Dawn Paley

Election Day in South Africa

April 14 was election day in South Africa. In less than two weeks, the international community will be fed images and narratives from massive ANC (African National Congress) sponsored "10 years of democracy" celebrations. The twinning of these celebrations with the federal election results will obscure an international visibility of on-the-ground mobilizations against the ANC by South Africa's most marginalized people.

It will also serve to legitimize the South African neoliberal project and reinforce the ANC government's international reputation as a government that is truly loved by its people. What must be made visible is that from underneath the continued reign of the ANC government, community groups across the country are encouraging election boycotts and non-participation in the electoral process.

At the same time as the national and international propaganda machine of the ANC remains seemingly invincible, a strong resistance to their politics is building. Due to the inflated and highly undemocratic R200,000 ($40,000 CDN) fee to run for office, this opposition is being forced to organize outside of the electoral framework. It is from community-based social movements within South Africa that resistance to the ANC is being generated, even though these groups are separate from union, NGO or institutional structures and thus lack basic financial support and resources in order to fund even a basic public awareness campaign.

The reasons for organizing a campaign against voting for the ANC become clear when the "transition" that has occurred since 1994 is viewed through the lens of the nation's poor majority. University of Kwa Zulu Natal research fellow Ashwin Desai explains that after 1994, "although the black elite became rapidly richer and the white poor became rapidly poorer... in general terms whites got richer and blacks got poorer." This phenomenon has been labeled "economic apartheid" and has been reinforced by the ANC government through their economic policies.

People on the ground, and especially the poor, are fed up with the false promises the ANC has made since 1994. Because although the ANC promised free basic services, and the right to water is enshrined in the constitution, privatization of municipal water services has resulted in the implementation of pre-paid water meters in poor communities. Although they were promised free education, youth are still expelled from schools for not paying their school fees. And although average life expectancy has fallen from 64 years in 1996 to 50.7 years in 2002 and the national AIDS rate sits at 20.1 per cent, last September, President Thabo Mbeki told a reporter from the New York Times that "Personally, [he doesn't] know anybody who has died of AIDS."

In interaction with community groups in struggles today, one realizes that the ANC government has not only left large sections of the population with the status quo in regards to substandard housing and access to basic services, but that they have actively persecuted the poor in order to meet neoliberal ideals. Desai calls the ANC's policies an "armed assault on the poor," by which the ANC uses cost recovery as a measure of success and reserves the right to use force and arms, as well as the justice system, against communities who resist water and electricity cutoffs and evictions that occur in the name of "economic development."

One of the better known of South Africa's social movements resisting the continued reign of the ANC is the Gauteng Province based Anti-Privatization Forum, whose platform on the elections calls for "no vote for the ANC under any circumstances." Instead, the APF advocates that citizens "vote with [their] feet through mass action," positioning grassroots organizing as the alternative to the process of voting. In Soweto, APF affiliated Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee has asked its members to register to vote, but on election day to spoil their ballots and write their demands from the government on the reverse. There are plans for street activities to take place throughout Soweto on elections day.

Other community based organizations have taken more radical positions of non-participation. The Mandelaville Crisis Committee (MCC) represents a community 40 minutes from Johannesburg whose residents were forcibly removed from the Mandelaville informal settlement in Soweto by security forces known as the "Red Ants" in 2002. According to MCC member Thulani Skhosana, their forced removal was part of the ANC government's plan to "clean up Soweto for the World Summit on Sustainable Development [held in Johannesburg in 2002], and hide what it couldn't clean up."

Today the community is in an area known as Durban Roodeport Deep, where people live five or more to a room in abandoned miners' hostels and shacks without electricity or a proper sewage system. Graffiti in the area reads "NO HOUSING, NO VOTE!" calling on community members to boycott elections until they receive the housing they were promised by the government before their removal. In the words of Skhosana, "We voted the first time and the second time with hopes that we will have a better life... The ANC's lack of respect for the people of Mandelaville makes it impossible for us to go to the polls again."

As community-based organizations and new social movements in South Africa struggle to respond to what Desai calls "a permanent state of emergency" for the poor, election day and celebrations of democracy will be just two more days of repression and resistance. Let us, looking in from the outside, remember that the struggles continue in South Africa, even as the world media encourages us to believe that the ANC has brought happiness and freedom to its people.

Dawn Paley is an intern with Alternatives currently living in Johannesburg, South Africa.