In S. Africa, Looking Beyond ANC

The ANC has deep roots among poor people such as Dinho Ndimante, 18.
The ANC has deep roots among poor people such as Dinho Ndimante, 18. (By Karin Brulliard -- The Washington Post)
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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 19, 2008

JOHANNESBURG -- On a recent evening at a swank downtown eatery here, a table of young black entrepreneurs sipped cocktails and talked politics by candlelight. They were symbols of the new South Africa: Raised in all-black townships, they now own suburban homes, pricey cars and stocks.

To their parents, politics meant one thing -- the African National Congress, the liberation movement that has been the ruling party since apartheid was brought to an end in 1994. Now the party is on the verge of a split, and to these young South Africans, that sounds like progress.

"To date, the ANC's been the obvious choice. It's time to change a little bit," said Ndumiso Davidson, 28, who works for a private equity firm. "We fought for freedom, and freedom was attained."

That fluid loyalty might be typical in most multiparty systems. In South Africa, however, it hints at what some here think is a turning point toward a new revolution in this nation's young democracy: a future in which the ANC is not in charge.

After nearly 100 years as an organization, the ANC is racked by infighting and beset by criticism that it has succumbed to factionalism and careerism. The party last month forced out President Thabo Mbeki, a rival of ANC leader Jacob Zuma, himself a polarizing populist accused of graft. Mbeki loyalists have announced plans for a new party that they say will reclaim ANC values.

No one thinks the ANC will lose next year's elections. It remains a mighty electoral machine with deep roots among the rural and poor masses.

But some pollsters say voter disillusionment could erode the party's two-thirds majority. That is partly, analysts say, because the ANC is led by liberation-era figures whose revolution rhetoric is losing resonance among generations that have spent much or all of their lives in freedom.

"This is the party that overcame the apartheid struggle. This is the party of Nelson Mandela. I think we haven't completely got through that phase," said Adam Habib, a political scientist who is deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. "But young people are losing their attachment to the ANC. They want it to deliver."

Since 1994, the voting bloc loyal to the ANC has declined steadily as voters turned their focus from liberation to day-to-day issues, according to a recent University of Cape Town study. But, the study said, their votes have not typically shifted to opposition parties. The ANC dissident group, which has outlined no policies, seems to want to tap that constituency. One insider told the Mail and Guardian newspaper that its goal would be to "modernize" and "drop the language of Stalinism."

In interviews, many young South Africans praised the ANC for having ushered the country in just 14 years from oppressive white rule to guaranteed freedoms, the continent's biggest economy and a political system in which the recall of a president sparks debate but not bloodshed.

But many bemoaned the party's failure to control galling poverty and the AIDS, crime and unemployment rates and said it has grown bloated by power.

On a recent afternoon on the sun-drenched Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg, Ipeleng Mashao, 21, said he had grown so disenchanted that he would vote only if a splinter party were on the ballot.

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