JOHANNESBURG — Voting, like life itself in South Africa, has long been divided along racial lines.
The black majority mostly backs the African National Congress, which has ruled since the fall of apartheid in 1994, and most white voters choose the opposition Democratic Alliance, whose power is strongest in the white-majority state that includes Cape Town.
When South Africans vote on Wednesday, opinion polls show, those color-coded patterns will remain mostly true: The ANC is widely expected to remain in power. But those same polls also show growing white support for the ANC, and growing black support for the DA and other parties, underlining a decline in traditional allegiances that could shape a new generation of politics here.
“The broad frame is changing, and there’s lots of flux, emotionally and intellectually, for all South Africans,” said David Everatt, the head of the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, whom the ANC hired to lead its internal polling. “It is not a truism anymore that South African elections are essentially a racial census.”
A quarter-century has passed since South Africa ended white-minority rule with its all-encompassing system of segregation and monopoly on force. But apartheid has survived both geographically and economically: South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal societies.
White South Africans make up less than one-tenth of the population but own most of the country’s land and control almost all its wealth. Less than half of the working-age black population is employed. The indelible apartheid-era patchwork of dense black “townships” and fenced
-off white suburbs persists across the South African landscape. The country has the continent’s most industrialized economy, but black South Africans live on the periphery of its main engines.
An increasing number of black voters feel that the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, has betrayed its quest for black empowerment and has become corrupt, nepotistic and mediocre. At the Democratic Alliance’s final campaign rally in Soweto, the vast suburb of Johannesburg that is home to mostly poor and middle-class black South Africans, the crowd was full of the disaffected.
Katie Kobedi, 67, said she applied for a house 23 years ago under the ANC’s ambitious plan to build millions of them for the vast population crammed into slums under apartheid. She’s still waiting.
“I hate the ANC,” she said at the DA rally. “If you don’t have any connections in the party, then you don’t get any benefits. I am an old woman and I still live in my mother’s house.”
Nkele Huma, 71, lives down the street from the stadium where the DA rallied. She lives alone and uses a walker to stand. Recent rolling blackouts meted out by the mismanaged state-owned power company Eskom have left her sitting helplessly in the dark for long stretches.
“I used to vote for the ANC because they took us out of apartheid,” she said. “But now they are stealing. We voted for them and now they abandoned us.”
The DA, for whom Kobedi and Huma both plan to vote, argues that capitalism, not the ANC’s welfare state, is the key to reducing inequality. The party is capitalizing on the anger of older South Africans who feel betrayed, and younger ones, like Khathu Rasilingwane, 29, who have degrees but can’t find jobs and feel the country “has moved backward since the end of apartheid.”
Dozens of black attendees at the DA rally said they were fine with disproportionate white ownership and voting for “the white party,” if it meant they could get jobs.
The tide of mistrust in the ANC has propelled the DA to power in some cities, including Johannesburg, the country’s largest city, and Pretoria, the capital.
The DA elected its first black leader in 2015, Mmusi Maimane, the first in party history to speak passionately about racial justice. But the perception that the DA is fundamentally a white party, fueled by the obvious disdain many of its members have for the 38-year-old Maimane, has meant its support base is still mostly white.
Meanwhile, some white South Africans have pledged to vote for the ANC for the first time in their lives. In Gauteng, the state where both Johannesburg and Pretoria are located, almost a quarter of white respondents were considering voting for the ANC, according to Everatt’s polling, up from less than 5 percent in past elections.
The shift comes as the ANC’s leadership has passed from Jacob Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa, a former business magnate who many South Africans perceive to be less corrupt. Zuma was accused of racketeering and embezzlement.
A judicial commission is conducting a “state capture” inquiry into alleged ties between Zuma and the Gupta family, business executives who have won giant state contracts. Zuma faces 18 charges of corruption, including more than 700 counts of fraud and money laundering. Both Zuma and the Guptas have denied wrongdoing.
Ramaphosa’s popularity in the white community in particular has opened up the possibility for the ANC to win back lost ground in South Africa’s wealthier cities. Ramaphosa was a central figure in the ANC’s anti-apartheid struggle but has since become one of the country’s wealthiest men, working closely with powerful white business owners in a way that other ANC leaders have shunned.
“With Cyril, the ANC feels like it has a chance and is campaigning in white areas for the first time, where you can’t just go around blaring liberation songs,” Everatt said. “They’re having to pull up to quaint farmers markets or present at business expos. It’s unheard of.”
Still, many white South Africans expressed embarrassment at the prospect of voting for a party associated with corruption. None of the half-dozen white voters who told The Washington Post they planned to vote for the ANC for the first time agreed to be quoted by name, for fear of social repercussions from white friends, colleagues and family.
“It’s quite exciting to me to vote for the ANC finally. I’ve always admired them but didn’t want to contribute to their monopoly on power, which led to so much corruption,” said a 38-year-old architect in Johannesburg who has always voted DA. “But with Cyril, it’s different. They could be the good guys now. I feel like I’m coming home.”
Others echoed his comfort with Ramaphosa, who is commonly referred to by his first name by many white South Africans.
Ramaphosa’s proposal to redistribute wealth by expropriating some white-owned land without compensation has been dismissed by many as a ruse to shore up black support.
Belief among black voters that Ramaphosa isn’t serious about redistributing wealth spurred the formation of a breakaway party, led by the ANC’s former youth league president, Julius Malema. Malema advocates the nationalization of all land; his Economic Freedom Fighters have a groundswell of support in black townships and even among a small number of left-leaning white voters.
July Eccles, a 33-year-old graphic designer, plans to vote for the party on Wednesday. “You have to be quite sick to not want to change the spatial apartheid and gross inequality that is everywhere in our society,” she said.
“Our humanity must override our instinct for self-preservation. We need radical change and redistribution, because the real scandal in this country is that millions of black South Africans are essentially homeless in their own country. What my friends and I say is we need to end apartheid a second time. All white people have to fear is equality.”