Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


South Africa’s Problematic Democracy and Poverty

South Africa’s Problematic Democracy and The South African elections on May 29 marked a significant shift in the country’s political landscape, with the results announced on June 2. For the first time since the end of Apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, lost its parliamentary majority, securing only 40% of the vote. The Democratic Alliance (DA), a party historically associated with white South Africans, garnered 22%, while Jacob Zuma‘s new party, the MK, received 15% nationally and dominated the provincial legislature in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the controversial Julius Malema, took 9%, finding its leftist appeal diminished by Zuma’s resurgence.

The composition of Parliament is crucial, as it is responsible for electing the president. This election has introduced the necessity of a coalition government for the first time, leading to complex negotiations about whether Cyril Ramaphosa will continue as president. The parties must reach a consensus by June 16, when Parliament is set to convene and select the president.

The election results have led to a whirlwind of discussions, with Zuma’s faction issuing subtle threats of violence while Ramaphosa has taken a more statesmanlike approach, graciously accepting the outcome.

But how did the ANC lose its long-standing majority? Upon arriving in Johannesburg on May 26, I chose to observe the election from a different perspective, spending time in the city’s poorest areas and its outskirts. These areas, often referred to as “ghettos,” include Alexandra, an inner-city slum; Thembisa, a peri-urban settlement with numerous migrant squatter camps; and Kliptown, the birthplace of organized resistance against Apartheid in 1955 and still the poorest part of Soweto.

Parliament is composed of 400 members, all selected from party lists. The percentage of votes each party receives determines their proportion of seats. There are no constituency MPs, a factor that has contributed to the ANC’s disconnect from the populace. During Jacob Zuma’s presidency, characterized by rampant corruption, those who felt neglected became disillusioned. This discontent was evident as only about 58% of registered voters participated in this election, and many potential voters did not register at all, a significant shift from those who traditionally supported the ANC.

What is life like in a Johannesburg ghetto? It is markedly different from the ghettos of Cape Town, where areas like the Salt Flats suffer from frequent flooding. Currently, the entire Salt Flats area is submerged, a consequence of 30 years of inadequate drainage infrastructure. This issue is as much the fault of the DA, the provincial government of the Western Cape, as it is of the ANC. The poor, regardless of region, are often cut off from the formal economy.

Johannesburg’s ghettos have their own distinct characteristics. Alexandra, commonly referred to as “Alex,” is within walking distance of the affluent financial district of Sandton, where luxury items are sold at exorbitant prices. Despite its proximity to wealth, Alex is plagued by overcrowding, with an average of four people per room—an improvement from the five people per room when I first visited in 1990, shortly after Mandela’s release.

Thembisa, on the other hand, is home to scattered migrant squatter communities that lack basic amenities such as electricity, water, and sanitation. Even the more established areas of Thembisa do not have guaranteed access to these necessities, forcing residents to cobble together makeshift homes.

Kliptown has been dealing with its sanitation issues for three decades through a maze of chemical toilets. I once described it as resembling a “rock festival gone to Mars,” a rather inhospitable Mars. During my time volunteering at the now-closed community center there, I heard many stories of disillusionment from survivors of the 1955 protests and the 1976 Soweto uprising.

Residents of these areas claim they have not seen an MP or senior ANC official in decades. Visiting these communities is a sobering experience, and attempts to convey their plight to senior ANC members often evoke sympathy but not empathy. Many ANC officials have moved beyond such hardships and show little inclination to revisit them, leaving a significant portion of the population behind.

As the contentious coalition negotiations proceed, the fate of South Africa’s poorest citizens—the “wretched of the Earth”—is notably absent from the discussions. The primary concern of the negotiators is the allocation of power. The pressing question remains: the power to do what?