When South African President Jacob Zuma cast his municipal vote in his home village of Nkandla, he told reporters that “casting the vote is one of the most important things that any citizen must feel proud of.”
Johannesburg resident and political analyst Mabine Seabe was much less enthusiastic, however, when he fired off this post-vote tweet: “It's not the best feeling when you vote based on principle rather than for a party you believe in.”
Long lines of voters across the country – in urban centers, sprawling squatter camps, and rural districts – should be an indication that South Africa’s hard-fought democracy is alive and well. But anger over the government’s failed promises to provide basic services like water and electricity, and the main opposition parties’ difficulty in connecting with the needs of ordinary South African voters send an opposite signal, of a country ill at ease with its political class and its present system of choosing leaders.
Today’s municipal elections – the fourth since the end of the apartheid government in 1994 – should be a way to measure public moods, since municipal governments are the ones that have the most direct effect on ordinary South Africans’ lives. But past elections have shown that even a disappointed electorate tends to vote for a certain party for racial or ethnic reasons rather than because that party performed well or not – and that voters who are disappointed enough simply stay home.
If there are significant changes in this election, however, with black voters crossing over to the mainly white and somewhat liberal Democratic Alliance, then this election could be seen as a thundering rebuke to the ruling African National Congress, which has largely held power in the majority of South Africa’s towns and cities since liberation in 1994.
In Alexandra, South Africa's largest black township after Soweto, voters and non-voters near a polling station shared complaints about the high unemployment rate, the government’s poor record at delivering basic services, and rampant corruption within the ruling ANC party.
Sophie Mavunda said she sees no purpose of voting. "Except for today, the Johannesburg Metro cops [usually] come here on a daily basis to confiscate our wares, particularly vegetables, tomatoes, bananas, oranges and other perishables,” she says. "We order these fruits at a price from farmers located 100 kilometers [62 miles] out of Johannesburg, only for the greedy Metro cops to prey on us.”
It is government officials like policemen whom South Africans tend to see as the front lines of local government, and the government’s inability – or unwillingness – to crack down on corruption among those who are supposed to enforce the laws is a sign that corruption runs all the way to the top, some South African voters say.
"How am I expected to pay rental for my shop, raise fees, and pay for food when the police are harassing me daily?” complains another resident of Alexandra, Vutivi Chauke.
Security guard Njabulo Mkhize said he would simply vote to fulfill his democratic duty, but not with any enthusiasm for any party. "My company allowed me to go and vote, but there is no reason to make me feel happy after voting," he said.
If there is one common theme that unites South African voters this election, it is that voters – both black and white – feel that the current government has neglected them.
At a polling station in Bramley Primary School, in Johannesburg’s northern Bramley suburb, nonagenarian retired Navy volunteer Bunny Marks said the ANC government cared little about the needs of the elderly. “Elderly people have been neglected for too long, and this has to come to an end today with my vote,” he said. “I could have stayed at home just like any other elderly person, but because there is something wrong, I'm here so early in order to change our plight.”
"If I can't change this gross abuse of old people, then who will?” he asked.
Zita Soicher wouldn’t tell a reporter who she was voting for, but hinted that she would not vote for the same party she had voted for in the past. "My daughter is married in Boston, the US, where I believe she is enjoying better service delivery,” says Mrs. Soicher. "But here in Johannesburg, we are suffering tremendously in the hands of uncaring and corrupt government officials.”
In the ANC stronghold of Diepsloot – which went from being an instant squatter camp in 1994 to a fully functioning township of 175,000 residents, with running water and electricity, as well as a police station and fire house today – voting queues were long but fast-moving. If Diepsloot voters – most of them black and working class – vote as they have in the past, a high turnout would likely signal a landslide victory for the ruling ANC.
But in the wealthy and mainly white northern neighborhood of Lonehill, where hundreds of voters queued up to vote, the lines are moving slowly, an indication of either bad planning or a deliberate effort to keep down votes in non-ANC areas.
“Three of the polling stations in my areas are going very smoothly,” says John Mendelsohn, a Johannesburg city counselor in the northern suburbs who represents the Democratic Alliance opposition party. “But at the Lonehill College, the IEC [Independent Electoral Commission] has slipped up very badly. They haven’t put in a system to have a quick in-and-out for voters. This is one of my key areas of support, so while it’s not that I’ll lose the election, but at this rate I’m not going to get the scale of voting that I expected.”