In South Africa, thirty years after the first democratic elections, the ANC is not celebrating

There was an atmosphere of the end of the reign in the air on Saturday, April 27, in Pretoria, to commemorate the thirty years of the first multiracial elections in 1994, also called Freedom Day

In South Africa, thirty years after the first democratic elections, the ANC is not celebrating

There was an atmosphere of the end of the reign in the air on Saturday, April 27, in Pretoria, to commemorate the thirty years of the first multiracial elections in 1994, also called Freedom Day. The large barnum that had been installed on the plain below the Union Buildings presidential complex was half empty. What could have been a great popular celebration was only a modest institutional ceremony with the diplomatic corps in the front row and supporters of the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party, in the background.

Because it was also an anniversary for the ANC. The old movement against the apartheid regime was born in 1912, but only took power in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president. This event took place in the middle of the electoral campaign, one month before the general elections of May 29 during which the ANC risks losing its majority.

The government therefore seizes every opportunity to boast of its record. And, in order to give substance to the progress that the population has benefited from since 1994, he invented the archetype of the "Tintswalo", supposed to embody the young thirty-something South African who would have climbed the social ladder thanks to the ANC's programs. “I am a Tintswalo and there are Tintswalos in every home,” said Ronald Lamola, the 40-year-old justice minister who entered politics through the youth wing of the ANC.

Clearing wind

A TV actor, an activist against gender-based and sexual violence and other “Tintswalo” also took the stage to share their journey and illustrate the sketch of the average young South African. But he was finally in the audience in the guise of Samkela Mzenze. This 32-year-old young woman, unemployed since 2019, is getting by thanks to the support of her family. Like her, more than 38% of South Africans aged between 25 and 34 are looking for work, according to official figures for the second half of 2023.

Although Samkela Mzenze wanted to commemorate Freedom Day, she did not come to participate in the government's self-celebration. “We, the youth, should be inspired by this event to go out and vote, for our rights and for a better government. The ANC played its role, but the time has come for new people,” she believes.

A wind of disengagement is blowing very strongly across the South African political landscape. An Ipsos poll, published on the occasion of this day, reveals that voting intentions for the ANC in the general elections of May 29, 2024 are stagnating at 40%. If the polls are true, the ANC would lose its majority for the first time in its history. Nelson Mandela's party would be forced to form a coalition government.

Long associated with the fight against the apartheid regime, the ANC benefits less and less from this memorial income. Now, more than half of the population did not experience apartheid and did not vote in 1994. The other half, the old-timers who queued to cast their ballot in 1994, remember of April 27 as a disappointed hope.

“It hurts me when people say it was better before apartheid,” said popular singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka, 59. It wasn't better. To those born after 1994, I say: you couldn't have been here, someone would have asked you to leave after five minutes. »

“We are not free.”

To the disgruntled, President Ramaphosa recalled South Africa's path to freedom. “For more than three centuries, the dignity of black people inhabiting this Earth was deliberately and cruelly denied, first by colonialism and then by apartheid […] Apartheid was an ideology and a system designed to control all aspects of people's lives. This regime sought to humiliate and demean. »

But the national narrative of liberation no longer has the same effect on voters. “Every time I hear about Freedom Day, I ask myself, what is freedom? “, asks Jennifer Heuvel, 78, sitting on an armchair in her house in the Eeufees Oord seniors’ residence, in the Sophiatown district of Johannesburg. “We are not free! We are not safe, we cannot move freely. What freedom for the poor? They live in the same conditions, they have no job, no food, no housing, they have nothing. »

Jennifer Heuvel is part of the community classified under apartheid as “colored”, that is to say mixed race. His family helps him pay the electricity bills in his cramped home where a bed and a sofa take up all the space. She does her shopping without pleasure, no financial gap is allowed. Today she lives on a pension of 110 euros. She never voted for the ANC. In 1994, she gave her ballot to the National Party, in power under the apartheid regime, then to the Democratic Alliance during the last elections. The apartheid regime “was bad,” she says today, “but at least we could live.”

Its retirement home is looked after by Vusi Nxumalo, 52, from Soweto. He remembers April 27, 1994 as an “exceptional” day. Vusi has no regrets about his vote for the ANC. “Mandela had come out of prison four years earlier and we could go and vote for him. Everyone was happy, we knew we would have a better South Africa, at least that's what we hoped for, but it didn't go that way. Our lives have changed for the worse. I may be harsh on my country, but it’s the truth,” laments the security guard while smoking his cigarette.

“We’re just babies.”

On the balance, the negative effects of a poorly redistributive economy weigh more than the progress recorded over the past thirty years. However, they are numerous, such as the adoption of a new Constitution, the most progressive on the African continent, the universalization of access to school, the organization of free elections or the electrification of the country.

“Things have gotten better for a lot of people, but too many people have been left behind. And it’s as if nothing had been accomplished. That’s how the brain works, it focuses on the negative,” says Xhanti Payi, economist for the consulting firm PwC. “South Africans don’t ask for the moon,” says sociologist Tessa Doom. “People are still demanding basic services. The government's inability to provide and maintain them is at the heart of the problem,” says the program director of the Rivonia Circle think tank. She cites as proof the government's inability to deliver the social housing promised to the poorest, who build tin shacks on often squatted land.

Africa's largest economy is also the most unequal in the world. It is creating generations of vulnerable and dissatisfied South Africans. “It’s fair to say that our society is depressed,” agrees Verne Harris, director of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The institution’s slogan, “We promised it would be better,” reinforces this feeling of disillusionment. Verne Harris worries about democratic exhaustion and a lack of interest in elections, just thirty years after obtaining the right to vote.

“South African democracy is young,” President Cyril Ramaphosa justified in a paternalistic tone. When presenting his party's electoral program on February 24 in Durban, he promised his supporters to "continue the adventure for the next thirty years." To those impatiently demanding tangible progress, he reminded that “most of the world’s democracies are over a hundred years old. We’re just babies.”