Six months pregnant, was determined to cast her vote, even if it meant standing in a sun-baked queue for hours on end. “I was so excited because it was the first time,” she recalls, sitting on an upturned plastic basket outside her shack in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg. “Everybody wanted to vote. Everybody was happy.”
South Africa held its first multiracial election 20 years ago on Sunday, defying bombs, bluster and the threat of civil war to conjure a spectacle of voters in long, winding lines that ravished the world. But for Kganyo, like millions of others who put a cross beside the face of Nelson Mandela, those days of miracles and wonder are a fading memory. “It’s not the same now. We’re not happy to vote any more. It’s not like the first time.”
Next month, South Africans return to the polls for the first election since Mandela’s death and the first in which the so-called “born free” generation – those whose lives began after racial apartheid – are eligible to vote. The African National Congress is in no doubt of a fifth consecutive victory on 7 May but faces an unprecedented long-term challenge both on the streets and at the ballot box.
Two decades of modest economic growth have left the white minority better off than ever but half of young black people without a job. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies on Earth and reaping a whirlwind of frustration and unrest. One expression of this is in tyre-burning, stone-throwing township protests that could point towards future social instability. Another is the rise of a militant new party that claims to be the true inheritor of the ANC’s radical legacy.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is bringing a flavour of Latin American socialism to an otherwise somewhat sterile election. It draws thousands of people to its rallies wearing an instantly recognisable motif, a red beret, as sported by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Indeed, its “commander in chief”, charismatic firebrand Julius Malema, travelled to both Venezuela and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to hone his populist, anti-western rhetoric. The EFF regards forgotten places such as Diepsloot, a sprawling, impoverished and violent settlement, as fertile territory for recruiting angry young people who feel betrayed by the ANC.
Julius Malema of the South African political party Economic Freedom Fighters
Julius Malema, president of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters, greets the local community in Ngcingwane. Photograph: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
Sprouting on farmland in the 90s, Diepsloot (“deep ditch” in Afrikaans) is a largely post-apartheid creation and most of its 200,000 residents blame the ANC for their dismal conditions. Amid this sea of shacks, many constructed from corrugated iron haphazardly bolted together, piles of rubbish go uncollected and acrid water runs down unpaved dirt tracks. Diepsloot has become a byword for criminal gangs, vigilante mob justice and xenophobic violence.
Kganyo rises at 5.30am every day to commute to her suburban job as a domestic worker, earning 3,000 rand (£170) a month, while her husband is away for months at a time working down a mine, retracing a pattern known to generations under apartheid. “Diepsloot is getting worse,” she said. “The price of paraffin is up, the price of taxis is up, the price of food is up. There are criminals here: sometimes you can’t go out at 10 o’clock.”
Kganyo lives in a cramped tin shack without electricity at the back of a dusty yard. She has been on the waiting list for a government house for more than 10 years. “We always voted for the ANC but we’ve been living in the shacks for many years. They say they’re going to build a house and nothing happens. If you select a council, they work for themselves, not for us.”
The ANC faces an uphill battle to win over “born frees” with no memory of the liberation struggle and no instinctive loyalty to the party. Among them is Bonginkosi Dlamini, another Diepsloot shack dweller who was robbed at gunpoint last year. “They benefit themselves instead of the country,” he said. “They build big houses and drive fast cars while the rest of us suffer and don’t have access to water. They should be making changes in Diepsloot but it’s getting worse.”
Surveys have found that the ANC’s political power rests on an underclass: at least two thirds of its voters are unemployed. Now it faces a competitor for this constituency for the first time. The EFF is hoping to invoke Mandela’s words from 1993: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” The fledgling party essentially claims that Mandela’s revolution is half-finished: while political liberation was achieved 20 years ago, economic liberation remains elusive.
White-owned land is one emotive example. Soon after 1994, the ANC set a target of 25m hectares, representing 30% of agricultural land, for transfer to black people within five years, but to date only about 7% has been transferred and most is not used productively. The EFF claims that the ANC has sold its revolutionary soul to “white monopoly capital” and that serial corruption scandals, notably the spending of £13.7m on president Jacob Zuma’s homestead in Nkandla, show its contempt for the poor.