In S. Africa, Looking Beyond ANC

Some Seek Options as Disillusionment With Party Creeps In

The ANC has deep roots among poor people such as Dinho Ndimante, 18.
The ANC has deep roots among poor people such as Dinho Ndimante, 18. (By Karin Brulliard -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 19, 2008; Page A01

JOHANNESBURG -- On a recent evening at a swank downtown eatery here, a table of young black entrepreneurs sipped cocktails and talked politics by candlelight. They were symbols of the new South Africa: Raised in all-black townships, they now own suburban homes, pricey cars and stocks.

To their parents, politics meant one thing -- the African National Congress, the liberation movement that has been the ruling party since apartheid was brought to an end in 1994. Now the party is on the verge of a split, and to these young South Africans, that sounds like progress.

"To date, the ANC's been the obvious choice. It's time to change a little bit," said Ndumiso Davidson, 28, who works for a private equity firm. "We fought for freedom, and freedom was attained."

That fluid loyalty might be typical in most multiparty systems. In South Africa, however, it hints at what some here think is a turning point toward a new revolution in this nation's young democracy: a future in which the ANC is not in charge.

After nearly 100 years as an organization, the ANC is racked by infighting and beset by criticism that it has succumbed to factionalism and careerism. The party last month forced out President Thabo Mbeki, a rival of ANC leader Jacob Zuma, himself a polarizing populist accused of graft. Mbeki loyalists have announced plans for a new party that they say will reclaim ANC values.

No one thinks the ANC will lose next year's elections. It remains a mighty electoral machine with deep roots among the rural and poor masses.

But some pollsters say voter disillusionment could erode the party's two-thirds majority. That is partly, analysts say, because the ANC is led by liberation-era figures whose revolution rhetoric is losing resonance among generations that have spent much or all of their lives in freedom.

"This is the party that overcame the apartheid struggle. This is the party of Nelson Mandela. I think we haven't completely got through that phase," said Adam Habib, a political scientist who is deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. "But young people are losing their attachment to the ANC. They want it to deliver."

Since 1994, the voting bloc loyal to the ANC has declined steadily as voters turned their focus from liberation to day-to-day issues, according to a recent University of Cape Town study. But, the study said, their votes have not typically shifted to opposition parties. The ANC dissident group, which has outlined no policies, seems to want to tap that constituency. One insider told the Mail and Guardian newspaper that its goal would be to "modernize" and "drop the language of Stalinism."

In interviews, many young South Africans praised the ANC for having ushered the country in just 14 years from oppressive white rule to guaranteed freedoms, the continent's biggest economy and a political system in which the recall of a president sparks debate but not bloodshed.

But many bemoaned the party's failure to control galling poverty and the AIDS, crime and unemployment rates and said it has grown bloated by power.

On a recent afternoon on the sun-drenched Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg, Ipeleng Mashao, 21, said he had grown so disenchanted that he would vote only if a splinter party were on the ballot.

The accounting major ticked off a list of grievances: the cloud of corruption surrounding Zuma, whose backers have called for a "political solution" to his case. The Youth League leader's vow to "take up arms and kill" for Zuma. The dismissal of Mbeki just months before his term was to end.

"For my grandfather, who was a member of the ANC, it was his freedom," Mashao said. "Now I know the ANC will be on the television tomorrow for another fraud case."

The trouble, many youths said, is that opposition parties -- the most powerful of which won 12 percent of the vote in 2004 -- seem only to scold the ANC, not offer new ideas. A few feet from Mashao, Nhlanhla Nsibi and Anelisa Somana, both 19, looked up from their binders and eagerly said they are ANC members. Asked why, they cited the party's storied history and a recent increase in funding for higher education.

Then they paused.

The ANC talks a lot about the struggle, Somana said. But it doesn't transmit what that means today, said Nsibi, reaching into her bag to pull out a biography of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.

"We go and look for books on our own," Nsibi said.

"A lot of people I've spoken to feel the same way I do. . . . The ANC is trying to sell the idea that they're the ones that got us out of apartheid and that's why we should vote for them," Somana said. But, she said, "they're still the best option."

Magasela Mzobe, 27, the secretary general of the ANC-affiliated South African Students Congress, said he caught "Mandela fever" in high school and feels confident that the ANC, having ousted Mbeki, is backtracking from elitism. Those behind the "Mickey Mouse" splinter group are Mbeki stooges, he said.

But student activism has declined, he acknowledged, and his group has been losing ground in campus elections. Unlike their apartheid-era counterparts, he said, today's youths have many distractions, such as hip-hop and soccer. And national leaders have failed to tackle HIV, unemployment and other issues that affect young people, he said.

"Sometimes members of political parties, we want students to be a replica of students 20 years back. It's not possible. Society has changed," said Mzobe, who wants to be a diplomat. "We are in the era of policies now, proposals. Not slogans."

The ANC, now led by Zuma allies, has skewered the idea of a splinter party as the fantasy of a few angry Mbeki backers. Jackson Mthembu, a member of the top party committee that asked Mbeki to step down, said the ANC remains a liberation movement -- not a party -- in the midst of a long struggle to attain the Freedom Charter ideals of equality, land reform and shared wealth.

Mthembu said the ANC is working to make its policies more "watertight" and beneficial to the poor. Even the "born-free generation," he said, see glaring wealth gaps that prove the fight is not over.

"The people that we fought for, that we wanted to liberate, they are liberated, but they are still the poorest of the poor. There is nothing that can make us change our path," Mthembu said. "If some people feel that we are a little bit outdated, indeed they can move on."

To be sure, analysts say, the ANC's power lies not with college students but with people such as Cynthia Nontsinyan, 19, an unemployed mother who lives in the Soweto squatter settlement of Kliptown.

Residents in her crowded neighborhood of rusted tin shacks and stinking portable toilets complained about the government: not enough jobs. Too many thieving thugs. Police who do nothing about them. Still, everyone interviewed said they would vote for the ANC.

Nontsinyan said that the ANC is the only party whose members come to Kliptown, and that it has promised to build houses. Most important, her life depends on the government grants that sustain more than a quarter of South Africans.

"I don't think it's right," she said of a possible ANC split. "We don't know which is the right or the wrong ANC. We will be confused."

Down a mud path, Dinho Ndimante, 18, walked home from school. Ndimante, who said he dreams of becoming a pilot or traffic cop and living "anywhere" but Kliptown, will cast his first vote next year. It will be for the ANC, he said.

"They promised us to give the houses," he said softly, cradling his backpack under his arm.

"The ANC is what people on the ground know," said Jacob Molapisi, executive director of a national umbrella group of nongovernmental organizations. "Any splinter group will have to spend its time justifying itself on the basis of the ANC."

Even among the businessmen -- and one woman -- at the downtown restaurant, that has been true. Growing up in the townships, Davidson said, "the struggle was part of everything you knew," and the ANC was gospel.

But in today's South Africa, they said, those with educations rarely pick politics -- they pick money. In a country where there is often still only one black person in a boardroom, said Themba Mtombeni, 30, economic achievement is "the new struggle," one that could use a more competitive political backdrop.

"For me, anything that gives another option is good," said Mtombeni, who works for an energy company. "That's what democracy is all about. We can at least make sure that the [ANC's] two-thirds majority is no more."

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