South Africa elections: ‘Tintswalo’ sends a message to the ANC

The ANC’s election setback is the natural result of years of ignoring voters’ concerns and demanding loyalty over past accomplishments.

south africa
People queue to vote in the South African elections, in Langa, Cape Town, South Africa on May 29, 2024 [Esa Alexander/Reuters]

In the lead-up to the May 29 elections in South Africa, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) went to great lengths to draw attention to the socioeconomic advancements the country made in the past 30 years in a desperate attempt to win favour with an electorate increasingly disillusioned with its governing capabilities.

Most famously, in his State of the Nation address in February, President and ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa tried to highlight the long-term achievements of his party through the tale of “Tintswalo” – a fictional Black woman born in 1994, within months of the fall of apartheid and the ANC’s rise to power.

“Tintswalo – democracy’s child – grew up in a society that was worlds apart from the South Africa of her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents,” Ramaphosa said. “She grew up in a society governed by a constitution rooted in equality, the rule of law, and affirmation of the inherent dignity of every citizen.”

He went on to explain that this imaginary young woman grew up in a public mass-housing scheme for poor South Africans, received state-funded education and healthcare, graduated into a well-paying job, and is now living in a nice house with plenty of reason to look forward to the future.

According to the president, the inspiring, uplifting story of Tintswalo was the story of most young South Africans and an allegory for the massive progress made under the ANC.

This is not wrong. There are many South Africans whose living conditions and future prospects improved significantly under ANC governments over the past 30 years.

Despite this, however, the tale of Tintswalo failed to convince many South Africans to vote in another ANC government on May 29.

The ANC party received just 40.18 percent of the votes, well short of the majority it had held since the all-race vote of 1994 that ended apartheid and brought the party to power under Nelson Mandela. It now has to find a coalition partner to form a government.

So what was behind the ANC’s election setback?

In short, it seems that many “Tintswalos” across the country had enough of the high levels of crime, unemployment, poor service delivery, and corruption that came to define South Africa today. They had enough of being told that they should be grateful just for being (at times marginally) better off than their parents, who suffered for years under apartheid. They had enough of struggling to make ends meet as ANC’s many corruption scandals were swept under the carpet. They had enough, and sent a message to the governing party by voting for the opposition.

This rebuke by voters did not come as a surprise to the ruling party. The ANC had long been aware that many of the party’s long-term supporters were unhappy with its recent performance. It had already promised to correct course, end corruption, improve public services, and fix the economy many times over in the past few years.

Over six years ago, in January 2018, then-President Jacob Zuma initiated the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State.

In May 2019, while that investigation into state capture was still under way, the ANC was re-elected with its then-lowest vote share of 57 percent. In a relatively subdued victory speech, Ramaphosa said he viewed decreasing support for the party as a “clear message” from the people, and vowed to combat corruption within the ANC.

In 2022, after a four-year-long investigation, the State Capture Commission published its report and revealed that it found multiple incidents of corruption within South African government departments and state-owned enterprises during the presidency of Jacob Zuma. The entire party apparatus was implicated, including many high-profile MPs and officials.

Despite the report’s damning findings, and Ramaphosa’s supposed commitment to ending corruption within the party, however, there has been no meaningful accountability or change in the way the country has been governed since then.

In June 2023, News24, an online publication, released an in-depth investigation into the lavish lifestyle of Paul Mashatile, the deputy president of the country and the ANC, accusing him of corruption.

The investigation laid out in great detail how the friends and family of the deputy president have consistently secured profitable government tenders and benefitted greatly from their proximity to a powerful ANC figure.

Mashatile refuted the accusations levelled at him, claiming the “potentially damaging, yet unsubstantiated allegations” are false and “he is committed to his oath of office and the principles of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa”.

Such serious accusations directed at its deputy leader should have sent the ANC into an absolute panic 11 months before the most contested poll in the nation’s post-apartheid history. One would have expected the ANC leadership to demand Mashatile’s immediate resignation or at least to order an independent investigation into the claims made by News24 journalists. Mashatile, the deputy president in a government elected on a promise to stamp out corruption, could himself have resigned and demanded an investigation to clear his name.

Nothing of the sort happened.

Despite the dark shadow hanging over him, Mashatile stayed on as ANC deputy president and played a pivotal role in the 2024 electoral campaign.

It was only in February 2024, after the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party formally filed corruption charges against Mashatile, that the ANC-controlled South African parliament’s Ethics Committee took action and requested explanations. Despite ongoing investigations, Mashatile remains part of the ANC’s top brass and is expected to continue playing a prominent role in any future ANC government.

Ramaphosa himself has faced allegations of corruption, too.

In 2022, he was accused of attempting to conceal the 2020 theft of $4m in cash from his game farm, raising questions about how he acquired the money and whether he declared it. A probe carried out by the Public Protector, South Africa’s anti-corruption watchdog, cleared him of any misconduct in March 2023, yet the police said they will continue to investigate. The left-wing opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party described the watchdog’s findings as “nonsensical”, and many voters remained unsatisfied with the president’s explanations about the affair.

Beyond the farm theft saga and allegations about the conduct of his deputy, the data shows Ramaphosa has made almost no progress in combatting state corruption and wastefulness during his term as president.

Last November, the Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA) revealed that it recorded more than 22 billion South African rand ($1bn US) in financial losses attributed to wasteful expenditure and irregularities from the state since 2019.

Corruption is not the only reason why so many South African voters turned their backs on the ANC in this election. The rapid, ongoing decay of public services was undoubtedly another reason why so many decided not to vote for the ruling party.

Indeed, many early achievements of the ruling party – achievements that really made a difference in the life of “Tintswalo” – were reversed and erased in the past few years.

For example, in its early years in power, the ANC was quick to build the infrastructure needed to give the majority of South Africans access to piped water. During ANC’s first decade in power, South Africa was cited as a global leader in the provision of water supply and sanitation.

However, lack of proper maintenance, neglect and frequent power interruptions caused the water infrastructure to degrade and many urban and peri-urban areas in the country to turn to systematic water rationing. As a result, many South Africans, who grew up with reliable access to safe water thanks to the ANC, are now uncertain when they will have water in their taps next.

There are similar issues with energy and transport networks.

Inadequate upkeep of power plants and insufficient development of new energy sources amid high-level corruption have led to severe electricity shortages and frequent power cuts.

The railway system too is crumbling from underinvestment, lack of maintenance, criminal activity, and corruption at all levels. The sorry state of the railways is also adversely affecting other sectors, such as agriculture and retail, and impeding critical economic activity.

With a paltry 0.6 percent economic growth in 2023, South Africa has also struggled to address unemployment and create new jobs.

Since the 2019 election, Ramaphosa and other ANC officials have consistently listed unemployment, poverty, crime and corruption as the key issues affecting South Africans.

Still, the party did not remove the high-ranking officials implicated in the State Capture Report from its 2024 parliamentary list, supposedly because they had not been charged. In the eyes of many voters, the decision to stand by and further promote officials accused of corruption demonstrated the ANC’s indifference to the issue.

Like many other liberation movements turned political parties in the region – such as Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF – the ANC is confronted with the challenge of being led by men who were legendary freedom fighters but are now struggling to reinvent themselves as capable and principled public servants.

Seemingly unable to satisfy the growing demands of a populace that fully acknowledges the achievements made after 1994, but prioritises the immediate delivery of effective services and transparent governance, the ANC finds itself in political free fall.

Coddled in the expansive trappings of wealth, privilege, and state power for 30 years, ANC’s leaders have gradually lost touch with everyday South Africans who are struggling and desperate for socioeconomic change.

So the decrease in electoral support for the ANC should not come as a surprise to anyone.

It is simple: “Tintswalo” had enough, and she demands more from her government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.