DON'T MISS : Talking Africa Podcast – Mozambique's insurgency: After Palma, what comes next?

The South African heartland is burning

By Crystal Orderson in Cape Town
Posted on Wednesday, 20 January 2016 16:57

It is the year of the student revolt. First, in Cape Town the students took to the streets with one aim and one slogan: “Rhodes must fall.” And fall, Rhodes did – at least the statue of the arch-imperialist was finally dragged off by a crane in April. It had perched somewhat incongruously in the grounds of the University of Cape Town, which had prided itself as a bastion of liberal and progressive thinking.

Gauteng in facts and figures
➔ Meaning: City of gold (in Sesotho)
➔ Capital: Johannesburg
➔ Premier: David Makhura
➔ Population: 12,272,263 (2011)
➔ Share of South Africa’s population: 23.7%
➔ Urbanisation rate: 97%
➔ Area: 16,548km2
➔ Share of SA’s total land area: 1.4%

➔ Languages
19.8% isiZulu
13.3% English
12.4% Afrikaans
11.6% Sesotho

This victory whetted the appetite of the students. Six months later, they launched a much more politically significant campaign against the government’s plan to raise tuition fees at universities and the universities’ treatment of workers.

This time, the protests started in Gauteng, South Africa’s richest and most populous province. The nerve centre of the campaign was at the University of Witwatersrand, with its main campus in Johannesburg. As the protests took off, so did the police response. Officers fired tear gas and stun grenades, sparking pitched battles.

In November, the universities still seemed under siege. Although the protesters had won and the government had backed down, there was a heavy police presence on the campuses in Gauteng. Students were preparing for exams but many hit out at the ruling African NationalCongress(ANC)for its handling of the protests on fees and workers’ conditions.

Born frees’ have seen massive changes in their lifetimes and have higher expectations

The campaigners highlighted the situation of workers on contracts with private companies hired to run university services. Some workers complained they face a double threat: the private companies had been pushing down their wages and the workers had to pay higher fees for their children to attend college.

We spoke to 20-year-old Lerato Lehoko and 19-year-old Hlonepho Phakoe from Soweto, both second-year students at Wits. They felt ignored and said they would vote against the ANC in next year’s local government elections.

“We are going to vote, but the ANC disappointed us. They have been taking us for a ride,” said Lerato. “The student uprising will impact on the way students will vote. It’s not just the party, but the system, that I am disappointed with,”added Hlonepho.

Tipping point

Lerato and Hlonepho are ‘born frees’ – people born after South Africa had its first democratic election in 1994 – and the ANC is the only government they have known. Although they have seen massive changes in their lifetimes, they have higher expectations that are thwarted by inequality. They are furious about the barriers poor people face going to university.

“This is the tipping point. Things are going to get messy, and students are going to beat the forefront of change,” said Lerato. Several other students echoed such sentiments. “They didn’t take our protest seriously. We youth are the majority in the country, and we will bring about change in some way or the other,” another student commented.

The ANC was shocked by the protests in Gauteng and among students elsewhere. It eventually moved to cut a deal, giving the campaigners a symbolic victory. The students’ cause was celebrated across the working class in the province, which demands the free education and jobs that the ANC had promised.

Even longtime ANC loyalists no longer take victory for granted in Gauteng in next year’s local elections. In a frank assessment at the party’s National General Council, secretary general Gwede Mantashe said that the ANC would “suffer a psychological impact” if it should lose the province. ANC activists in Gauteng know the student revolt has hit their support base.

Professor Susan Booysen, a political scientist at Wits University, says the student revolt has mobilised many other groups: “There is a much more rebellious, confrontational mood amongst other forces in the country, and the ANC feels threatened.”

The ANC’s Gauteng chairman, Paul Mashatile, reiterates the message about the province’s importance for his party and the message of the student revolt. “As we move into local government elections, we are very conscious of that – that the ANC can’t lose that place. Because if it does, it’s the beginning of the end,” Mashatile tells The Africa Report.

Once dismissed as an opposition fantasy, the possibility of the ANC losing control of the major cities in Gauteng – Johannesburg and Tshwane/Pretoria – is now openly discussed.

The ANC is worried

Booysen says this would seriously damage the party at the national level: “If Gauteng falls, it will have a devastating effect on the ANC. This is the heartland. It is the other seat of government. It will pull the rug out from under the ANC’s feet. Deep down they are worried.”

With a voter turnout of almost 73% in the 2014 national elections, the ANC won just more than 53% of the vote in Gauteng – the poorest result since taking power in 1994. The Democratic Alliance (DA) managed to win just over 30% of the vote, with the new kid on the block, Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), winning more than 10%. Although smaller parties sometimes struggle to find the money and the activists to run their local election campaigns, they are often closer to the issues that local communities see as important.

A closer look at the breakdown of voting trends in the big metropolitan areas must worry ANC strategists. In the 2014 election, the city of Johannesburg’s votes for the ANC dropped by 10.1% to 52.3%. In the Tshwane metropolitan municipality, the ANC’s votes fell by 10.6% to 49.3% and by 11.7% to 55.1% in Ekurhuleni.

South Africa’s middle classes are voicing opposition on the slow pace of transformation

After studying the figures, the DA reckons it could win at least three out of the 10 municipalities in Gauteng. It believes it could take Tshwane (which includes Pretoria) and Johannesburg, making inroads in Ekurhuleni and holding onto its only municipality in the province, Midvaal.

“On any given day, we have 2,000 volunteers across the province doing door-to-door campaigning, face-to-face interactions with voters and we are dispelling the notion we are a white party,” says John Moodey, the DA leader in the province. Moodey, who hails from Johannesburg, says everyone was surprised when the DA started seriously biting into the ANC’s vote in 2014. He adds: “My driving motivation is to break the camel’s back, and it is not impossible to dream to win.”

But the DA also has to contend with a more radical rival party: the EFF. In October, the EFF showed its convening power by organising a massive demonstration in Johannesburg to march for economic change.

The EFF is confident about Gauteng, according to EFF spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi: “We want to win all the municipalities – that is the prospect. We put 50,000 bodies on the streets in October and all of them came from Gauteng. And that is a serious indication of the support we have here.”

ANC campaigners want to strengthen the party’s base. Mashatile, whose life as an activist in the sprawling township of Alexandra shaped his political career, explains: “In areas, we’re going back to basics to engage with the communities […]. The ANC, for instance, has decided corruption is going to be the number one enemy. We must be seen to be dealing with it ourselves – not just shouting slogans but real action when people mess up. We must be seen to be acting without fear of anyone.”

For the DA, Moodey and his officials hold weekly focus groups on how to build the party’s membership and get the vote out, especially in Gauteng’s outlying areas. “We are putting our money and energy where we are able to reap the best benefits,” says Moodey.

Staying in touch

For Mashatile, it is also important to show voters that the party is in touch: “Let’s listen to the people and say their concerns are legitimate. Let’s work together and try to resolve issues.” The party is also focusing its attention on the black, middle-class voting block. Gauteng has the largest black middle-class electorate: some 45% of black South Africans classified as middle-class live in the province.

South Africa’s middle classes are now voicing opposition on issues such as the slow pace of economic transformation, inflation, the costs of doing business, toll roads and corruption. Mashatile says the ANC understands these changes: “We’re going to be engaging with the middle class. They must understand that we do care about their challenges because we don’t want to say to the middle class, ‘Well, you guys are fine, we are only worried about the guys in the informal settlements.’ No, we must understand that they also have issues.”

At the same time, the EFF will be going after the ANC from the left, campaigning for all those that have been left behind in Gauteng. The EFF’s Ndlozi explains: “The sands have shifted for those that are advocating for neoliberal policies. People have come to appreciate the issue of economic freedom […]. We are on the ground to uproot neoliberal issues by the self-hating ANC.”

But as strategists from the three leading parties – the ANC, the DA and the EFF – ponder how next year’s local votes will shape the national balance of power, they should listen to those trying to eke out a living on the margins of Gauteng’s supercharged economy.

Zacherah Deliah, 65, is supposed to be enjoying his pension, but with two children at university he says he has no option but to drive a taxi to make ends meet. “We thought our life would be better under ANC rule. The ANC is our party, but nowadays people’s lights and water are switched off. It’s too much.”

Although Deliah has lived through the dramatic political changes of the past three decades, his experience typifies the many who feel their communities are getting a raw deal as the country’s economic problems mount. If those complaints are translated into votes, the country’s political landscape is in for some radical change. ●

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options