The one-party rainbow nation: How South Africa lost hope after Mandela

South Africans disillusioned with corruption and the excesses of President Zuma will still be saddled with ANC rule after next week’s election


“Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all... The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! God bless Africa!”

Where President Nelson Mandela said these words there now stands a 30ft-high statue of him. It was 5 May 1994. He had won the first open election in his country’s history. The short inaugural speech he gave outside South Africa’s Government Building in Pretoria baptised the rainbow nation.

“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people,” he said. “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Hope. Barack Obama didn’t get there first. Politicians have always and will always love hope. It is unfalsifiable. Hope is never held to account.

Neither, to a certain extent, was Mr Mandela. So great were his achievements in overthrowing apartheid, the success of his government and those that came after him seems to be of little interest to the rest of the world.

Last weekend, South Africans celebrated their 20th Freedom Day. Twenty years since Mandela’s election, since the end of apartheid and a new nation was born.

But reminders of the future ordinary South Africans were emboldened to imagine then are particularly jarring now. Next week there is another general election. Mr Mandela’s African National Congress – the ANC – will win, again, but almost no one is talking about hope.

Despite the obvious victor, these elections will be different from those which have gone before. For one thing, for the first time Mr Mandela is not around to see them. The ANC has faltered greatly – some might say failed – since Mr Mandela’s departure from office, but the simple fact of his continuing existence prolonged the image of the ANC as the great liberators. That counts for a lot, and still does.

But the economy is failing, and the President’s reputation is destroyed, at home and abroad. Jacob Zuma served time on Robben Island with Mr Mandela, yet he was booed by the Soweto crowd at Mandela’s funeral in front of every great statesman on the planet, and a watching world on television.

One word in particular will overshadow the election: Nkandla. It is a small town in the country’s north-east, and also the name given to the President’s sprawling homestead, which he has had renovated with millions of rand of public money, while 13.6 per cent of his people live in makeshift housing.

It is his own very personal expenses scandal. But where the British taxpayer spent a summer in near incandescent rage over a £1,600 floating duck island, the bill for Mr Zuma’s renovations currently runs to around £14m.

South African nationals queue to cast their vote in London ahead of 7 May’s election South African nationals queue to cast their vote in London ahead of 7 May’s election (AP)
The President has attempted two separate defences. One is that the upgrades were due to security concerns. They include a “firepool” in the basement, with the water kept there to be used to douse flames, but which appears to be just a swimming pool.

The other is that the architect became carried away with the plans, initial costs were a tenth of the final bill, and Mr Zuma was unaware of what was occurring in his own home.

The voting public is not impressed. “It is very bad, you know,” said Thabo Mthembu, who works in a Johannesburg hotel. “There are so many millions who have nothing, and this is their money he is spending on his house and he thinks he can get away with it. He will get away with it.”

He added: “Everything Zuma’s government does is for himself. It is hard to change things but he is not trying to change things. Everything his government is doing is for himself. He is just like the government he was fighting against.’’

Last month, a lengthy report into the scandal was published by the Public Protector’s office, which concluded Mr Zuma should repay millions of pounds.

Even here Mr Mandela lingers. The last words of the report were taken from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates.”

The most visible blow to Mr Zuma’s ANC is being delivered by its former youth leader, Julius Malema, who is only 36. He has left the party to form his own, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the EFF. Anti-corruption is at their core.

“Nelson Mandela’s ANC, the real one, was buried with him. Now it’s just Zuma’s African National Criminals,” he told a rally in Kliptown, Soweto, the township just outside Johannesburg where Mandela used to live, and which was the epicentre of so much of the anti-apartheid riots and police violence of the seventies and eighties.

On occasions, the EFF’s tents and marquees and equipment for their rallies have been petrol-bombed. Mr Malema claims the ANC have carried out the attacks, which they deny.

The complaints of people in townships around the country are essentially the same. “We have no future or hope here,” Lydia Baloyi told the Kliptown crowd, adding: “We vote thinking the party will help us but we have no toilets.”

In Diepsloot, a township in the north of Johannesburg which is among the country’s most deprived and crime-ridden, residents complain of 70 people sharing a toilet. There and elsewhere, like in the vast Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, when it rains the toilets flood and sewage fills many of the houses.

The ANC claims that £30bn has been spent on Soweto in the last 20 years. Even if this is accurate, it is not that much money over such a long period.

Robert Phosa, a taxi driver in the capital Pretoria, drives around with his red EFF beret on his dashboard, and large posters of Mr Malema stuck on the sides. “I like him,” he says. “If EFF win, they say government ministers can only have one house, and they must send their children to state school, not to private school, or to another country.”

After years of headlines about government corruption, this is what people want to hear. But even Robert, a party member, didn’t know what policies the EFF had on housing or health or education.

South Africa has a name for its new generation, those who never lived under apartheid:  the “born frees”. This is the first election where many of them will be eligible to vote. At least half of them are unemployed, and a huge percentage live in poverty. Yet only around 30 per cent of them are registered to vote.

Those that are politically engaged are acutely aware of promises about housing and education that were made to their parents as they queued 20 years ago to cast their historic vote. They are promises by and large unfulfilled.

“Man is born free, yet he is everywhere in chains,” said Daniel Steenkamp, a 19-year-old student in Pretoria, a born free himself. “Rousseau isn’t it? Wise man.”

It is the least likely of Mr Mandela’s promises made that May morning that for long months of every year looks like it might come true – the part about “the sun never setting”.

As it gently lowers into the Cape Town sea, the sun leaves only one shape outlined in the golden glow: Robben Island, where Mandela and Zuma a  wasted away many of their best years in a noble fight for votes which so many of the country’s young people now have no interest in using.

ANC officials have promised to deal with Zuma’s Nkandla “after the election”. They know they cannot lose, but they will be substantially diminished. Real change may take another 20 years.

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