The party that ended apartheid has begun to lose its appeal among black South Africans, many of whom have grown frustrated waiting for the "better life for all" promised when the African National Congress won historic multiracial elections 18 years ago.
The disenchantment with the ANC, to be sure, has been gradually building over the years. But it has intensified in recent weeks amid ongoing, and often violent, labor unrest that has spread across the nation since police killed 34 strikers at a platinum mine in August, the deadliest police action in post-apartheid South Africa.
In newspaper columns, on radio talk shows, blogs and social media, the ANC is facing a public outcry, accused of being corrupt, ineffective, wasteful and out of touch with the hardships faced by South Africa's impoverished masses. Even prominent anti-apartheid figures are publicly disparaging the ANC leadership, calling its credibility into question. Meanwhile, other critics, including senior ANC leaders, say the party is divided and facing a crisis of leadership, as President Jacob Zuma battles allegations of misuse of public funds to renovate his private residence.
"Now, the honeymoon is pretty much over," said Robert Schrire, a political analyst at the University of Cape Town. "What we are seeing is that the average black South African is no longer blindly loyal to the ANC. That person feels angry and betrayed."
When Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994, there was a burst of hope that a new era of equality was on the horizon. The ANC promised sweeping social change to redress the inequalities forged under apartheid, which oppressed non-whites through a system of racial separation enforced by harsh laws and police brutality to ensure the supremacy of South Africa's whites.
But for many black South Africans, the initial excitement has fizzled into disappointment as they struggle with high unemployment and a lack of housing, education, clean water and other services.
ANC officials say the party has improved the lives of millions and describe any divisions as a normal occurrence in such a large and diverse institution. "There is no leadership vacuum or paralysis within the ANC," said Keith Khoza, a senior party spokesman. "The ANC has no crisis of leadership."
Despite its problems, no one is suggesting that the ANC will lose its dominance over South Africa's political landscape anytime soon. But the anger and disillusionment, if they continue to grow, could trigger more protests and violence, potentially destabilizing the continent's largest economy. Already, the number of violent protests this year, mostly over land, inadequate housing and poor services, has grown dramatically from previous years.
As many as 80,000 miners, or 16 percent of the mining sector's workforce, are believed to be on strike, demanding better pay and benefits. Thousands more have already been fired. Meanwhile, thousands of truckers have also staged strikes, threatening supplies of fuel and food. South Africa's credit rating has been downgraded, mining stocks have plunged, and its currency, the rand, has weakened. Foreign investors are apprehensive.
In Khutsong, a black township surrounded by gold mines 56 miles west of Johannesburg, many residents live in shack settlements, where electricity must be illegally procured and water hauled from outdoor taps shared by many families.
Public toilets placed on unpaved streets are so filthy that some residents prefer buckets or holes. Many have been waiting more than a decade for government housing.
Bafana Mashata grew up worshiping the leaders of the ANC. In school, he learned how Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other anti-apartheid stalwarts ended white rule. But Mashata deplores the ANC leaders who now run his nation.
"Mandela and our other heroes fought for our freedom," said Mashata, 17, standing outside his uncle's tin shack that had no electricity or running water. "But our black leaders now sitting on top of the chair don't care about us. They care only about themselves."
ANC officials said their policies have significantly eradicated poverty, but that 18 years later, they are still facing obstacles created by the nation's apartheid and colonial past. "In terms of giving access to basic services, we have done well," Khoza said. "At the same we acknowledge the task of reversing an apartheid and colonialist legacy that spanned over 300 years is not going to happen overnight."
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There has been progress. The black middle class, fueled by affirmative-action policies and other efforts to empower blacks, has grown in this nation of more than 50 million.
In a report released in September, the South African Institute of Race Relations found that those with access to electricity reached 11.9 million in 2010, up from 5.2 million in 1996. Over the same period, the number of families with proper housing nearly doubled to 11 million and those with access to piped water increased to 12.7 million from 7.2 million, according to the report.
Still, government figures show that about a quarter of South Africans lack proper housing, nearly a quarter are without electricity and nearly a fifth are without proper sanitation facilities. The government, its critics say, has a pitiful record in providing education, leading to shortages of skills; today, a quarter of the population is unemployed, up from 20 percent in 1994.
Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened since 1994, creating one of the world's most unequal societies, according to World Bank data. Today, whites still largely control South Africa's economy, and they earn six times more than blacks, according to South African census data released last week.
At the polls, the frustration has started to chip away at the ANC's dominance. In local elections last year, the party's share of the vote slid to 62 percent from 65.9 percent in the 2009 national election, according to the country's Independent Electoral Commission. The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, won 23.9 percent of the vote, up from 16.6 percent in 2009, as it attracted support from many mixed-race South Africans, as well as whites and blacks who left the ANC.
The anger in the streets started mounting long before the miners' strikes. In the first seven months of the year, residents of black townships staged dozens of demonstrations, protesting poor sanitation, a lack of housing and other services, according to Municipal IQ, an independent research group that focuses on local government. The protests were more than any year since 2004, when the group started monitoring the protests.
"The fact is that there is a deep and growing mistrust of leaders in our country, and the expanding underclass feels it has no voice through legitimate formal structures," Jay Naidoo, a former general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and senior ANC leader, wrote on his blog. "Violence becomes the only viable language."
South Africa's leaders, he added, are failing those who sacrificed their lives to end apartheid.
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When Zuma was elected in 2009, many thought his populist zeal would translate into more help for South Africa's poor. But he quickly became entangled in scandal after scandal. Today, he is facing an official investigation and public rage over plans to upgrade his private rural homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal province, at a cost of $27 million to taxpayers. The renovations reportedly include a helipad, underground parking, playgrounds, even a medical clinic.
According to local news reports, the cost dwarfs the amounts spent on the residences of previous presidents Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and F.W. de Klerk. Zuma's aides insist he is personally responsible for paying for many of the upgrades.
Nevertheless, "Nkandlagate," as it is has been dubbed here, has further eroded the credibility of Zuma and the ANC, critics say. Now, Zuma, 70, is facing a pitched battle for re-election as ANC president in December.
Other ANC leaders are also viewed as out of touch, and some have been criticized for having ties to mining companies, driving luxury cars and using their political influence to become extremely wealthy.
The party's problems have provided an opening for Julius Malema, a controversial former ANC youth leader, who was charged in September with fraud and money laundering. Publicly attacking Zuma, he has seized advantage of the outrage over the miners' killings in an effort to rebuild popularity since his expulsion from the ANC earlier this year for hate speech, including calls to kill whites.
Some anti-apartheid stalwarts say the ANC has yet to make the transition from leading freedom fighters to leading a democratic nation.
"We believe that because we had a liberation movement that we loved and respected so much, we thought that alone would fix the problems," said Mamphela Ramphele, a prominent anti-apartheid activist and partner of Steve Biko, the black consciousness leader who was brutally killed in police custody in 1977. "The biggest failure of the ANC is it not understanding that you cannot govern a modern democracy with 1950s ideas."
Biko, she said, "would be disappointed" at today's South Africa. "I think we need to find a way of rediscovering the dreams that drove all of us to sacrifice so much," added Ramphele.
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A recent visit to Khutsong illustrates the challenges facing the ANC. In 2005, residents took the streets to protest a decision by the ANC-led government to transfer the township from wealthy Guateng province to poor North-West province. Most residents boycotted the 2006 local elections.
In 2009, ahead of the presidential election, the ANC returned the township to Gauteng, in an apparent bid to win votes. It worked. The township, including its poorest residents, overwhelmingly voted for the ANC.
But today, residents say little has changed.
Sikhulu Ndwandwe, 33, a social worker, and his family have been waiting for 16 years for a house, and they don't expect to get one soon. Their only source of electricity is an illegal hookup.
"How can I vote for a party that is corrupt?" said Ndwandwe, as his friends and father nodded in agreement. "We need change."
At the same time, though, Ndwandwe knows there are few alternatives. Since 1994, the ANC has overwhelmingly won every election and now controls two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. The Democratic Alliance is still largely perceived as too white, and many blacks remain loyal to the ANC, despite its failings, because it brought them freedom.
"The ANC is good. It liberated us," Ndwandwe said. "What's killing us is our leadership. If we change them, things will go smooth."
But other residents said they are so frustrated that they will vote against the ANC.
Mbongiseni Dlamini, a 29-year-old miner who has participated in the strikes, lives in a green shack with no electricity or running water. Open sewage runs nearby. At night, he uses candles and paraffin lamps to read and cook.
Dlamini, who voted for the ANC in the last elections, said he now plans to vote for the Democratic Alliance.
"The DA is not just for white people," he said. "We want a party that will bring change, and the ANC has failed us."
For now, though, many people say there's a single way to force action from the government — and the ANC. "In South Africa," Ndwandwe said, "if you want to be heard, you have to go to the streets."