South Africa: deprived of public services, townships threaten to sanction ANC

The driver of the Golf did not see the concrete block announcing the roadblock. Wanting to avoid the barricade erected 15 meters away, he headed straight for the concrete cube. The chassis of the car crashed into the obstacle with a shrill screeching noise. Forward, reverse, nothing to do. Tuesday, October 26, the sinking of South African public services made a new collateral victim.

Road closed by Boomtown community due to power outages for 6 months.  Orlando East Boomtown, Johannesburg, October 29, 2021.

The roadblock the driver wanted to bypass is located in Boomtown, a district of Soweto, the largest township in Johannesburg. It is the work of residents overwhelmed by five months of deprivation of electricity. Despite their insistent requests, no one ever came to fix the network. When his constituents try to reach him, the district municipal councilor no longer bother to pick up. “The ANC let us down! “, plague residents, referring to the party in power in South Africa since the end of apartheid.

On the eve of the municipal elections to be held on Monday 1is November in the country, the people of Boomtown let out their anger. For two weeks, the crossroads leading to this block has been littered with garbage. “Tomorrow, they will collect and the next day, we will come back to empty our bins! Blocking the roads is the only way to be heard in this country. I have a 2 month old baby, how do I do without electricity? “, is indignant Emma, ​​who refuses to give her true identity for fear of administrative reprisals.

In the evening, we light up by candlelight

Every day, the young mother goes to charge her phone at a friend’s house. At home, the electric stove has been replaced by overpriced gas cylinders. In the evening, we light up with candles and during the day, we let the water warm up outside to wash ourselves. Summer is approaching in the southern hemisphere. But with the beautiful days, the food spoils quickly, for lack of fridge to keep it.

Children do their homework by candlelight while their mothers cook in Boomtown, a district of Soweto, on October 29.

A seamstress, Emma worked from home. But like the fridge, the stove and the TV, the sewing machine is no longer useful. And as if that were not enough, the tenant who made it possible to end the month took off, tired of living on the fringes of modernity. Emma has no more lights, no more hot water, no more power outlets and no more income. “Electricity is life”, summarizes Vivi at her side – she too gives an assumed name.

In Boomtown, nearly a hundred homes are thus plunged into darkness at nightfall. The jumble of branches, cinder blocks and rubbish amassed to protest against the carelessness of the public authorities blocks one of the main avenues of Soweto, forcing the buses to turn around. In places, black marks soil the asphalt. Remnants of tires burned by other residents of Soweto, protesting against the transformers who give up the ghost.

Abel Kutoane, a local photographer, saw his house burn down due to a gas stove explosion.  Orlando East Boomtown.  Johannesburg, October 29, 2021.
Peter Shabala, 62, has owned a fast food restaurant in Boomtown for 30 years.  Since the power cut, his activity has been very disrupted.

Catastrophic management and corruption

“We are going to vote, but certainly not for the ANC”, assure the interviewees in unison. The chorus is repeated endlessly across the country. In Thokoza, south of Johannesburg, we have electricity, but no more toilets since the sewerage is riddled with holes. In Limpopo, a rural province in the north of the country, people travel for miles to collect water that no longer flows from the tap. In an affluent neighborhood of Bloemfontein, capital of the Free State, residents have created an association that fills up potholes and collects garbage since municipal services have deserted the premises.

Undermined by the catastrophic management and corruption that marked the tenure of former President Jacob Zuma from 2009 to 2018, “South Africa is naked”, sums up a resident of Boomtown. According to a report by the ministry responsible for overseeing local governance, a quarter of South Africa’s 257 municipalities are “Seriously dysfunctional” and 29 have already been placed under supervision. All over the place, the cash registers are empty, while the worn-out infrastructure is giving way one after the other.

In this context, for the first time, the ANC, which liberated the country from the racist apartheid regime, could lose the absolute majority nationwide in the election of 1is November. These are municipal elections, of course, “But in South Africa, all elections are national”, recalls Dawie Scholtz, electoral analyst. He underlines the uncertainty that weighs on the consultation, while the percentage of votes collected by the ANC is eroding over the years. In the last local elections, the municipality that manages the capital, Pretoria, has already eluded him. That of Johannesburg threatens to follow.

“Frustrated voters”

For lack of an opponent of its size, Nelson Mandela’s party has long resisted, but the rise of abstention among a frustrated black electorate and the arrival of the Party of Fighters for Economic Freedom (EFF), of the populist Julius Malema, in 2013, challenged his certainties. To this formation which militates for a radical redistribution of wealth is added a newcomer: Action SA.

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In 2016, its founder, Herman Mashaba, became mayor of Johannesburg through a coalition. He was then a member of the Democratic Alliance (DA), a party that had long been the only strong opposition to the ANC, while struggling to massively rally black voters, who saw it as “the white party.”

When he left the Democratic Alliance in 2019, Herman Mashaba had to give up his seat as mayor of Johannesburg. The ANC has regained control of the city, but the former city councilor is back in the race as the black leader of a party that wants to be moderate. “Action SA has the potential to take from the ANC the voices of frustrated voters who could never bring themselves to vote for the Democratic Alliance”, estimates Dawie Scholtz.

The political party ActionSA, organizes a community meeting on the next elections of a new local government.  Orlando East Boomtown, Johannesburg, October 29, 2021.

Unemployment peaks at almost 45%

The situation in Soweto is emblematic of this changing world. The township represents a quarter of voters in Johannesburg. In the 2011 municipal elections, the ANC still won 88% of the vote. His score fell to 68% in 2016. “This is the minimum if the party wants to keep the majority in Johannesburg”, explains Dawie Scholtz. But in the face of anger “The ANC may have trouble maintaining this level in the long term”, continues the analyst.

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Proof of the importance of Soweto in the eyes of the ANC, it is here that President Cyril Ramaphosa started the campaign and here that he is preparing to conclude it. As on the eve of the 2019 presidential elections, the head of state apologized and begged the South Africans to give his party another chance. Elected on the promise of a “New dawn”, the president enjoys the image of a “Good guy trying to fix”, Judge Dawie Scholtz. But Mr. Ramaphosa is struggling to carry out his reforms, while a fringe of the ANC has remained loyal to former head of state Jacob Zuma, forced to resign in 2018 against the backdrop of multiple corruption scandals.

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The pandemic having completed emptying the coffers of the country, the power finds itself without the slightest financial leeway at a time when unemployment peaks at nearly 45%. Symbol of a country under high tension, a wave of looting and clashes left more than 350 dead in July. Possible coup de grace, finally, a few days before the elections, the public electricity company, on the verge of collapse, announced a new wave of power cuts across the country.

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South Africa: deprived of public services, townships threaten to sanction ANC