SOWETO, South Africa — South Africans voted on Wednesday, almost exactly 25 years after a long liberation struggle filled with immense sacrifice ended apartheid and ushered in a democratic era for all its citizens.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, widely expected to be reelected, cast his ballot in Soweto, the cradle of the struggle, where leaders such as Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, once lived. Ramaphosa’s main challenger did the same.
But across the township, home to more than 1 million inhabitants, vast numbers of young people stayed home Wednesday, seeing no point in voting. Echoing an increasing number of young people worldwide, they said that democracy isn’t working — and that they weren’t going to vote now, or ever.
“The political parties all have one thing in common: They make lots of promises, and they break all of them,” said Lucky Gumede, 23, who lives in Kliptown, a sliver of shacks and homes wedged between a railway track and a swamp in Soweto. “So why vote when I can just chillax with my friends?”
The number of young South Africans registered to vote has dropped to its lowest level in at least 20 years, according to the Independent Electoral Commission. More than half of South Africans ages 15 to 24 are unemployed, like Gumede, which puts the country third from last in the world for youth employment, according to the World Bank.
So Gumede hung out with his friends while a mostly older crowd trudged down a dirt path to vote in the morning cold.
“If you give me a job, then I’ll vote, even for you,” Toto Nophala, 25, one of Gumede’s friends, told a reporter.
“Eish, brother, I would rather sleep than vote,” said another, Junior Sibeko, 20. “Any more questions before I say good night?”
Kliptown isn’t the most neglected township, by far. But its homes still don’t have running water, and everyone uses portable toilets because there is no sewer system. Gumede’s family is typical in that it survives on “social grants” — South Africa’s version of welfare. His family’s eight members split about $120 per month.
“We are living day to day here,” Gumede said. “The social grants are just to keep us alive. Sometimes I sweep someone’s shop. Or maybe I clean up after an event somewhere. But, hey, I’m talking about a job once every couple of months, man.”
Young people around Soweto and in other townships that ring Johannesburg, the country’s largest city, had particularly bitter words for Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC), which has governed since the end of apartheid and probably will continue to do so.
For those too young to have experienced apartheid, there is only one South Africa: this one, with its abysmal public services, high unemployment rate and glaring inequality. Many townships, where most urban black people live, are in the shadow of posh, mostly white neighborhoods that look like the walled-off subdivisions of Malibu or Beverly Hills. The white unemployment rate hovers around 7 percent, close to the global average.
One refrain was on the tip of everybody’s tongue: “Empty promises.” Distrust was the starting point in their experience of elections, and despondency the end result.
“We’ve lost heart, man,” said Simo Mpapa, 30, a Kliptown resident who is trying to “make it out of the ghetto” by writing scripts for television shows. “We’ve never seen anything different here. Go to Diepsloot, Vosloorus, whichever township, it’s all the same. Saying apartheid is over is only half the truth.”
According to regular polling by Citizen Surveys South Africa, as of March, 79 percent of South Africans think corruption is on the rise. Just 22 percent think the country is heading in the right direction.
Paradoxically, Ramaphosa has become South Africa’s most popular leader since Mandela. He has been president for less than a year and a half, and retains a reputation as incorruptible because of his large personal fortune from more than a decade in big business.
As he voted less than a mile from Kliptown on Wednesday, Ramaphosa told reporters that “corruption got into the way” of liberation and that he was sorry for that.
His party, the ANC, is still revered by many South Africans as the deliverer of freedom and the torchbearer of Mandela’s legacy.
“Young people don’t understand what we went through,” said Simon Mpinga, 74, who toiled on a white-owned farm until he was 50 and now lives a few blocks from Gumede in Kliptown. “Life under apartheid was bad. The white people made us work, and then they chased us away. You couldn’t feel that you were a man in those days.”
Since apartheid ended, however, Mpinga hasn’t found work. Even as he is starting to go blind, he picks up discarded metal and plastic to recycle for pocket change. The yard surrounding his shack is littered with scraps. A couch outside is propped up by bricks. The corrugated tin roof is fastened against the wind by two old rubber tires.
Mpinga has always voted ANC. At first, it was out of fealty to the liberation struggle. Now he’s just hoping for a handout.
“The ANC people say that we must vote. That it is the only way to get food parcels, or a blanket, or a better house one day,” he said. And he repeated what many before him had said, too. “The promises are empty, all of them.”
And yet on Wednesday morning, Mpinga slipped into a jacket and gloves and headed across the shantytown toward the polling booth, set up under a tent on its fringes.
“I’m voting just to vote,” he said. “Why? Because maybe. Because maybe.”
As he began the walk back home, he stooped over to pick up an empty plastic bottle and put it in his jacket pocket.