February 27, 2006

South Africa’s ANC delivers, but is it enough?

By Andrew Quinn

NGOBI, South Africa (Reuters) - For supporters of South Africa's ruling ANC, the road to the tiny village of Ngobi offers physical proof of a promise kept by the party which ended apartheid.

Branching off the modern highway north of the capital Pretoria, the smooth dirt road cuts through dusty scrubland to the village, which could only be reached by foot before white rule ended in 1994.

Small tin shacks cozy up to larger rural homesteads, a sign of rising wealth among Ngobi residents, some of whom now make the daily commute to Johannesburg.

Electricity has come to Ngobi, and water pumps have been installed -- something Nelson Mandela's ANC promised to do over a decade ago when it won massive black support to guide South Africa to a new, more equitable democracy.

But the road to Ngobi is not perfect and for the ruling African National Congress, gearing up to test its popularity again in local government elections on Wednesday, its failings symbolize wider problems.

"It's still not finished!" said Mahakoe Sepeng, standing near heaped mounds of earth left by the roadworks. "It should have been paved a long time ago. When it rains, it is muddy and everybody gets stuck."

Rumbles of discontent from Ngobi may not alarm the ANC, which has scored landslide victories in every vote since Mandela led the party to triumph in 1994 polls that ended white rule.

But while Mandela's successor, President Thabo Mbeki, looks set for another strong showing in the March polls for municipal leaders, in places like Ngobi grassroots support for local ANC politicians is no longer guaranteed.


The complaints of Ngobi's residents extend to the new water pumps, which are often dry, and to the local schools, which villagers say are poorly equipped despite new paint jobs.

"If there is one thing I would say we need, it is more resources," said Joel Ntloana, principal of Ngobi's high school, where students in neat uniforms spill out from classrooms.

"We'd like to offer more classes, and employ more teachers, but there just isn't enough money."

Sepeng is running for a local seat representing Ngobi for the Azanian People's Organization (AZAPO), one of the parties to the left of the ANC hoping to capitalize on voter discontent.

"We have no problems with President Mbeki or the national government. They are fine," he said. "We just don't like what the local leaders are doing ... They are not doing enough."

In recent months, local ANC leaders have faced violent protests in poor townships across the country as angry residents demand better government services and decry what they say is mismanagement and corruption.

Riots have also exploded over government moves to draw new administrative lines through communities, often resulting in villages being re-assigned to poorer regions, where authorities can slash spending on things like school budgets.

The anger has shocked ANC leaders, some of whom have been subjected to hostile chants once reserved for the former white rulers.

Political analysts say the protests show frustration among South Africa's poorest, many of whom feel sidelined despite more than a decade of stability and economic growth.

But they caution that it does not necessarily mean a widespread loss of faith in the ANC -- but rather it is a strategy by local groups to grab the best deal they can in a country where 50 percent of people live below the poverty line.

"What we are seeing is two streams of democracy in South Africa," said University of Witwatersrand political scientist Susan Booysens, an expert in South African party politics.

"On the one hand there are elections, where people vote for the ANC, and on the other there is the direct interface that voters have with the ANC, where they shout and they scream."

"After the election, we will continue see the struggle to get ANC councilors to perform, but people won't vote the ANC out of power to achieve their goals."


Ngobi, about 37 miles north of Pretoria and within striking distance of the economic promise of Johannesburg, is luckier than many communities and has seen no outpourings of popular anger against the ANC.

But its difficulties reflect the problems bedeviling South Africa's leaders as they cope with the legacy of white rule which intentionally deprived black areas of basic services.

Hope Papo, a local ANC spokesman, listed achievements in areas around Ngobi and nearby Hammanskraal ranging from water and electricity services to the building of hawkers' stalls and establishment of "business incubators."

"(Local leaders) have been in constant communication with the residents," Papo said. "Their public works program has provided employment to the people of the area."

Others -- unsurprisingly in an election year -- are less convinced.

AZAPO Secretary General Dan Habedi, who grew up in Ngobi, said the ANC would probably remain in power both in the village and in the country for the foreseeable future despite efforts by AZAPO and other opposition parties to dislodge it.

But he said tensions over issues such as corruption and lack of opportunity were a long-term threat to Africa's economic powerhouse -- and by extension to the rest of the continent.

"The situation in South Africa could get dangerous," he said, looking out over the tranquil rural landscape surrounding his boyhood home. "If we don't get this right that could be a bad thing for all of Africa. Everyone is looking at South Africa for the future. We need to do it correctly."