As South Africa Looked Itself in the Mirror
South Africans went to the polls yesterday (May 8, 2019) in the country’s sixth democratic elections since 1994. Some say the elections were the country’s biggest since the end of White minority rule 25 years ago. The Apartheid system of White minority rule, which became official state policy in 1948, crumbled after a long and bitter struggle. It was only in April 1994 that Blacks were allowed to vote for the first time in their own country. Final results from yesterday’s election are expected to be released within seven days. In fact the country’s Independent Electoral Commission had managed, in past elections, to release the results within three days of voting.
The liberation struggle for a non-racial South Africa, carried out through bloody and violent social turmoil, has arguably left indelible marks on the psyche of the majority Black South Africans. At the vanguard of the liberation struggle was the African National Congress (ANC), which was founded on 8 January 1912 by John Langalibale Dube as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC). Its avowed primary mission was to forge unity among Africans of various hues to enable them defend their rights and freedoms. These included giving full franchise to black and mixed race South Africans. However from 1948 when Apartheid became official state policy, the movement began agitating for the end of the discriminatory system. In 1923, the organisation became the African National Congress, and in 1929 it supported a militant mineworkers' strike. Despite this support for militant unionism, its protests and activities remained largely non-violent. But this changed in March 1960 with the Sharpeville massacre in which 69 black Africans were shot and killed by the police, with hundreds wounded during a largely peaceful protest. The ANC was banned on April 8 1960, forcing it to form the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) to fight the Apartheid system using guerrilla warfare and sabotage.
Post- Apartheid South Africa, which officially began with the outcome of the country’s first free and fair elections in 1994, cannot be divorced from the bloody history of the long liberation struggle. Several African countries including Nigeria, and a group of southern African states called the Frontline States regarded themselves as stakeholders in the fight against the Apartheid regime and invested heavily in it. The Frontline States (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia) were formed in 1970 to co-ordinate their responses to apartheid and formulate a uniform policy towards apartheid government and the liberation movement. Today, Black South Africans have turned against their former benefactors in episodic waves of ‘Afrophobia’ (which some wrongly call xenophobia – since only Africans are usually the targets of such attacks).
Though fighting xenophobia was one of the campaign issues in the election, it was framed more in terms of demonstrating a resolve to fight the menace - with very little conversation on the link between the identity crisis and self-hate promoted by the Apartheid system and the contemporary behaviour of some Black South Africans. A Black South African travelling to another African country would often say, “I am travelling to Africa”. Understanding the link between the Apartheid system and the liberation struggle on the one hand and the contemporary behaviour of some Black South Africans will, in my opinion, lead to a different strategy of attacking the problem of Afrophobia from its roots.
While the ANC has been weakened by infighting, allegations of corruption and some disruptive executive changes since it came to power in 1994, its support among South Africans remains quite strong. It is expected to retain its majority status in parliament and secure a full term in office for incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is serving out the term of former President Jacob Zuma, who resigned from office on February 14 2018. Despite its challenges, the ANC has managed to hold a majority of the seats in the South African National Assembly since 1994, being re-elected with increasing majorities in 1999 and 2004, and with a slight fall in its majority in 2009 and 2014. The leading opposition parties in the election include the official opposition Democratic Alliance, (DA), the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) - a splinter party of the ANC led by the expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema; the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi; the National Freedom Party (NFP), which was formed in 2011 by some disgruntled IFP members and the Freedom Front Plus (a conservative, White separatist party formed in 1994). All together some 48 political parties took part in the elections.
Key issues in the elections included corruption within the government and government owned enterprises, land reforms (in which the ANC has promised to accelerate land redistribution through expropriation from the Whites in a way that will not negatively impact on food security), youth unemployment, crime and electricity crisis (blackouts caused by long-running and ongoing problems from mismanagement and corruption at the state utility company, Eskom).
Polls have predicted the ANC may win up to 65 per cent of the vote; the DA is expected to win up to 20 per cent of the vote while the EFF is not expected to win more than 15 per cent of the votes.
Despite the challenges in post-Apartheid South Africa, the fears in the run-up to the 1994 elections that black South African governments might unravel the economic and industrial accomplishments the country recorded under White minority rule, have largely failed to happen. The country, despite its challenges, has remained an economic, industrial and technological pacesetter in the continent with South African conglomerates playing crucial roles in several African countries as they never managed to do under Apartheid. Even the ANC, accused by some Black South Africans of not having lived up to expectations, has been able to economically empower several Black South Africans (including the incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa). It also claims to have built some 4 million houses since 1994.
Post-Apartheid South Africa, just as the country was under Apartheid, remains effectively two countries in one –a largely poor and crime-infested one for Black South Africans and a wealthy and relatively peaceful rich one for the Whites. What the two South Africas have in common is that neither seems to have come to terms with its African identity.
Recall that on May 8 1996, on the occasion of the passing of South Africa’s new constitution, Thabo Mbeki, who was then the country’s Vice President under the presidency of the iconic Nelson Mandela, gave a speech entitled ‘I am an African’ on behalf of the ANC. Part of the speech read:
“I am an African.
“I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.
“My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter-day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun. The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightning, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope.
“The fragrances of nature have been as pleasant to us as the sight of the wild blooms of the citizens of the veld.
“At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito.
“A human presence among all of these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say - I am an African!
“I am an African.
“I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa.
“The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, and of Somalia, of the Sudan, of Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear.
“The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share.
“The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair.
“This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned. The evolution of humanity says that Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes.
“Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now! Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!”
I feel that the May 8 2019 election in South Africa was not just about winning or losing power but of the two South Africas looking themselves in the mirror and honestly reflecting on whether they are living up to Thabo Mbeki’s 1996 call for a national rebirth.
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