Johannesburg, South Africa – The power is off, again, in South Africa six years after the first major consumer crisis of the state-owned power company, Eskom.
The notorious “load shedding” schedule – portioned power cuts caused by failing electricity plants – was introduced to the nation’s households again last week.
This means blackouts of at least four hours a day continue to affect people’s lives.
This is not only an inconvenience to many people in the country, which is slowly losing its international reputation as Africa’s inspiring and thriving post-liberation economy and example of democratic change, it is also President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first broken promise of the year.
In December, Ramaphosa announced power cuts would only occur from the second week in January.
The deteriorating power grid, however, proved him wrong several days before the African National Congress (ANC) gathers in Northern Cape province to celebrate its 108th anniversary.
For the annual event, the ANC has mobilised members and officials from all over the country to come to Kimberley, the city where the party’s founding member Solomon Plaatje was born.
Preparations for the first rally of the year have been accompanied by a loud social media campaign by the ANC, running under the hashtag “Khawuleza” – the Zulu word for “Hurry up”.
Despite the many challenges facing the nation, the ANC is eager to spread a message of hope this Saturday.
“We are going to look at the weaknesses and shortcomings. That’s why we will give South Africans hope that things will be better tomorrow,” ANC’s Secretary-General Ace Magashule said to the media on Monday.
Looking at the state of the nation, there is a lot to hurry up about for the governing party, which finds itself at the centre of the many immediate problems haunting the once celebrated “rainbow nation”.
Besides external factors such as the crippling blackouts, a peaking unemployment rate of 29.1 percent, even worse among the youth where in the last quarter of 2019 it passed 58 percent, rising levels of inequality and a staggering economy, the party is haunted by internal conflicts that are a major obstacle on the way forward.
“The party is so divided that it can no longer focus on what is the core foundation of it,” says political analyst Ralph Mathegka and author of, When Zuma Goes, and, Ramaphosa’s Turn.
While the party represented numerous black South Africans in their struggle for liberation, personal power struggles within have led to deep fractures that manifest themselves as two rivalling camps: a group around Ramaphosa and one around Jacob Zuma, the former president who – accused of fraud, money laundering and racketeering linked to a multibillion dollar arms deal – was removed from office by his party in 2018 after years of institutionalising corruption in government.
“We thought Ramaphosa would bring unity,” says Mathegka. “But if there is one thing I can say about Ramaphosa’s presidency which is very distinct, it is that it has actually resulted in an institutionalisation of divisions within the party.”
This makes it hard to tackle any of the country’s problems which, according to Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, outgrow party politics.
“They are symptoms of broader problems in the society,” he said.
The significant one being economic exclusion.
“South Africa changed its political system in 1994, but it didn’t change the way the economy ran, and it didn’t change the way the society ran. The way the economy and the society ran before 1994 was that most people were excluded,” says Friedman.
Many black South Africans remain shut out from economic participation 25 years after the fall of apartheid.
A diagnostic issued by the World Bank in 2018 underlined the struggles of today have historical roots.
“If you are a young black person living in a low-income township and you are smart and energetic, the chances of you finding a space in the economy are very slim,” says Friedman, adding people’s only way out of the dire situation is to join party branches in the hope to access resources and move into the middle class.
The only “real question we should ask is: How are we going to make sure that the people who aren’t in jobs can earn decent livelihoods and contribute to the economy?” asks Friedman.
Friedman says the party is aware of the structural challenges the country is facing. “Everything is very well understood. But when one faction says there is a problem, the other faction is the cause of the problem.”
In the days leading up to the events during which the party issues its annual policy statement, the party communicated the “coming of brighter days”. The ANC was not available for comments on how it was planning to move forward.
“The Zuma years”, characterised by scandals of state capture and a growing internal division, have translated into the ANC losing ground among its electorate with the party missing the 60 percent mark last year for the first time.
This was seen as a significant blow for the party that remains the one and only party many black people in South Africa would ever cast their ballot for – for loyalty reasons and a lack of other options given the weak opposition with the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the EFF.
It was during the nine years under Zuma that “panic among the voters” spread, says Goodman Dinga, once a loyal ANC voter whose faith in the leadership has faded.
“It was good under [first President Nelson] Mandela. And good under [second President Thabo] Mbeki. Now, people don’t trust in the ANC any more, because there are no jobs and corruption is everywhere,” Dinga said.
On his minibus commute to work as a security guard, he passes people sleeping on the streets every day.
“People eat what they find in the bins, they sleep on the doorsteps because there are no jobs,” says the 53-year-old.
He speaks of schools in rural areas that have no rooves and hospitals where load shedding has led to the collapse of the intensive care unit.
“Politicians are busy pointing at each other instead of looking after the people,” Dinga said.
He is not alone. At 66.05 percent, voter turnout during last year’s election was at an all-time low, a sign the ground the ANC has been standing on is slowly cracking.
An increase in service delivery protests also indicates a growing demand for change among the population.
And still, despite the grim state the country finds itself in, the door for improvement is not closed.
“Things can start to change because there are problems which people experience and which they believe need to be fixed. And pressure is building up right now,” concludes Friedman.
This glimmer of hope remains even among people who seem to have given up like Dinga. But, for this, reform is necessary.
“Only if Ramaphosa decides to try other means,” says the security guard, then things can change.