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South African Election

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South African Election

All the major contenders in Wednesday’s elections in South Africa held their closing rallies last weekend, and some striking things were said. As usual, Julius ‘Juju’ Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF), won the prize for the most inflammatory statement.

Maybe he was more emotional than usual because his grandmother passed away last week, but at a huge rally in the Orlando stadium in Soweto on Sunday he actually urged the police to start killing politicians.

“Go and shoot the real criminals,” Malema said, talking about the South African Police (SAP). “If you want to shoot, go to Luthuli House and shoot Ace Magashule. If you want to shoot, go to Parliament and shoot the house which is full of criminals. Police officers, it is like you do not know where the thugs are. Come to me. I have a list.”

Ace Magashule, who has run the province called the Free State for a long time and is now also Secretary-General of the ruling African National Congress party (ANC), is indeed a thug. He is inexplicably wealthy, his critics in the Free State often have sudden and life-changing (or even life-ending) problems, and he probably does deserve to be shot by somebody. But preferably not by a member of the SAP.

As for shooting up parliament, this is a serious breach of political etiquette in most democratic countries. But the EFF crowd loved it, and Malema gets a free ride from the media and the police when he says this sort of thing. Everybody assumes that it’s just the way he talks. And the EFF will at least double its vote in this election – though that would still leave it with only a 14 or 15 percent share of the vote.

The bigger opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, still struggles to shed its old image as the party for well-meaning middle-class white people. The current leader, Mmusi Maimane, concentrated his fire on the ANC, which has been in power since the end of apartheid a quarter-century ago.

“They were once our liberators but today we need to be liberated from them,” Maimane told the crowd. It’s a pretty widespread sentiment, because not nearly enough has changed for the better for black South Africans in the past 25 years.

Like Malema, Maimane’s main target was the corruption that ran wild under the ANC’s last leader (and president of the country for nine years), Jacob Zuma. But the party is not radical enough to attract many people who are looking for major change, and its vote will probably fall (to only 21 percent, according to the last opinion poll) in Wednesday’s election.

Which means that the ANC may be able to win just enough votes (49.5 percent in the last poll) to cling to power with a narrow majority. But it may also have to form a coalition for the first time, probably with one or more of the smaller parties (although Malema has said that the EFF is also willing to join a coalition). And maybe things will really change, and maybe they won’t.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is not corrupt – he doesn’t need to be, since he is already a billionaire – and he does get some credit with the public for finally ousting the execrable Zuma. But he still faces huge resistance to root-and-branch reform within the ANC, many of whose senior members are not ready to walk away from the trough yet.

His own dedication to reform is also in doubt. He promised to make campaign donations to political parties completely transparent, for example, and the law was actually passed – but he delayed signing it long enough to benefit from the famously opaque old rules one last time in this election.

This is billed as a ‘pivotal’ election when South Africa finally turns a corner of some sort, but there is no good reason to believe it. South African economic growth is arthritic, running at below 2 percent while other African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia rack up 6-8 percent annual growth.

True, South Africa is still a much richer country, but it doesn’t feel rich to the working poor and the 27 percent who are unemployed. That’s higher than it was in the last years of the apartheid era, and higher than it was even ten years ago, so it’s little wonder that many people feel something akin to despair.

More kids are in school now, but the quality of public education has fallen even further, and it was never high. Millions of (very modest) new houses have been built, but the housing shortage is just as bad as ever. Public health services are in disrepair, there are frequent power cuts, and even the climate seems to have turned against South Africa (although the water crisis in Cape Town is in remission)
Given all this, and the widespread perception that corruption is rotting the country, it is remarkable that South Africans still have faith that their votes can change things. But they do: in no national election since Nelson Mandela became president in 1994 has the turnout fallen below 73 percent.

As long as it stays up there, you can’t really say that the situation is hopeless. But sooner or later, optimism has to be rewarded with results.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7, 11, and 13. (“Maybe…politicians”; “They…years”; “His own…election”; and “true…despair”)

South African Election

11 April 2004

South African Election

By Gwynne Dyer

Patricia de Lille, leader of South Africa’s Independent Democratic Party, took a very public HIV test as part of her campaign — and challenged all the other candidates in the country’s third democratic election (on 14 April) to do the same. Not many will, for fear of embarrassing senior colleagues who dare not do so: over one in nine South Africans is HIV-positive. But then her whole campaign is based on outspoken and sometimes brazen challenges to the more established parties, and she stands no chance of winning a share of power anyway.

Everybody knows who is going to win this election: the African National Congress. What’s more, it’s going to win with around two-thirds of the votes, so President Thabo Mbeki won’t need to share cabinet posts with any other party — and it’s been that way since the end of apartheid ten years ago. Yet neither the United Nations nor the European Union is even bothering to send election monitors to South Africa; they know that the vote will be above suspicion.

By every conventional measure, this is not a country where a party that has been in power for ten years should get two-thirds of the votes in a free election. Quite apart from the AIDS plague, which is now killing at least 600 South Africans a day, there is 40 percent unemployment, the murder rate is still the highest in the world (though it is down by almost a third from its peak), and half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Where is the impatience? Where is the anger?

The ANC is very lucky: it still basks in the afterglow of having been the steadfast and finally triumphant opponent of the apartheid regime. Most of the country’s black majority (about three-quarters of South Africa’s 44 million people) still give the ANC full marks for trying, and forgive it for its failures. But it’s not just the ANC that’s lucky; South Africa is too, for patience was definitely what was needed after thirty-six years of apartheid.

When the ANC took over in 1994, there was no money to provide all the services to the black majority that had long been neglected under apartheid. The siege economy run by the white minority regime was teetering on the brink of collapse and the state’s coffers were empty.

Instead of sharing the wealth with its mostly black supporters who had waited so long for freedom and a piece of the prosperity, the ANC had to impose strict pro-market policies to fix the economy. Its promises to the poor on housing, electricity, piped water, and education would have to be curtailed, and a head-on attack on the huge problem of black unemployment would have to wait.

Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president, used his immense popularity to make the ANC accept a policy of tough budget discipline and fiscal orthodoxy, but its real architect was his then deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Because of the austerity, the ANC has built only 1.6 million houses for the poor and 56,000 new classrooms in the past ten years: a lot, but not nearly enough. It has done better on services: the number of people who have electricity has doubled to over two-thirds; 85 percent of households now have running water, and almost two-thirds have proper sanitation. Mere statistics, but they change people’s lives.

What the ANC could not deliver was jobs, because Mr Mbeki’s first priority was to stabilise the economy. Ten years of that would have ruined any other government, but now the task is accomplished is done, and Mbeki says the economy is ready to grow fast and produce jobs. Everybody hopes he’s right, and they are willing to give him a chance because they understand, despite all their grousing, that they are living through a miracle.

The ‘rainbow nation’ was just a hopeful phrase ten years ago; the reality was a country so deeply divided by race, language and tribe that people talked freely about civil war. When I visited with my family five years ago, we stayed with black friends in Pretoria and whites in Cape Town and our black friends saw only other black families, and the whites saw only whites, and my youngest daughter, then six, came home believing (as I discovered only later) that we had visited two different countries.

There’s still far too much of that: the races mix at work and in public, but not at home. But the real hope lies with the mall rats. It’s probably too late for most of the adults to change their ways, but the schools were desegregated ten years ago, and most of the whites are not rich enough to put their kids in private schools, so in many urban areas the schools are racially mixed, and the kids who started in those schools a decade ago are now teenagers hanging around the shopping malls. In racially mixed groups. History is not fate.

I used to believe that South Africa’s long, tangled, bloody history was its fate. But at least it HAS a real history, and everybody’s past connects (though often in painful ways). There is a South African identity that transcends race, tribe and language emerging out of all that pain, and that’s a start. I think they’re going to make it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“By…anger”; and “Instead…wait”)