‘We will win’ South Africa election: ANC confident despite ‘missteps’

Is the ‘freedom’ the governing party brought to South Africa still enough for voters 30 years later?

Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) wave party flags during their final rally ahead of the upcoming election at FNB stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 25, 2024. REUTERS/Alaister Russell
Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) wave party flags during their final rally ahead of the election [Alaister Russell/Reuters]

Johannesburg, South Africa – The stadium overflowed with yellow, green and black as tens of thousands of African National Congress (ANC) faithful gathered in Soweto for the final rally of the 2024 election campaign.

Billed as the Siyanboqo Rally, a word derived from Zulu that means “we conquer” or “we win”, the atmosphere on Sunday was no different from the dozens of ANC rallies I have attended during decades of reporting in South Africa.

But this election is a different one from the six that preceded it since apartheid ended in 1994. This year is a crucial vote for the governing party that polls say risks losing its majority for the first time in 30 years.

At my broadcast position high above the enormous stage, I spoke to several ANC leaders – all of whom were confident the organisation was going to hold on to power.

It would get more than 50 percent of the votes and there was no thought of having to form a coalition and govern with another party or other parties, officials said.

Among those I spoke to was the Minister of Electricity Seputla Ramogopa, who said: “There have been missteps, but the people do have an appreciation that the South Africa of today is better than the one of pre-1994.”

Among those “missteps”: a gradual breakdown of the country’s power grid under the ANC government, which has resulted in constant “load-shedding” when electricity is switched off to numerous areas at a time because there is simply not enough power being generated to meet demand.

The power issues are just one of the examples that critics of the ANC use to contend that the party has failed to deliver on its many promises, and that it is time to drive it out of power.

‘What am I voting for?’

A short drive away from the celebrating crowds and leaders at the stadium is the low-income Soweto suburb of Kliptown.

Here, little has changed for residents since the ANC came to power 30 years ago.

Meisie Pope, 63, has lived in a small shack in the suburb for more than a quarter of a century.

Like most of her neighbours, she relies on a wood-burning stove for cooking and heat during the chilly winter nights.

Meisie Pope, 63
Meisie Pope, 63, lives in the low-income neighbourhood of Kliptown [Al Jazeera]

She takes two pairs of shoes to walk to church on Sundays – the ones she wears get so dirty in the unpaved streets that she has to change them when she arrives, not to – as she puts it – insult God.

There is no working sewage or access to clean water. Residents take water from a heavily polluted stream that runs through the area.

Pope’s is one vote the ANC will not get.

“I voted before but what does that bring for me?” she asks. “It’s still the same. If they bring change, then I can vote but at this point, I’m not voting.

“What am I voting for?”

‘We are winning’

Set in the middle of these squalid surroundings is a monument to a document that was signed here during a “conference of the people” in 1955.

The Freedom Charter was the statement of core principles of the anti-apartheid liberation movement of the African National Congress and its allies, the South African Indian Conference, the South African Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress.

Among the principles agreed to by the leaders: “The people shall govern”, “All shall enjoy equal human rights”, “There shall be work and security” and “The people shall share in the country’s wealth”.

The Charter was signed shortly before the police broke up the rally and arrested dozens of participants on charges of treason. Today, it remains a key document of the ANC – and another reminder to the party’s critics of what the liberation organisation has not achieved as it transitioned over to a government.

President of the African National Congress (ANC) Cyril Ramaphosa greets supporters on his arrival at the political party’s final rally ahead of the upcoming election at FNB stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 25, 2024. REUTERS/Alaister Russell TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
President Cyril Ramaphosa greets supporters on his arrival at the ANC’s final rally ahead of the election [Alaister Russell/Reuters]

Yet, ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa received an enthusiastic reception when he staged a “Walk through Soweto” on the campaign trail.

I first met the South African president 40 years ago when he was general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. He was at Nelson Mandela’s side from the moment the ANC leader walked out of prison and played a central role in the negotiations that brought about agreement on a democratic constitution and the transfer of power.

After the 1994 elections, Ramaphosa was one of the ANC members earmarked to enter the business community, and he became extremely wealthy.

He came back as a full-time member of the organisation in the wake of the years of corruption and incompetence displayed by the ANC and the government under Jacob Zuma.

Zuma was removed from his leadership positions in disgrace in 2018 and Ramaphosa became president of the ANC and, as the head of the majority party, the president of South Africa.

I pushed through the crowds pressing around the president during his walk and he greeted me warmly – stopping to talk.

“Why are you so confident the ANC is going to hold on to its majority?” I asked.

“I believe we’ve done extremely well to re-energise our people, to reinvigorate them,” the president said. “So I feel very confident. Actually, we are winning, whether they like it or not, it is going to happen.”

With a loud laugh and a hug, he returned to his “walk” – waving and walking through the cheering crowds that had gathered.

ANC election rally
Tens of thousands of ANC supporters filled a stadium at the last rally before the elections [Al Jazeera]

The promise of freedom

Later that day, we met up with a football coach and his players on a bare field in Kliptown.

Abram Tebogo Sithole was 10 years old during the Soweto Uprising in 1976, when Black schoolchildren started a nationwide protest against the discriminatory education system and the white minority government.

In later years, Sithole became a loyal follower and activist within the ANC.

In the decades since, though, he has become increasingly disillusioned.

He coaches young people in the evening to, as he puts it, “keep them off the streets”.  He complains that the only sign of the ANC as government is when the elections come around every five years.

“Then they come to our place because they want the support of the voters – you must sign this and that, they say, and they don’t worry about the youth.”

But then he added a line that showed how deeply the memory of the ANC as a liberation movement still resonates with many in this country.

“The main thing – the ANC has given these youth freedom.”

As the sun set on a sunny but chilly autumn evening in the squalid surroundings of Kliptown, there was one question eddying around: Would the parents of these young football players see this freedom as enough?

Source: Al Jazeera