Shiraaz Mohamed/AP
A resident attempts to extinguish a fire in a burning storeroom on church property set by angry residents protesting the replacement of Pretoria's mayoral candidate in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, South Africa, June 21.

Ahead of Pretoria mayoral contest, a comeuppance for S. Africa's ruling ANC

Riots erupted last week after the ANC chose to swap the incumbent for a newcomer to run in the Aug. 3 vote. Many see a wide gap between party leaders and the public that could influence national elections. 

As Thoko Didiza waved and smiled through a downtown pedestrian mall in South Africa’s capital Friday morning, she could have been a politician almost anywhere in the world. She shook hands and cooed at babies, handed out flyers and posed for selfies.  

But behind Ms. Didiza’s chipper whistle-stop tour was a week of ash and broken glass. Only hours after the ruling African National Congress party announced her candidacy for mayor of South Africa’s capital the previous Monday, riots had erupted. Over the next four days, five people died and hundreds of buildings and buses were reduced to burned-out husks across the city.

Demonstrators said they had never been properly consulted on the party’s choice to swap the incumbent, Kgosientso Ramokgopa, for Didiza, a newcomer to city politics, in the upcoming Aug. 3 local elections. Their protests had a stark message: We didn’t ask for this candidate and we don’t want her.

For the past two decades, South Africans have largely accepted that democracy often plays out this way – in the backroom negotiations and party conferences where party candidate lists are drawn, torn up, and reshuffled, rather than on election day itself. And the ANC has long celebrated itself as a “big tent” movement, ideologically roomy and rowdy with internal disagreement and dissent. Even if the party has won every national election since 1994, many here have reasoned, its internal democracy is enough to keep its power in check.

But the protests in Pretoria – among others that have rocked the country in recent months – suggest many believe that is no longer the case.  A generation after the end of apartheid, South Africa is preparing for local government elections in which, for the first time, the ANC could lose several major municipalities – including Pretoria and Johannesburg, the country's economic heartland . That, in turn, could set up the party, a century-old liberation movement that has ruled South Africa since the advent of democracy, to face its first potential major national losses in the 2019 general elections here. 

“There’s a major disconnect between the ANC at leadership level and the ANC of ordinary members,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a political commentator and research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation, a Johannesburg-based think tank. “We shouldn’t be asking ourselves ‘why now’ but instead, ‘why not?’ The party has been building to this for years.”

The riots began Monday evening, shortly after the announcement of Didiza’s candidacy. That night, ANC members torched 19 buses in the township of Mamelodi, which the party quickly decried as apolitical hooliganism (“70 percent thuggery, maybe 30 percent unhappiness,” declared ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe. But by the following day, the protests were spiraling outward, engulfing several of the city’s townships – the historically black neighborhoods on Pretoria’s peripheries that, a generation after the end of apartheid, remain economically malnourished and underdeveloped.  

Like many demonstrations in this deeply fractured country, the rioting seemed to be at once about everything and nothing at all. Protesters decried their lack of say in the mayoral race, but also slammed the party for corruption, cronyism, and poor service delivery – roads, schools, electricity – in the areas where they lived. Some demonstrators targeted foreign-owned shops, claiming they were enraged that little had been done to provide economic opportunity to South Africans before foreigners. And still others lobbed sexist insults at the new mayoral candidate, claiming she was too weak to govern.

But behind these tangled political motives was something more elemental – a violent anger at the state of South African society.

“People took to the streets because they felt there was no other way to express their discontent,” says Karen Heese, an economist with Municipal IQ, which tracks protests across South Africa. “That’s one of the main drivers of protests in South Africa in general.” 

More broadly, she notes, protest is a mainstay of how South Africans express concern over problems with their infrastructure, schools, public safety, and other governance concerns. In the first four months of 2016, Municipal IQ calculated there was at least one protest against a municipality every other day in South Africa.

Ironically, however, many of those who protest violently against the ANC also end up voting for it come election day, Mr. Matshiqi notes.

“What we will most probably see in this election is that communities that have come out in protest will still give the ANC a high approval rating and people will be confused, but you must remember that sometimes a vote for the ANC is actually a vote against the opposition,” he says. “Many, many people in this country feel there is simply no credible opposition to the ANC.”

Pabalelo Maisela isn’t sure if that’s true. The 23-year-old Pretoria resident is among South Africa’s so-called “born frees” – the first generation born and raised after the end of racial segregation. She says that although her parents’ and grandparents’ generation have a lifelong loyalty to the ANC – “because they took care of us” – she is more skeptical. In the last election she voted for the Economic Freedom Fighters, an upstart party with a message of economic redistribution and upliftment.

“Why couldn’t the ANC stop this violence? That’s what I keep asking myself,” she says. “As long as we keep voting for them, there’s no change.”

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