Young South Africans Chafe Under the Party Mandela Built

Millions of young black voters born after the end of apartheid have known little but poverty and marginalization following years of ANC governance

 

ALEXANDRA, South Africa—A quarter-century after Nelson Mandela became this nation’s first black president, his African National Congress is struggling to overcome skepticism from an unlikely part of the electorate: young black voters born into a democratic South Africa.

Heading into national elections on Wednesday, support for the ANC and its president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is lowest among the so-called born-free generation, born since Mr. Mandela became president in 1994.

High youth unemployment, an ailing education system and near-daily revelations of government corruption have made many born frees, as they are known, question what the ANC has to show for its 25-year dominance of South African politics.

Their disaffection is a brewing crisis for the ruling party, which is on course for its worst national result since 1994. The ANC, however, is still expected to gain a majority in the May 8 vote—including among young voters—due to its superior organization, its unparalleled reach into rural areas and a lack of viable alternatives for many voters.

A recent opinion poll by IPSOS South Africa, saw 55% of 18- to 24-year-olds supporting the ANC, compared with an overall expected result of 61% for the party. Earlier polls, which included undecided voters, saw support for the ANC drop below 50% among young voters.

“We have tried the ANC way and we are still living in squatter camps and dirty places,” said Priscilla Sewedi, a 25-year-old mother of three who shares a tiny shack with her children on the banks of the polluted Jukskei River in Johannesburg’s sprawling Alexandra Township.

Almost half of South Africa’s 58 million residents were born since Mr. Mandela became president. By the next general election in 2024, they are set to be the majority.

The ANC was swept to power in part on a wave of support from young black voters hungry for change after decades of racial segregation and inspired by Mr. Mandela’s dream of a Rainbow Nation.

Yet, many of those born since then have less loyalty to the ANC. Young people are less likely to have registered to vote and less motivated to come out on election day even if they are registered. A recent poll by Cape Town-based research firm Citizens Surveys found that nearly a third of 18 to 29-year-olds who are registered to vote were unlikely to cast their ballots.

Among them, almost two-thirds said they don’t believe the economy will improve over the next year, while nearly 90% said they thought corruption was increasing, despite promises from the ANC and Mr. Ramaphosa of a “new dawn” for South Africa.

Across the highway from the almost exclusively black shantytowns and public-housing blocks of Alexandra where Ms. Sewedi lives, sit the glittering high-rises of Johannesburg’s Sandton business district, a favorite address for wealthy white South Africans and the black middle class.

Themba, above, an 18-year-old in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg who didn’t provide his surname, said he hasn’t decided whether to vote in the coming election, unsure whether it will make a difference. Cecilia Tirhani Hlongwane, 24, below, another so-called born free in Alexandra, said she won’t vote. ‘What’s the point?” she asked. ‘Nothing changes ever.’

 

For young black people growing up here, Mr. Mandela’s Rainbow Nation looks stillborn. Instead, many are flocking toward the hard-left, black-nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters headed by the charismatic Julius Malema, dubbed by supporters as the “commander-in-chief of the poor masses” and once the leader of the ANC’s youth wing.

Mr. Malema and the EFF have called for blacks to invade white-owned land and want workers to take shares in all companies operating in South Africa. They have accused Mr. Mandela of selling out black South Africans by agreeing to protect private property as part of the postapartheid settlement. Polls indicate that the EFF will double the 6% share of the vote it got in 2014, closing in on the main opposition Democratic Alliance, a centrist party supported by most white South Africans.

“Land grabbing is the only way, it seems,” said Ms. Sewedi, wearing a red T-shirt with the slogan “Our Land and Jobs Now,” at a packed EFF rally this week.

She pays 900 rand (around $60) in rent to the owner of her shack, but Ms. Sewedi said she feared eviction from the informal settlement and worries that the dirt and poor living conditions exacerbate her 7-year-old son’s asthma.

“Ambulances take a long time to get there when he has an attack,” she said.

Taking the stage at the rally, Mr. Malema homed in on divisions that still plague today’s South Africa. “How do white people sleep in Sandton when they see their neighbors like this?” he roared, as the audience nodded in agreement. “They are scared of us. And they’ve got reasons to be scared of us. Because they know that they are eating alone.”

Even today, nearly half of black South Africans don’t have enough money to cover food and other basic needs. The average annual income of white-headed households is nearly five times that of black-led homes, according to the national statistics office.

The EFF has tailored its program to young, black South Africans. It is popular on university campuses, having spearheaded high-profile protests against tuition fees that pushed the ANC to introduce free tertiary education—including small cost-of-living grants—for poor and lower-middle-class students. Some of the party’s other demands have also seeped into the mainstream, most notably expropriation of land without compensation, which the ANC plans to include in the constitution.

“The EFF is the only party that assists us,” said Lonia Maledza, 24, who studies electrical engineering at an Alexandra community college. Two years ago, she said, her college canceled the second semester due to a shortage of lecturers. Results regularly get delayed because of staffing issues, she adds. “We have to be treated the same as white students.”

But not all young South Africans are drawn to the EFF. “I don’t see a party that has policies that speak to my aspirations,” said Anathi Nyadu, a 24-year-old media and human-rights graduate. Any that appear to, she said, “I find it hard to believe that they will do what they say.”

Mr. Nyadu, who works as a teaching assistant at the University of the Free State in the central city of Bloemfontein, said he was turned off by the ANC after years of escalating allegations of government corruption under Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, and the limited improvements in living conditions of his fellow black South Africans while they have been in office.

“Now, 25 years later, this Rainbow Nation was not enough,” Mr. Nyadu said. “There were other things that needed to be fixed, but they didn’t get fixed.”

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Picture: Thandi Ntobela | Photographs by Samantha Reinders for The Wall Street Journal