Two days before Christmas, fire swallowed 350 corrugated iron shacks in the informal settlement of Valhalla Park on the impoverished flatlands just outside Cape Town. Fourteen hundred people were left homeless.
In the days that followed, South African authorities promised that this time, finally, the destitute area would be fast-tracked for a long-overdue upgrade and would be rebuilt with safer electricity, cleaner water, and firebreaks. The words "basic services" were used again and again.
The images of scorched earth and frantic residents dragging belongings out of the fire’s path are not new: shack fires have erupted for years. But they are the latest reminder that South Africa remains deeply divided, and that 20 years after Nelson Mandela helped liberate the nation from apartheid, tens of thousands still live in places where an overturned stove can incinerate the neighborhood.
This spring, South Africans will hold national elections for the first time since 2009 in a vote that will chart their future in a post-Mandela era. Mr. Mandela’s African National Congress party has ruled nonstop since the nation's transition from apartheid to majority rule in 1994.
And while much has changed since then, much has not. The coming election is turning into what may be a national "reckoning" in which the issue of inequality, and whether anyone can be trusted to address it, looms large.
Some think South Africa may be teetering on the brink of a desperate social crisis that could turn violent. Others see it as entering a relatively peaceful and modest period of “muddling through” problems and taking advantage of two decades of positive changes in many areas.
In the post-Mandela era, there are in fact many solid fundamentals. South Africa remains the region’s chief economic power. In a relatively short time, the nation lifted many of its once-excluded third-class citizens into the middle class and even into the wealthy elite. A new generation of young people, called the “born free,” never directly experienced apartheid and were raised in a climate of optimism that they have not lost. The coming election marks their first opportunity to vote.
Those conditions feed into a broad angry sentiment in places like Valhalla Park over the poor delivery of such basic social services as electiricity, water, housing, and sanitation. So far this year, over 150 basic service protests have broken out across the country; some turned fatally violent. Five years ago, there were 24 such protests, according to MunicipalIQ, which compiles and analyzes data about South African municipalities.
“Democratic South Africa is reaching its moment of reckoning,” says prominent commentator Adam Habib. He calls for a new social pact, urging both wealthy elites and the poor to temper their expectations to avoid a potentially nasty fight between those with means and those without.
Others, like Servaas van der Berg at the University of Stellenbosch, think that after all is said and done, South Africa’s future will mostly look like the modest but stable present. With the current growth rate hovering around 2 percent, there will continue to be more winners and some losers.
“It’s not a great scenario. We aren’t rapidly pulling people out of poverty and rapidly changing social dynamics in this country,” says Mr. van der Berg. Yet he sees “moderate and sustained improvement across a fair spectrum of things.”
Re-mapping the political field
The course of affairs will certainly be shaped by the policies of its leaders. Currently, the state of Mandela's ANC ruling party, a former liberation movement, is an important open question.
Just this month, the nation’s largest trade union withdrew political support from the ANC and even called for President Jacob Zuma’s resignation – a symbolic blow to the party’s uninterrupted lock on power.
At the same time, the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, seems unable to credibly threaten the ANC at the ballot box. This has spurred other parties to step up their promises to clean house and refocus attention on poverty and growth.
On what might be called the civic clean-up side of the political spectrum is Mamphela Ramphele and her new party. Ms. Ramphele is a well-known anti-apartheid activist who is taking aim at what she calls entrenched culture of corruption. She has made her personal finances public and dared Mr. Zuma, who was booed at Mandela's funeral in Soweto, to do likewise.
On the other side of the spectrum is Julius Malema, a kind of black nationalist known for playing the race card. He is a former ANC leader and a colorful firebrand who festoons himself in military berets and advocates for the nationalization of key industries and white-owned land, a policy that Robert Mugabe has championed in next-door Zimbabwe. But Mr. Malema is kept on a short leash by Zuma’s allies and does not appear likely to score well at the polls.
What does link all of Zuma’s opponents is a focus, at least in rhetoric, on practical issues of service delivery such as water and housing. In some areas, evidence of recent service improvements is visible. But in other rapidly growing townships and sprawling settlements, where immigrants and local job-seekers have migrated, it is not.
The issue of living space and services is “extremely urgent,” says Jaap de Visser, who runs the Community Law Center at the University of the Western Cape. Mr. de Visser says the issue of services could threaten the “grand compact” of social peace that followed apartheid in the early 1990s.
But while many agree that something must be done, the government is often at odds with itself over how to both expand job opportunities and improve living conditions for the poor.
A new start?
Not far from where the shack fire devastated Valhalla Park, the Cape Town Anti-Land Invasion Unit, a group of specially trained officials, recently trundled through the winding streets of yet another informal settlement. The unit, tasked with preventing further overcrowding, has an ominous mandate: to destroy illegal shacks that the owners don’t remove themselves.
And so for hour after hour, a caravan of genial cops stood guard as independent contractors in blue jumpsuits demolished newly-built shacks with lengths of rebar pipe. They smashed shack after shack, collapsed houses and businesses, destroyed front yards and walls, as angry residents helplessly looked on.
At one stop, shack owner Zixolisile Fanti frantically waved off the demolition. The cops obliged and stood by while Mr. Fanti ripped apart his own house by hand. Fanti, who says he sells piping for a living, built the shack because he was tired of sharing a room with his sisters and mother. He plans to reuse the metal sheeting. “I want to build again, because I have no place to sleep,” he says.
Yet in other parts of South Africa and among different groups, one finds genuine optimism. Boitumelo Mngqi is from the “born free” generation – the social group that is presently attracting deep curiosity, getting praised for open-mindedness, lambasted for apathy, and stereotyped before its members have even had a chance to cast their first votes.
Ms. Mngqi studies chemistry at the University of Johannesburg. Her parents are devoted ANC supporters. Wearing a bright yellow sweater and a smile, she says she will probably also vote for the ANC next year.
But she hasn’t made up her mind. Her parents, she says, “grew up in different circumstances. I’m an individual and can make my own choices.”
Reporting on this story was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.