South Africa election: Growth 'not been strong enough'

A child climbs past defaced election posters in Bekkersdal township, South Africa Image copyright Reuters

On Wednesday South Africa has its fifth set of elections since the historic day in 1994 that saw the country's first non-racial elections.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has won every time and it is expected to win this time as well. But many parts of the country seem to have gained little from the past two decades of freedom.

Bekkersdal is not on the South African tourist trail - far from it. This small township and squatter camp of about 80,000 people is about an hour's drive south-west of Johannesburg.

It is close to the gold-mining town of Carltonville, and from Bekkersdale's outskirts you can see the mine shaft towers rising above the veldt.

They hold the winch gear that takes the miners down and brings the gold back up. But you would not think this township is sitting on a pile of gold.

Bekkersdal's run down, but lively, centre is all but surrounded by a shanty town with open sewers and no running water. Whatever electricity there is, tends to be stolen from nearby power lines.

Here, people live in shacks, and heaps of rubbish pile up alongside the road. Few of them have formal employment - jobs seem to be as scarce as other services.

And it is this lack of basic services and allegations of corruption that have seen anger boil over into violent street protests in recent months.

Locals say the benefits of 20 years of freedom and democracy have passed them by. There is great dissatisfaction and disillusion with the ruling ANC, both at the local and national levels.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The ruling ANC is not concerned with them, say many in Bekkersdal

ANC have 'lost touch'

Like many in the town, 25-year-old Katana Oliver Boniso calls himself a concerned citizen.

He is a member of the "People's Parliament", a non-affiliated grass-roots organisation that has sprung up to address the needs of local residents.

He says such a body is necessary, because the ruling ANC is no longer bothered with the plight of the poor.

The ANC "lost touch immediately after 1994", he tells me.

"The only thing I got was to go to the bank with the white person, to queue at Shoprite [a supermarket chain] with a white person.

"I watch on television, people squandering money that should have been used to better my life."

Qedani Mahlangu is an ANC member and sits on the executive committee for the province, Gauteng.

She says the ANC has, in fact, provided services to Bekkersdal.

"For the record, we've built a lot of houses there, there are places that were not there before [1994]. There are new schools and new clinics. All is not lost."

Image caption Street sweepers in Bekkersdal - but only a few residents have jobs

Haves and have-nots

But in South Africa, whether the country has gained or not, largely depends on where you're standing.

The ANC has built more than 2.5 million new homes, and brought water and electricity to millions who previously didn't have it.

Economic output, as measured by GDP, has nearly tripled to $402bn (£236bn). The black middle-class has doubled in size and one in five South Africans has moved up the income scale.

South Africa is also much more peaceful than it was in the early 1990s, when it was truly staring in to the abyss - the crime rate remains high, but has been falling.

Yet problems persist.

Five million jobs may have been created in 20 years, but this has made little change to the unemployment rate, currently running at 25.2%.

Labour unrest is common - platinum miners have been on strike for three months. And educational standards have plunged - the country now ranks 146th out of a list of 148 drawn up by the World Economic Forum.

South Africa is also one of the most unequal societies in the world.

If you're one of the "insiders", then you are part of a dynamic, world-class economy where real GDP per capita has risen by 40% in 20 years.

If you are an "outsider", then you are mostly likely unemployed, living in a shack with precious little sanitation.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption For many South Africans, the state of the economy is a priority

'Under pressure'

Mmusi Maimane is the opposition Democratic Alliance's candidate for the premiership of Gauteng province.

For him, the inequality in the economy is storing up problems.

He says: "I think this first economy will come under pressure, because even the tax output coming out of that will start to diminish, and I think the ANC is writing cheques now that they won't be able to bank in the long run."

On average, South Africa's economy has grown by 3.3% over the past 20 years. This is a figure many Western economies would be envious of, but it ranks way below the average for developing economies.

According to the IMF, the average growth for emerging economies over the same time period was 5.4%. The average for Africa was 4.8%.

The country's pace of growth has simply not been strong enough, says the co-chief executive of Standard Bank, Ben Kruger.

"It's not enough to create jobs and it has not been proper inclusive growth to deal with many of the socio-economic problems that we still face."

'Big stomachs'

While the ANC can be credited with lifting many South Africans out of poverty, back in Bekkersdal, Katana is angry that he is not one them.

He blames what he sees as a culture of corruption from local government right up to the highest corridors of power.

But he also blames the ANC for not finishing the revolution - for being co-opted, he says, by white capital.

The ANC "have got big stomachs, they are driving around in big Mercedes", he says, "how about the people that were promised a better life for all?"