The ANC was set to emerge from victory on Wednesday, into a country that is a far cry from the one it ushered into democracy in 1994.
And perhaps nothing heralded the end of an era quite like the passing of old man Nelson Mandela on December 5 2013.
For the rest of the month last year, the whole world appeared to take a collective breath to lionise one of the most important statesmen of modern times. South Africans were in particularly introspective mood, many waxing lyrical about Mandela’s magnetic charisma, judgment and pragmatism, his incomparable capacity to forgive, which all combined to keep South Africa from imploding in the terrible months before the first democratic elections in 1994.
Madiba is gone of course; but the African National Congress (ANC) that romped to a resounding election victory 20 years ago is still the party to beat as projections showed it had clinched its fifth election victory on May 7. But many things have changed.
As has South Africa; and the people who call it home.
While South Africa has made serious progress since the end of apartheid, there are some signs of the trouble ahead. The recent financial engineering that allowed Nigeria ($509.9-billion) to overtake South Africa ($322.6-billion) as the continent’s largest economy might be smoke and mirrors, but the spectacular numbers have concentrated the minds.
See, for reasons only Britain (the empire) and USA (since 1914) can understand, South Africans have been quite proud of being top dog in Africa. Until early April they had the largest and most modern economy, by far the best universities, a host of blue chip companies in retail, finance and industry, several representatives on the famous Forbes list of billionaires, and a functioning democracy just years removed from the opprobrium of apartheid.
While Standard Bank, M-Net, MTN, Shoprite-Checkers, Vodacom, Murray & Roberts and Co., continue to expand across the continent and beyond, there is stagnation back home.
For one, the ruling ANC is intent on promoting a brand of politics that is as ideologically strange (it supports unbridled capitalism, but it’s in a ruling alliance with the South African Communist Party and Cosatu, the country’s largest trade union), as it is insincere (many of the party’s high and mighty have become immensely wealthy, while millions of ordinary South African are still desperately poor).
Ironically, the poor South Africans are at the heart of the ANC’s support base. And because they are often uneducated and live in rural areas, their support is partly a shared identity with the party of liberation, never mind that the ANC has been in power for 20 years now.
South Africa is however, also highly urbanised and it is in the peri-urban areas where a serious threat to the ANC is slowly emerging. This has manifested in service delivery protests that have steadily increased from 162 in 2008 to 470 in 2012, according to the Social Change Research Unit at the University of Johannesburg.
Another recent survey by the Institute for Security Studies concluded that there are an average of 4-5 protests a day around South Africa. And in Gauteng, South Africa’s richest province and the engine of much of its growth, police estimates put the protests at 500 in 2014 alone, with 100 of them turning violent.
Disenchanted young men and women will be seen singing struggle struggles as they burn tires, over-turn garbage cans into the streets, stone police vehicles, and occasionally smear government buildings with faeces. Their complaints are almost always the same. There is high unemployment (officially at 24 percent, but unofficially thought to be close to 40%. The lack of water, electricity, toilets, decent schools for their children are big too. As is the lack of action against rampant corruption at local and national levels, which many blame for their problems.
Because it runs the national government, eight of the nine provinces and all the major cities except Cape Town, the ANC has nowhere to hide over these protests. The party’s response has not often been stellar either.
There is for example, the little matter of over R250-million ($25-million) of tax-payer funded upgrades on the private home of President Jacob Zuma in rural KwaZulu Natal. Some of the alleged security upgrades were comically disguised too - a swimming pool was referred to as “fire pool,” while the kraal, lifts and houses for his extended family were all deemed to be central to the president’s security.
Yet while this and similar excesses have angered many white South Africans as some of the growing black middle class, the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s main opposition party is viewed with suspicion outside its traditional white and “coloured” constituencies. The rest of the opposition to the ANC is way too insignificant.
There are observers who argue that the point of rapture will only be reached when (and not if) the ANC splits down the middle, into conservative and radical wings.
Such a scenario would make national and local politics more competitive; and elevate South Africa to the political horse-trading common in Europe. It’s only then, these observers argue, that the ANC will take its mandate for a “second liberation” seriously.
As things stand, the party, and the country are in a spot of bother.
And Nelson Mandela is no longer a fall-back position.
Sim Kyazze is a Ugandan journalist living and working in South Africa.