South Africa’s Youth Are Deserting the Party of Nelson Mandela
(Bloomberg) -- In the South African township where Nelson Mandela joined the struggle against apartheid, Lordwick Nxumalo is reduced to hustling for a living.
Each day, he and other young jobless men of Soweto hang around on Walter Sisulu Square, waiting to take passport pictures for documents like driving licenses. The licensing office boss, who owns the camera, pays 10 rand ($0.65) per customer. It’s not much: Nxumalo says he lives in a shack and is “busy getting more poor.”
The 29-year-old’s predicament is common in Kliptown, a Soweto district seared in memory as the site where African National Congress leaders including a young Mandela gathered in 1955 to adopt a constitution. There’s a memorial to the ANC’s freedom charter on the square, but Nxumalo isn’t impressed: he’s had enough of the party that has brought little relief to his community despite ruling for most of his life.
“I loved the ANC since I was a child and when the elections were there I just checked in and voted for the ANC—I didn’t think too much,” he said. “But the ANC that I’m voting for gives me nothing: We have no jobs, no housing and we’re struggling for electricity.” He said he won’t vote for them again, because “nothing is changing for us.”
A quarter of a century after the end of the repressive system of institutionalized racism that made South Africa a global pariah, the same forces that freedom unleashed—the right to free movement and a thirst for education—threaten to bring down the party that won black South Africans their liberty.
Facing the tide of an increasingly youthful, urbanized and educated electorate that cares more about pressing daily needs than tales from the struggle era, the ANC looks vulnerable. But it’s also accelerated its own decline.
In the first decade after apartheid, the ANC government received widespread praise for improving services, reducing poverty and creating a thriving black middle class. While some of that rapid social and economic progress had slowed by the time Jacob Zuma assumed the presidency in 2009, his scandal-ridden tenure alienated many voters too young to remember South Africa’s transition to democracy.
Today, the ANC is struggling with a stagnant economy that’s failed to significantly narrow the widest income-inequality gap in the world. Unemployment of 29% is at the highest level since at least 2008, the majority of South African municipalities are suffering more power and water outages, and state corruption is rampant.
The results are all too evident in Kliptown, once a heartland of ANC resistance on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where young people now say they’ve lost patience with the party. It was here, 64 years ago, that ANC leaders ratified their famous document that opens with the inspirational “the people shall govern.” Now crystal meth smokers loiter on street corners as unemployed youths while away their time at roadside cafes, or try and make ends meet by selling curios and impromptu tours to tourists.
Nhlanhla Ngobese, 34, sells bead animals at a stall outside a museum in Soweto’s Orlando West district, where Mandela once lived. The museum commemorates Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy shot by police who was photographed dying in the arms of a fellow student in the 1976 Soweto Uprising, a key moment that led to international sanctions on the South African regime and bolstered the ANC cause.
An ANC member, Ngobese doesn’t have much respect for the party now. “Too much corruption and fighting for position, that’s all what it’s about today,” he said. The youth don’t vote now, he said, disillusioned by “dirty games” and the fact “they’ve been waiting for promises for two decades.”
As yet, there are few political alternatives to the ANC. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, is hamstrung by the perception that its roots in a party that represented white liberals during apartheid means it still has that minority’s interests at heart. Its abandonment of firm policy positions has, to some, made it resemble a less convincing version of the ANC.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist group that split from the ANC in 2013, attracts some of the economically disenfranchised with fiery talk of nationalizing everything from land to banks. Still, its support is capped as a result of comments by its leaders widely condemned as racist, and extravagant policy claims such as 10% annual economic growth forecast under an EFF administration, when post-apartheid South Africa has never exceeded much more than 5% growth.
While the ANC under President Cyril Ramaphosa won 57% of the vote in general elections in May, that was its lowest total in the six national votes since apartheid. What’s more, its support among young people was about 50%, dropping to 25% of all those people with a university degree. Its base is largely rural in a country where two-thirds of people now live in urban areas, compared with just over half in 1994.
Today 8.1% of South Africans have a degree compared with 2.9% at the advent of democracy, and close to a third of the population is under 35 and old enough to vote.
“On demographic trends alone there is now enough to justify bringing the prospect of an ANC electoral defeat in 2024 onto your strategic planning radars,’’ the Johannesburg-based Centre for Risk Analysis said in a recent report. “What seems apparent, though, is that the political structure that has defined South Africa since 1994 is crumbling and that a new political order will come to replace it.”
The implications for South Africa are at once momentous and unclear. If the ANC is pushed below 50% support in the next election, the country will face coalition rule, the nature of which is hard to predict as there are no natural allies among the parties. South Africa’s short-term future is thus likely to be one of unruly tie-ups of groups with little in common, defined by instability and policy paralysis. Johannesburg and Pretoria already have unlikely coalitions in municipal government.
South African politics has meanwhile followed more advanced western democracies in North America and Europe into polarization, with the ANC split between hard left and nationalist factions and few remaining centrists in the mold of Mandela or fellow former president, Thabo Mbeki.
That’s led to “a fundamental yearning for a moderate center-left representation for the urban middle class,” said Claude Baissac, the head of Eunomix Business & Economics Ltd, which advises on political risk. The opportunities for anyone able to meet that desire are “huge,” he said.
A new political dawn can’t come soon enough for Lindiwe Anna Dlamini, 24, who is unemployed and has never voted.
“We haven’t had electricity for three weeks. Nobody comes to fix it. We need jobs,” she said as she waited for a takeaway of white bread and a fried egg in Orlando West. “Unless there’s big change, I won’t vote.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.