Is the ANC losing its grip on South Africa?

 

Many Bitou residents feel the ANC has not done enough for them

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Stunning beaches, impoverished townships, vast potential and a persistent sense of crisis - welcome to Bitou, a place that seems to encapsulate many of South Africa's enduring contradictions.

But could this isolated, sun-drenched, struggling municipality also represent something more intriguing? Might it just be a weather vane for the nation's future political direction at a time of growing uncertainty?

Memory Booysens is rather hoping so.

Mr Booysens - a lean, nattily dressed 43 year-old - is the new mayor of Bitou, a township in Western Cape province, 530km (330 miles) from Cape Town.

He is also, in the colourful assessment of his former colleagues from the African National Congress - the party that has run South Africa since democracy prevailed 18 years ago and is poised to meet for a key five-yearly conference - "a perpetual liar, a traitor and a political prostitute".

Mr Booysens earned those insults by swapping sides. And winning.

Start Quote

Memory Booysens

This was endemic - it was part of the fabric of how the ANC was running the town”

End Quote Memory Booysens Bitou

He used to be a senior official in the local branch of the ANC. But he says he became horrified by, and outspoken about, the endemic corruption he believed had come to define the town's ANC-run administration.

He was expelled from the party, joined the opposition Democratic Alliance, and in short order became mayor when the ANC abruptly, and unexpectedly, lost its majority in the last local election 18 months ago.

"When we took over it was shocking. We hadn't realised the municipality was insolvent. It was corrupt from top to bottom - councillors were doing business with the municipality," said Mr Booysens, who is now bogged down in a series of legal battles against former employees and suspect tenders, in a forlorn effort to claw back some money.

The previous mayor, Lulama Mvimbi, told me the allegations of corruption were lies, deliberately spread in order to boost support for the DA.

Death threats

Mr Mvimbi earned some notoriety for leasing a top of the range BMW.

He said it was needed for security, and wasn't his personal choice. The car has since been returned, but it evidently touched a nerve among voters tired of seeing the ruling elites flaunt their new wealth.

map

"This was endemic - it was part of the fabric of how the ANC was running the town," said Mr Booysens, arguing that the councillors were simply emulating the corruption that they saw in the ruling party's national leadership.

Today, a bodyguard walked behind the mayor, as he set off into the narrow alleys of a local township - wooden shacks precariously balanced on a steep hillside. "I'm very fortunate to be alive," says Mr Booysens, who wore body armour for several months after his election, because of fears that his political rivals would try to kill him.

"He's lying," said Phakie Mbali, another local ANC official. "There is no police report to say he's been threatened."

He acknowledged that factionalism within the ANC had prompted some voters to "lose trust" with the party, but he said the DA had run "a campaign based on fear and intimidation". The ANC's councillors, he insisted, in an unintentionally ambiguous phrase, "are the custodians of corruption".

Mr Booysens pushed deeper into the township, and was quickly surrounded by a group of men who wanted to know when electricity would be installed. One local said it had been six years since they'd had power.

The mayor told them that a deal had just been reached with the local landowner and the power company, and the electricity would start flowing within a fortnight.

Another chance

"I was ANC last time, and I'm DA now," said Christina Nikisi, standing outside a new wooden house built by the local authorities after her old shack was destroyed in a fire. "I'm changing because the ANC is not doing well. Not enough. I think the mayor is going to do well," she said.

Christina Nikisi Christina Nikisi thinks the new mayor will change Bitou for the better

Mr Booysens said he still encountered some hostility from the public, but "that's changing, especially because people are sick and tired of the factional fights in the ANC".

"People see me as fair, because I don't ask them who they vote for. I treat them all as citizens."

But frustration with the status quo does not mean that South Africans are abandoning the ANC in a flood. It routinely wins almost two-thirds of the national vote.

"Our democracy is still 18 years old," said Kenneth Magaga, who works at a recycling initiative in Bitou. Like many people, he believes the ANC needs "a chance to work on those mistakes. I don't think there is any government that can fix what happened in South Africa in 18 years."

The fundamental question for the DA - which has steadily increased its share of the national vote with each election - remains this: are Memory Booysens and Bitou an anomaly, or are they a sign that the DA is now on track to seize power from the ANC across South Africa, perhaps before the end of the decade?

Mayor Booysens struggled to find an easy answer.

Democratic Alliance on the up

  • 1994: 2% of the vote - in national election
  • 1999: 10% - in national election, becomes official opposition
  • 2004: 12% - in national election
  • 2009: 17% - in national election; wins Western Cape province
  • 2011: 24% - in local election

Source: Independent Electoral Commission

"It's very difficult to break that loyalty [to the ANC]," he admitted frankly. "The reason is that a lot of us are uneducated and we don't base our vote on issues, we base it on sentimental things.

The ANC tells people to vote for the ANC to please Nelson Mandela. But people need to understand that the values of Mandela are alive within the DA. The ANC is just lip service. So the more uneducated people we have - the better for the ANC."

His rivals in the ANC bitterly reject that interpretation, pointing to a hillside covered with new homes built by the municipality. "We got awards for the best service delivery," said the former Mayor, Mr Mvimbi. "We built houses, created employment, built tar roads and infrastructure for the poor."

Later in the afternoon, the mayor walked down to the beach to chat with the lifeguards and a handful of foreign tourists.

Plettenberg Bay is one of South Africa's most stunning chunks of coastline, and the town was bracing itself for the arrival of thousands of students who come each December for the "Plett Rage" - a riot of post-exams music and excess.

'Blind loyalty'

The DA has been through numerous re-branding exercises since its origins in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 80s, but in the eyes of some people it remains a "white" party, led by a white woman, Helen Zille, and somehow out of touch with the core values of black South Africans.

"It was difficult for my family to accept it at first," said Mr Booysens, sitting on the beach. "We tend to believe that there is no political life for blacks outside the ANC, which is not true," he added.

Mr Booysens warned that time was running out for South Africans to abandon the ANC before it plundered the state, wrecked the judiciary and constitution, and drove the nation towards "dictatorship".

ANC supporter (file photo) The ANC is set for what could prove to be a bitter leadership election

Such alarmism may be compelling to some - and it's a logical, self-serving narrative for an opposition party looking to pick up more votes.

But in Bitou the truth is that, despite some threats and more than a hint of violence, the ANC has surrendered power. It's an experience that the party is slowly becoming familiar with in municipalities across the country.

"We are democratic people. We accept the will of the people. We must now go back to the drawing board," said the ANC's regional chairman Putco Mapitiza.

As for Mr Booysens - he insists he has no regrets.

"This is the most diverse party in South Africa. I'm kicking myself for taking so long to leave the ANC. I was loyal. Blind loyalty," he said wistfully, as his bodyguard stood behind him, watching the surf.

 
Andrew Harding, Africa correspondent Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 16.

    I have also heard just how bad the corruption was in the Western Cape under the ANC and what is described by Mr Booysens is exactly as I have heard it. The ANC are milking South Africa dry yet when the leaders are bought to task then it all seems to be swept under the carpet except in the Western Cape. Lets hope the DA is able to do something for the rest of South Africa.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 15.

    @10 FYI There are many black people in South Africa that say they were better off during Apartheid. Now I am completely against Apartheid and what it represented but if people that suffered under Apartheid are saying this then things have gotten bad. I remember there being an MP who stood up in Parliament and said that she was ashamed of the ANC as the education system was better during Apartheid.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 14.

    ANC survived this long because of its struggle to abolish Apartheid led by the vision of Mandela.Now South Africans are exercising their God given right that appplies to all irrespective of colour.This in turn may weaken the domination of ANC and people have to be ready to accomodate other rival Parties with out loosing the Vision of Mandel that focus on Coexistence

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 13.

    Let the people of South Africa create their own future

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 12.

    Booysens: "It's very difficult to break that loyalty [to the ANC]. The reason is that a lot of us are uneducated and we don't base our vote on issues, we base it on sentimental things" - like loyalty, like Nelson Mandela.
    If only Mandela were healthy & able, willing to voice his own concerns about what the ANC has become, & speak to giving the DA a chance.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 11.

    ANC is inter-meshed with loving, respectful memories of Mandela; it's hard for S. Africans to caste off a great hero, accept that his party has become corrupt & unworkable. DA should be out there, in the field, explaining that Mandela's ANC is not SA'S current ANC & allowing the current ANC to continue is really a betrayal of all Mandela stood for.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 10.

    4.The Bloke - "......I'd bet that for many SA blacks, apartheid was no worse than the current situation............."



    Really? What makes you say that?

    Things may well be far from great in SA right now, but to compare the issues of today, which essentially amount to the same issues faced by most democracies (us included to a large extent), with apartheid is frankly ridiculous.....

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 9.

    As well as corruption from the ANC there is also 'tribalism' and nepotism in the development projects which have begun. It's a shame, a beautiful country with many people who are kind, friendly and prepared to work hard betrayed by some leaders who are only interested in their own self-aggrandisement.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 8.

    Why is that as soon as a political party/nation state/freedom fighters et al get main stream power for more than a few years that elements within the group start acting like the fascist regimes they replaced?

    Power corrupts & all that I suppose......

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 7.

    Dear Andrew,
    Think about this, you are standing on a beach side in South Africa, in the night. And you are untangling a long, thin, black and winding piece of thread with a lot of knots. How would you find it? Easy?

    Please enjoy your untangling and best regards.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 6.

    I'm far from a Mandela worshipper but he did a lot of good once in government. Unfortunately since his retirement the average black South African has redirected the mostly deserved loyalty felt toward Mandela to the ANC. I guess that when he dies the spell will be broken and the ANC will be in its final term... just like Putin was until he changed the Russian Constitsution.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 5.

    The ANC needs a reality check. It seems to think that it has an automatic mandate because of South Africa's history - but it now has to prove that it can be a modern, visionary democracy, Instead it has many of the negative traits of parties in its fellow African states. The ANC has not grown up as much as the people of South Africa have and they deserve better than the ANC in its current form

  • rate this
    -7

    Comment number 4.

    I really wish the BBC would stop lionising the ANC and the apartheid struggle.

    I'd bet that for many SA blacks, apartheid was no worse than the current situation.

    I would love to see the ANC lose, be in opposition, win again and lose again, to genuine opposition, so there is real democracy, not just the kleptocracy perpetrated by people the left love to love.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 3.

    ANC is poised to stay in power for years because of its role in bringing down apartheid. Disgruntled black voters choose not to vote at all rather than cast ballots for the main opposition Democratic Alliance, seen as the party of white privilege. The ANC has drifted far from its roots.
    DA must
    - demonstrate ANC drift &
    - counter-act its white image.
    SA is waiting, hungry for change.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 2.

    If the ANC is losing its grip on SA, this is because of the current leadership. Since becoming president, Zuma has worked exclusively on managing the ANC: cementing his position by using power of patronage and selective prosecution for corruption. He has ignored governing completely: doing and saying nothing unless forced. However, the DA has failed to take much advantage from this. So far.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 1.

    Is ANC losing its grip on SA? Not fast enough!
    I see the key problem as Mandela; Mandela = ANC; he is a hero. Nelson Mandela's former liberation movement turned 100 this year; it has helped many blacks move into middle class.
    But the ANC of today is not Mandela's ANC.
    If Mandela were to issue a statement, it might make all the difference.

 

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