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Wave of public discontent as South Africans prepare to go to polls

Supporters listen to a speaker during a May Day rally in Durban, South Africa. (Reuters/Rogan Ward)

Over 26 million South Africans will cast their votes for a new government on 8 May. Even though the ANC is leading the polls, competition from opposition parties may not be as damaging as the growing dissatisfaction brewing among the people of South Africa.

25 years after the fall of the apartheid regime, the African National Congress took the helm of the country with Nelson Mandela leading a new democratic South Africa, free of racial discrimination. Today, marred by successive corruption scandals and allegations of looting state resources, the ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa – President since 2018 – faces the challenging task of regaining the trust of the people.

“There is a lot of discontent among the people, a lot of commitments which were made in 1994 have not been met,” admits Rapulane Molekane, South Africa’s Ambassador to France. “We have experienced a huge economic meltdown which affected the plans of the African National Congress. This has made people’s patience run thin.”

Ramaphosa inherited the position as South Africa's president from Jacob Zuma in February 2018 after being elected party leader in December 2017. He pledged to “turn the tide of corruption” and established a new investigation unit within the National Prosecuting Authority.

“The President has set up a number of commissions of enquiry and these enquiries are digging up a lot of dirt, a lot of things that went very wrong. And these are making people quite angry. And all this is happening in the year that we are going into elections,” adds Molekane.

President Ramaphosa admitted that members of the ANC were responsible for the state capture.

“Before the state was captured, it was the ANC that was captured. As the Zondo Commission unfolds, clarity will become more apparent on that. The ANC has been brave enough to admit that,” Ramaphosa told a gathering in Lynnwood, Pretoria on Monday 29 March.

But South Africans reacted to their President’s statement and said it was “just not good enough.” They demand to know what the people in power intend to do to reverse the crippling consequences rampant corruption inflicted on the country’s health.

“We require time to do things properly and correctly. We are a country that believes in the rule of law. The commissions of inquiry that have been set up are a work in progress.

“It is frustrating and painstaking but there is a process you have to go through. Democracy is something that grinds very slowly,” Molekane explains.

Crucial youth vote

26.74 million voters have registered to vote in the 8 May polls, out of a population of 57.7 million. Among the registered voters, 5.65 million belong to the 18-29 age group. According to the Independent Electoral Commission, registrations among the 18 to 29 are at the lowest in at least a decade even though they constitute the biggest segment of the voting population.

Rapulane Molekane (2nd L) at a South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) press conference in 1988 to launch a campaign against the death sentences of liberation fighters. (Rapulane Molekane)

The South African youth belongs to a generation who didn’t grow up under apartheid and is less forgiving towards their elders who fought in the liberation struggle. They are the generation of #Zumamustfall and, far from being apathetic, are engaged in virulent protests to demand accountability and improve their situation.

“The majority of people [in South Africa] are young. They will be the ones that determine who governs the country. [Even if] a majority of them have not registered to vote,” observes Molekane.

Only 50 per cent of South Africans under the age of 29 are registered to vote in this year’s general election. A research conducted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) indicates that young South Africans feel “alienated from formal politics and have little trust in politicians.”

The young people ISS interviewed said that even though their families have always voted in past elections, they couldn’t see meaningful improvements in their communities. Namely when it comes to high unemployment, poor infrastructure, access to quality and affordable education and fighting corruption.

Militant turned diplomat

Rapu, as the ambassador is known to all, started out as an ANC militant when he was only 15-years old and took part in demonstrations against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, Rapu Molekane was a member of COSAS, the Congress of South African Students, then a member of the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) and later one of the leaders of the ANC Youth League.

Rapulane Molekane at Orlando stadium in Soweto in 1988 during a rally to relaunch COSAS, Congress of South African Students which was banned in 1985. (Rapulane Molekane)

He was also involved as a combatant in underground activities during the struggle. Molekane was arrested and tortured. And testified to that effect to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“It was a necessity to be involved in struggle and to endure the difficulties that we had,” says Molekane.

It was Nelson Mandela himself who selected Molekane to be part of the civil service. After the 1994 elections, he was elected and served as an MP. Mandela told him that he was wasting time in Parliament and would better serve his country in Foreign Affairs.

“Life as a diplomat is not necessarily boring and slow. I don’t have to face bullets and torture, but it can be exciting as I see myself continuing with the struggle, continuing to fulfil the promises that we made in the Freedom Charter, the promises made when we acquired power in 1994,” declares Molekane.

When Mandela took power in 1994, the majority of the people in the civil service belonged to “the old order”. Late President Mandela wanted a strong civil service with people that could both understand the policies and the aspirations of the South African people.

Molekane took part in the CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) talks in 1991/2 as a leader of the youth wing. He believes that the negotiations skills demonstrated during these discussions were a prelude to his career as a diplomat.

“During the times of struggle, I learnt a lot about just being patient and knowing that things take time to change,” added Molekane.

May 8 will be the sixth round of elections, since 1994, where a record 48 political parties will be contesting the 2019 polls. These elections will bring in the fourth president of the country since the end of apartheid.

South Africa’s three elected presidents since 1994 – Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma – have all been presidents of the ANC. Will 66-year old Ramaphosa, seen as a heir to Mandela, secure his post as President of the “rainbow nation”? We’ll know when results will be out on Saturday May 11.

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt

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