'Do it for Mandela' plea masks divisive South African election

Pulling out all the stops, South Africa's ruling African National Congress is invoking the Nelson Mandela legacy at every turn. But poverty, joblessness and 20 years of broken promises is throwing it back in their face, Margaret Evans reports.

Poverty, joblessness and 20 years of broken promises dog turbulent townships, and the ruling ANC

I met a young woman named Portia in a township not far from Pretoria this week. She lives in a blue tin shack on a fetid street where people dump their sewage in an open drain.

Bright purple flowers grow alongside a nearby pile of garbage next to a sign that says "no dumping."

Portia is one of the so-called "born frees," the generation getting so much attention ahead of Wednesday's election here in South Africa.

A boy collects water from a communal tap beneath election posters for President Jacob Zuma's African National Congress in Bekkersdal township south of Johannesburg. Bekkersdal is one of many townships that have seen violent protests over government services leading up to the May 7 elections. (Mike Hutchings / Reuters)

That's what they're calling those born after the end of white minority rule in South Africa, and now eligible to vote for the first time.

It is a constituency that will have no direct memory of apartheid, and so I asked Portia if she feels free. "No," she said. "I don't feel free. Especially here."

"Here" refers not just to the cramped shack she shares with her parents and siblings in Atteridgeville township, but also to the limited future it represents.

"Life here is not as easy as it should be," Portia says. "Sometimes you are scared to walk around even in the day."

There are, on average, 45 murders a day in South Africa, most committed in townships like this one. That rate is 19 times higher than it is in Canada.

A young woman named Portia, from Atteridgeville township near Pretoria, is one of the "born free" generation who will be voting for the first time on Wednesday. She is going to vote, she says, but not necessarily for Mandela's ANC. "They are thinking for themselves and not for us." (Margaret Evans / CBC )

Portia's situation  — like those of so many other South Africans — is testament to the promises that remain unfulfilled 20 years after the liberation movement's African National Congress came to power under the leadership of Nelson Mandela in South Africa's first post-apartheid elections.

Wednesday's vote will be the first since Mandela's death in December, and the country still feels like it's in mourning, not just for Mandela, but for what many here see as a broken trust by the very party he once led.

'He's gone now'

During its 20-year tenure, the ANC has built millions of homes for South Africa's poor, and expanded access to running water and electricity.

But its failure to lift so many others out of poverty is its greatest indictment, according to critics, an arrow that becomes much sharper in the face of the ongoing corruption scandals that have led all the way to the door of President Jacob Zuma, running for a second term.

Earlier this year, South Africa's public protector, Thuli Madonsela, released a long awaited report into Zuma's state-funded renovations to his private Nkandla estate in KwaZulu-Natal.

She found that he had "benefited unduly" and ordered him to pay back some of the $23 million of taxpayers money used to install a swimming pool and amphitheater, among other questionable additions.

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma greets an estimated 90,000 supporters of his ruling African National Congress party during their final election rally in Soweto on Sunday. The ANC is expected to hold on to power on Wednesday, but the campaign is showing new divisions and ANC weakness. (Mike Hutchings / Reuters)

Meanwhile, South Africa's jobless rate is higher now than it was in 1994, and just under half of all young people are unemployed.

Many cite jobs as being their biggest election priority. Others say there is no point in voting in an election that will simply return the same indifferent politicians they accuse of lining their own pockets.

Only a third of that born-free generation of 19 and 20 year olds have actually registered to vote, a potential gift to the ANC, whose biggest supporters are the older generations who suffered most under apartheid.

In Atteridgeville, Portia says she will vote. But she also says she won't be swayed by loyalty to a party just because it was once led by Nelson Mandela.

"He's gone now. I will decide whose party I would vote for," she says. "Because people are not doing like he's doing. They are thinking for themselves and not for us."

Do it for Mandela

"Do it for Mandela" has been one of the ANC's rallying cries this election, a not so subtle attempt to exploit the Mandela memory, and to remind voters that the great man himself never broke with the party, unlike some other former liberation leaders who have left in disgust.

The former archbishop Desmond Tutu, often referred to as South Africa's moral compass, has said he won't vote for the ANC. Nor will another former ANC stalwart, Ronnie Kasrils, who has launched a campaign urging people to find another party or spoil their ballots.

Playing the Mandela card in these elections is a misguided strategy, suggests newspaper columnist and political analyst Justice Malala.

"I think the Mandela halo has moved on, and it's a real dirty battle between the various parties," he said in an interview at his Johannesburg home. "But I don't think that Nelson Mandela is … how shall I say … a tie breaker here. He has moved on and South Africa has moved on somewhat."

You hear that elsewhere, too. "Nelson Mandela fought for democracy, which means that you must choose whichever organization you vote for," a young man named Paul Ngubeni told me at a rally for the Democratic Alliance over the weekend. That doesn't mean you are betraying the liberation struggle, he said.

The DA has the largest support base in South Africa after the ANC, and is expected to garner more than 20 per cent of the vote on May 7, but it's struggled to shed its image as a "white" party.

Emotional ties to the ANC run deep because of its role in the freedom fight, no matter how great the current disaffection. Many South Africans feel torn when contemplating not voting for the ANC, which is still expected to win around 60 per cent of the vote.

But the DA's strategy has been to confront the "Do it for Mandela" message head on.

"Liberation movements change," says Mmusi Maimane, the DA's star candidate in Gautang province, which includes Johannesburg.

"Under Zuma it's become more corrupt, it's become more self-serving, it's become more crony in its approach … so our message has been 'how do you put the two names together?' To put Zuma next to Mandela I think it's an injustice."

Economic freedom fighters

Another party expected to take away some of the ANC's support is the Economic Freedom Fighters or EFF, launched by firebrand politician Julius Malema. His supporters wear red berets reminiscent of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

"We don't need a position where we have to vote for the sake of the history, we're voting for the sake of the future," a young woman named Tumisha Mashabela said at an EFF rally in Atteridgeville. "We really need a change."

Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Party, waves to supporters during his party's final election rally in Pretoria on Sunday. (Skyler Reid / Reuters)

Malema has often been accused of stirring racial tensions in South Africa, and has himself faced corruption charges.

But he is a populist and a political survivor, having formed his own party after being forced out as the ANC's youth leader. His economic freedom message would entail the nationalization of land and industry.

Justice Malala says the EFF shouldn't be written off. "I think they are a player in this election," he says, suggesting the EFF speaks to youth more powerfully than the ANC at the moment.

Not everyone, however, believes that today's young South Africans can make a big difference.  

"Because we are desperate to live in a post-apartheid society, we project our best hopes onto the 'born free' generation," says author Eusebius McKaiser.

"But it's untested. I'm not convinced that the born frees have a new slate … they have inherited the prejudices, the identities, to put it more gently of their moms and dads."

Jay Naidoo, a key member of the struggle against apartheid when he was the head of one of the country's largest trade unions in the late 1980s, and later a minister in Mandela's first cabinet, fears there is potential for greater conflict in South Africa if the growing number of grievances in the country aren't addressed.

One of the ANC's most outspoken critics, he now says: "I have no doubt if I was young today I would be radical and angry."

Naidoo says South Africa doesn't need any more streets named after Mandela — and that the more fitting tribute would be to live by his ideals.

Jay Naidoo, a former labour leader and minister in Nelson Mandela's first government, says the ANC could have achieved so much more over the past 20 years. Instead, it made people "bystanders." (Richard Devey / CBC)

"We had this view that the government will deliver. It will deliver the jobs and the water and the electricity and the houses."

But, he says, in hoping for this, "we demobilized civil society. The very robustness and the engine of our struggle to freedom we made passive. People became bystanders."

Finding a way to inspire and engage not just South Africa's Portias but other disaffected groups will be a key to South Africa's future.

"I was four years old when we were evicted from our house because I was the wrong colour of skin," says Naidoo. "I spent my whole life believing I was inferior to white people.

"That restoration of human dignity has an incredibly powerful attraction to us that we hold deep in our hearts. But the next generation didn't grow up with that baggage. And they are our future."

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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