economy. A number of pro-business policies pushed by former president Thabo Mbeki have attracted scores of foreign investors to Africa’s largest economy and led to years of sustained economic growth.
The ANC has also devoted enormous attention and resources to the needs of the poor and has achieved substantial success in delivering basic services and improving the quality of those services.
About 12.5 million South Africans receive social grants (welfare payments) today, up from 3 million in 1996, the government says. Over the same period, access to electricity has increased from 58 percent to 80 percent, while access to running water rose from 62 percent to 88 percent. The government also says it has given 2.7 million free houses to the poor, giving shelter to about 14 million of South Africa’s 48 million people.
But at the same time, denial by the Mbeki administration allowed the HIV/AIDS epidemic to spread largely unchecked and take an estimated 330,000 lives, according to a Harvard University study. As a result, life expectancy has fallen below 50 years, according to the World Health Organization. South Africa’s education quality ranks near the bottom in international surveys, and the country’s crime rate is among the highest in the world with an average of 50 murders a day.
Even the country’s successes may not be as rosy as advertised. David Hemson, research director at the Center for Service Delivery, said that much has been achieved in terms of delivering services to the majority. But he warned that the government’s statistics are not to be trusted. He said occasional corruption and a lack of qualified engineers have caused the government to repeatedly miss the targets it set for itself.
“Masses of poor people vote for the ANC and yet in those areas where most of the poor people are, it’s the worst service delivery.” Hemson said. “It was true under apartheid, but it has not changed. It has not changed after apartheid. There has been some improvement, but it’s nothing like what was planned.”
Political analyst Steven Friedman said the ANC should be praised for upholding constitutional law, stabilizing the economy and vastly expanding the social-grant program. He said that the ANC’s record on poverty alleviation is rather uneven, as the party has often failed to grasp the needs of the country’s poor.
“I think the main negative for the last 15 years has been this gap between the ANC in government or the ANC as a party and in many instances the majority of people who actually put them there,” he said. “People just feel they’re not listened to. People feel that their concerns are not being heard.”
Many of the ANC supporters interviewed at the party’s last campaign rally in Johannesburg on Sunday said they are still lacking a job or basic services such as water, electricity or functioning toilets. But they believe that Zuma, who grew up poor and lacks formal education, is better positioned to understand their needs than former ANC leaders. Zuma has acknowledged that there remains much to be done.
William Mosinki, a 47-year-old resident of Temb’elihle, lamented the rampant crime and the lack of electricity that forces him to buy about $5 worth of paraffin a week for cooking and heating. Mosinki has voted three times for the ANC in past elections. He has been disillusioned by promises that failed to materialize and said he is not sure which party he’ll vote for this time. But one thing is certain: He’ll be at the poll station this Wednesday.
“I will vote,” he said. “It’s important. It’s my right.”
More GlobalPost dispatches on South Africa:
Cartoonist lampoons South African politicians
Zuma leads in South Africa's presidential race
Why young politicos matter in South Africa
View Larger Map