In a township in South Africa’s industrial heartland, raw sewage flows through the streets and into people’s homes.
Dilapidated infrastructure and poor services in areas that have traditionally been strongholds of the governing African National Congress (ANC) could hurt it in municipal elections on Monday.
The former liberation movement is hoping to win back metropolitan voters it lost to opposition-led coalitions in 2016, when it suffered its worst election outcome since sweeping to power under Nelson Mandela in 1994.
But analysts are predicting a continued slide in the ANC’s national support, possibly dipping below 50% for the first time from 54% five years ago.
“There is no respect for human dignity,” said Motsamai Matsabu, a pensioner in Evaton, a township of concrete and brick houses near major steel works south of the commercial hub Johannesburg, a pool of grey sewage festering in his yard.
“It makes me wonder whether our existence … is worthwhile,” he added, declining to say how he will vote on Monday.
Potholed roads, blocked drains, water shortages, power cuts: these are the daily realities for poor South Africans in parts of South Africa’s steel belt near the Vaal River that have historically voted ANC. Broken pipes and wastewater treatment plants, and the accompanying smell, are a reminder that 27-year-old promises of a better life for all after white minority rule ended remain unfulfilled for many.
“For many years I was still making my ‘X’ for ANC, but I want another party. I think ANC doesn’t have that feeling for us,” Mamkiti Mbhele, a hair salon owner in the Sebokeng township whose house floods in heavy rain, told Reuters.
ANC officials say it was always going to be difficult undoing decades of apartheid-era neglect.
Lesego Makhubela, spokesman for the ANC caucus in the provincial legislature of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and surrounding areas, said hundreds of newly built houses showed efforts to improve lives were bearing fruit.
“We are working … to make sure the people … are given their right to dignity,” he said.
‘Democracy in a dump’
ANC leader President Cyril Ramaphosa said on the campaign trail that the party had learned from its mistakes and would ensure municipalities are well-run. It is also mired in corruption scandals and faces criticism over extreme inequality and unemployment.
Gilberto Martins, an administrator appointed to help run the municipality that includes Evaton and Sebokeng, said the rotting infrastructure was worsened by vandalism and theft. Transformers had been sabotaged, and power cables and manholes stolen.
Residents have, meanwhile, formed a movement to field candidates in Monday’s elections, capitalising on dissatisfaction with the ANC.
“We are now enjoying democracy in a dump,” Ernest Nkopane, one of the New Horizon Movement’s candidates, said.
Analysts say getting less than 50% of the municipal vote would be a psychological blow for the ANC.
“People will start thinking that maybe one day this country can be run by someone other than the ANC,” said Louw Nel, a political analyst at the Oxford Economics Africa research organisation, adding that Ramaphosa’s party rivals could use a bad result to mobilise support against him.
But missteps by its main rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA), could mitigate ANC losses. It caused an uproar this month with a divisive poster campaign in a town where racial tensions have flared between ethnic Indian and Black communities.
Ramaphosa is still popular, and older Black voters retain a strong emotional attachment to the party that freed them from centuries of colonial and apartheid oppression.
Additional grants of R350 a month during the Covid-19 pandemic kept many from going hungry, which they aren’t likely to forget, Nel said.
Other contestants include the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a Marxist group led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, and ActionSA, a moderate, pragmatic outfit led by former DA Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba.
An Ipsos telephone survey of 1 500 people in August put support for the ANC at 49% in a scenario in which seven out of 10 people vote, while the DA was on 18%, the EFF 15% and ActionSA 2%.