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South Africa’s ruling party faces its greatest challenge yet in upcoming elections

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, is facing its greatest challenge yet in elections this week. The party has been in power since the end of white minority rule in 1994, but it's predicted to lose its absolute majority for the first time. At the core of all this is frustration with staggering unemployment, poor delivery of basic services and, by some measures, the highest income inequality in the world. To get a sense of what people are talking about ahead of the elections, NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu took a short but telling journey in Johannesburg.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: I'm in Alexandra, or Alex. It's the oldest township in South Africa, and it's the morning rush hour - or sphitipiti in Zulu, meaning chaos, and it's pretty easy to see why. There are dozens of vehicles swarming into the same junction. It's pretty much every person for themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

AKINWOTU: Traders are beginning to set up wooden stores along the sidewalk. Workers are clearing heaps of trash lining the roads. The day's really just getting started in a part of the city that reflects South Africa's journey over the last 30 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

AKINWOTU: This township is on a vantage, overlooking a stretch of high-rises a short bus ride away in Sandton, often described as the richest square mile on the continent. During apartheid, Alex was home to the Black underclass, in one of the few townships near the white-dominated center of the city. The end of white minority rule brought the promise of a new reality in South Africa. But since the end of apartheid, it has become one of the most unequal nations in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DOOR SHUTTING)

TOGOZAN LOANDO: (Speaking Zulu).

AKINWOTU: Togozan Loando drives a minibus taxi, the main source of transport for millions of people in South Africa. His daily route from Alex to Sandton captures the country's divide.

LOANDO: (Speaking Zulu).

AKINWOTU: He tells me he's always voted for the ANC and probably still will, but he feels more conflicted. He doesn't believe they will bring better days in South Africa, but he doesn't know if he can vote for the other parties, either.

LOANDO: (Speaking Zulu).

AKINWOTU: More than 30 political parties, are contesting the elections, where the ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa is seeking reelection as President. The main opposition is the centrist Democratic Alliance, or DA, often seen as representing the interests of the white minority in South Africa. But other smaller parties have made headway - most notably the uMkhonto weSizwe Party, or MK, led by former ANC President Jacob Zuma, and the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters party, led by firebrand leader Julius Malema. These and other opposition parties threaten to chip away at the ANC's majority in parliament for the first time, amid widespread frustration with high unemployment, corruption and rising crime.

LOANDO: (Speaking Zulu).

AKINWOTU: "We don't have a government," he tells me. "They failed us; the ANC failed." Loando has been driving the minibus, mostly along this route, for the last 25 years. It's a 20-minute journey through gridlock between Alex and Sandton, and yet the distance feels far greater.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROAD NOISE)

AKINWOTU: On the minibus, I meet a man who calls himself Doctor, who commutes to Sandton every morning. He's more optimistic about the direction of the country compared to Loando, our driver.

DOCTOR: The country is in a good direction. It's just that some things are beyond our control, in terms of, like, the oil crisis. We don't control that, and our inflation is mainly affected by that. But the country - like, we are happy with our country.

AKINWOTU: As he says this, the passenger next to him rolls her eyes. A few minutes later, we arrive in Sandton, which feels like a world away. Clean, wide roads are lined with high-end restaurants, hotels and gleaming apartment blocks. We reach the final stop, but before we disembark, I talk to another passenger, Tenulo Moying, who works as a brand ambassador in Sandton.

TENULO MOYING: It's very bad here in South Africa. We are working to survive. The only thing is to work and hope for the best, but this country is not getting any better. It's just drowning.

AKINWOTU: She's 34 and part of a generation that either barely remembers the final years of apartheid or was born after it was abolished.

MOYING: See how many youth are sitting, roaming the street. Some are becoming criminals because of the situation here in South Africa. You go to university; you don't get a job. Then, yeah, what is the use?

AKINWOTU: Moying is one of the lucky ones who's employed. The majority of the country's 62 million people are under 35, and nearly half of them are without work. Last year, the unemployment rate was the highest in the world, and with the state of the country, Moying says she's lost faith in politics.

You used to vote for ANC before.

MOYING: Yeah. I used to, but not anymore, unfortunately. I will be sitting at home.

AKINWOTU: Is this the first election where you won't be voting?

MOYING: Yes. This one, it will be the first one. I don't see the use.

AKINWOTU: Talking to Tenulo Moying really brought home the challenge that the ANC is facing. And the ANC know that they have a fight on their hands. It's the last days of the campaign and they've been going all-out, campaigning nonstop. It's also been enlisting the help of party giants. I caught up with one of them, Tokyo Sexwale, a major liberation figure who spent time in prison on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. He was campaigning at a shopping mall on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and he shrugged off the competition from other parties.

TOKYO SEXWALE: All elections are full of contests. The U.S. election right now is the most contested in the world, with two old men trying to rule the White House.

AKINWOTU: He made a small dig at the U.S. election. Then he turned to the ANC's chances. He was upbeat and praised their record but admitted they had made big mistakes in office.

SEXWALE: We believe that we'll prevail because this is the only organization that has governed for the last 30 years - with mistakes, and with certain serious at that. Secondly, it's the only organization that has delivered so much for people, and the ANC touches the lives of the people. We are saying about the ANC, what a touch.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Zulu).

AKINWOTU: Thirty years ago, the ANC election posters promised, quote, "a better life for all." This time around, the slogan is a less ambitious quote - "let's do more together." The party is on the back foot, and even if it manages to keep its majority this election, going forward, its grip on power is under real strain.

Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Alexandra, Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.