Big turnout in South African elections

Voters express frustration with ANC, but a large turnout favors the ruling party.

Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science monitor
In Diepsloot, South Africa, voters line up to cast their votes on Wednesday in parliamentary elections. Voter turnout has been high, at an estimated 80 percent of 23 milion registered voters.
Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science monitor
Ngwako Makgaba, a social worker who works with AIDS patients, says that this election is as important as the one that gave South Africans freedom from apartheid in 1994.
Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science monitor
Francinah Mohale, an unemployed mother, says she is frustrated with the ANC and won't vote for them this election. "We are struggling, we are hungry," she says, noting that the ANC has not done enough to provide better housing, drinking water, electricity, and other services to South Africa's poor majority.

If the long line of voters outside the Diepsloot Combined School is any indication, then today's elections are among the most important in the history of post-apartheid South Africa.

They began arriving before dawn, hours before the Diepsloot polling station opened. They defied the chilly cloudy autumn morning for their chance to tell the ruling African National Congress (ANC) just what they were thought of them.

"It's all about hope," says Ngwako Makgaba, a social worker who works with AIDS patients. "In 1999 and 2004, it felt just like a formality to vote. But this time, I think it's about change."

The unexpected election of a black president of the United States, Barack Obama, has also made young voters here feel that they can make major changes in their society, too.

"The fact that America voted in the first black president in the US was thrilling to people here. That has motivated young people here, that we can do it [make changes] as well," says Mr. Makgaba.

Why the big turnout?

Around the country, voting was peaceful, and voter turnout was on track to be the highest since 1994, when South Africans voted out the pro-apartheid National Party and ushered in majority rule under the ANC's leader Nelson Mandela.

High turnout could favor the ANC, since the vast majority of South Africa's population are poor and black, and while voters criticize the ANC for failing to deliver on its election promises, they see the ANC as the strongest voice for their demands.

The higher turnout seems to be driven as much by public enthusiasm for (or revulsion toward) the ANC's new populist leader, Jacob Zuma, as it is by a palpable desire for dramatic change, a sentiment expressed by all social and economic levels here.

"We are struggling here, we are hungry, we need a better life," says Francinah Mohale, a jobless mother from Diepsloot, who says she has been searching for work for nearly three years. "Some people don't have homes, they live in shacks. The drains are blocked. The streets are filthy. There is no work. This government has to create jobs, to build more schools, to make a better life for all."

Pre-election polls, conducted by Ipsos Markinor, show that the ANC will get about 65 percent of the vote, but fall short of a two-thirds majority that allows it to dominate the parliament now. Parties that cater to the middle class, both black and white, such as the Democratic Alliance and the newly formed Congress of the People (COPE) (a split-off from the ANC) are likely to gain roughly 11 percent and 9 percent respectively.

Urban frustration with ANC

While the ANC expects to gain at least half of its votes from rural areas, it is urban townships like Diepsloot that present the ANC with its greatest challenge.

Diepsloot itself is as old as the ANC government. Fifteen years ago, when Mr. Mandela was sworn in as South Africa's first black president, Diepsloot was an open field north of Johannesburg's most northern suburbs.

But then the field filled with people setting up temporary shelters so they could be close to the jobs and prosperity that they expected would come in Johannesburg under an ANC government.

Now, with a population in the hundreds of thousands, Diepsloot is a dense slum of tin shacks, dirt roads, and ditches full of sewage, a place where poorly paid public school teachers, office clerks, and domestic servants live side by side, and commute to work in the city before dawn, often by foot.

The frustration felt here in Diepsloot is palpable, a frustration of high expectations that the ANC would take better care of their black voting base.

"In my first election, in 1994, I voted for the ANC, because I think they will do well," says Olga Mahlangu, an unemployed mother with a 9-month-old daughter, Prudence, tied to her back. She says there is not enough housing available for people, and shortages of water and electricity in townships. "This time, I'm voting for COPE. We tried ANC, but it was promises, promises, every day, and they did nothing."

Suburban frustration with ANC

In middle-class areas, the frustration is, if anything, more powerful. White and black middle-class voters alike say that corruption in government agencies has lowered the standards of education, the quality of roads, and their ability to conduct business.

"The ANC got comfortable, and if you're comfortable, you don't perform well, do you?" says Telao Lekalake, a civil engineer, living in the Johannesburg suburb of Bloubergsrand. "I'm hoping that  a stronger opposition will create competitiveness, and if the ANC loses certain provinces, whoever wins will make sure they perform well, and that puts pressure on the ANC to perform well."

Velaphi Mpolweni, a banker, says that the excitement of this election comes from the fact that people sense that change is finally possible.

"For me, this election will strengthen our democracy, because now, there's a choice," says Mr. Mpolweni. "This is a great country, and we have a fascinating history, but it's up to us to just change a few things, and it will be even better."

The view from a country club

At a polling station at the swank Killarney Country Club, domestic workers and neighborhood residents who arrive in Porsches and BMW SUVs, patiently stand in a line the length of a football field. After casting her vote, Zarina Bulbulia, sticks around after hearing that Mandela might cast his vote there.

"In past elections, there was no doubt but to vote for the ANC, but this time it is different," says Ms. Bulbulia, a project manager for a special education company who is in her mid-30s. "People are a bit disillusioned and betrayed that the ANC has not delivered."

Then Bulbulia stands on her toes as hundreds of people began singing and shouting "Viva Mandela!" as the man affectionately known as Madiba slowly makes his way to the ballot box, smiling broadly and waving at the throngs of voters and photographers.  

Mixed ANC support in a township

Far from the flashing strobe lights, about 10 miles from where Mandela voted, a group of about 200 people stand outside a white tent in the old township of Alexandra where Mandela had briefly lived before his 27-year incarceration by the apartheid regime.

The sprawling township is a study in contrast, islands of tiny shacks of corrugated iron surrounded with mile after mile of newly built brick homes.

Jafta Ndlovu says he's voting for the first time. "I am here to vote for my party, the ANC," he says. "This time they need me."

Under the ANC, life has gotten better every year, says Mr. Ndlovu, a young deli manager at a large supermarket chain. "People like me are getting into management. Slowly but surely, things are getting better," he says.

"Just look around you," he adds. "Look at all these houses, look at the Gautrain behind you."

He points to a railway station being built in Alexandra as part of a fast-rail link that would connect Pretoria (Tshwane) and Johannesburg to each other and the country's major international airport.

Constance Mashathi echoes those views, noting that the government had given her an educational grant that has allowed her to find work selling insurance for ABSA, one of the country's major banks.

"You can see the changes right here," says Ms. Mashathi, with her year-old son strapped to her back. "Housing, water, toilets."

But inside the nearby corrugated iron shacks, the ANC is seen in a less sanguine light. "We have no water, no electricity, one toilet for all these families to share," says one woman who didn't want to give her name. "We are not happy with the government."

Anger toward immigrants

The tiny compound where the woman lives is divided into two houses, one of which is occupied by an immigrant Mozambican family.

In a reminder of the simmering anger that native South Africans feel against African immigrants who, they feel, are competing for jobs, a graffiti near the entrance reads, "Mazimodoia, go back to Mugabe," in a reference to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

"People in these shacks are angry at the ANC," acknowledges Sinah Gwebu, an ANC member who represents parts of Alexandra in the Johannesburg City Council. "Some of them may not vote for us this time."

Ms. Gwebu takes the possibility so seriously that she has opened a small grocery store next to her house. "I will have something in case they don't vote me in next time," she says.

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