South African voters stick with ANC, polls say

By Craig Timberg
Published April 15th 2004 in Washington Post

JOHANNESBURG, April 14 -- South Africans lined up at schools, churches and community centers to vote Wednesday in an election that opinion polls showed would give the ruling African National Congress a landslide victory and President Thabo Mbeki five more years to deliver the prosperity many had hoped would come with freedom.

Official results were due Thursday in the nation's third democratic election. After casting his ballot in Pretoria, Mbeki said, according to news service reports: "The politicians have been doing a lot of talking . . . It's now time for the people to speak."

But anxiety about the nation's tepid economic progress took some of the celebratory edge off the ANC's projected third consecutive win. Mbeki and most of his rivals have promised frankly to improve prospects for the nation's millions of unemployed. One election poster read: "Create Work. Vote ANC."

Official unemployment rates have hovered near 30 percent for the last few years, but the real rate is closer to 42 percent when those who have stopped looking for work are included, many economists say. The hardest hit are said to be young residents of the nation's townships, many of which have changed little since the days of apartheid, the system of racial separation that began in 1948 and ended with the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994.

In Diepkloof, a middle-class section of the sprawling township of Soweto with sturdy brick homes and the occasional Mercedes speeding through its narrow streets, sisters Linda and Regina Mahlinza, ages 24 and 30, voted for the ANC.

It was a decision, they said, made with their eyes turned toward the past. They voted for the rights they won with the end of apartheid -- the freedom to move and work and marry as they pleased. They voted for the 1.6 million homes the government has reportedly built. And, as much as anything, they voted to thank Mandela, the ANC icon, for his lifetime of sacrifice that included 27 years in the Robben Island prison off Cape Town.

Looking ahead, however, what the Mahlinzas said they need are jobs.

Linda is hoping to find work as a secretary so she can afford to finish college and eventually become an economist. Regina is hoping to finish her training as a nurse, which would cost about $1,600. She also wants a house for herself, her boyfriend and their two young children.

Economists differ on what can be done, but most agree that the parties' campaign promises are unlikely to be fulfilled in the face of decades of apartheid, poor education and a shifting global marketplace.

"Basically, it's a difficult structural problem," said Servaas Van der Berg, an economist at the University of Stellenbosch. "I don't think any party can really claim to do much. . . . It's not a problem you can fix in four, five years."

The election produced little of the violence that marked voting in 1994 and, to a lesser extent, 1999. And though the campaign was combative at times, there was little suspense.

Political debate focused on which of the several smaller opposition parties would have clout in a parliament that is projected to again be controlled by the ANC, and on whether the ANC would extend its dominance into the province of KwaZulu-Natal, where the Inkhata Freedom Party of Mangosuthu Buthelezi has ruled. Also in question was whether the ANC would get the two-thirds of the seats in parliament necessary to rewrite the nation's constitution, a power that some rivals contend the party would use to entrench itself further.

Many voters said they still took seriously the opportunity to cast a ballot. The increasingly frail Mandela, 85, voted in the suburban Johannesburg neighborhood where he lives. "I feel elated that I can be able to assert my right as a citizen, and I sincerely hope that the entire world will abandon violence and use peaceful methods of asserting their right as citizens," he said, according to news service reports.

Overall turnout was reportedly lower than in 1994, when 90 percent of those eligible cast ballots, and 1999, when 71 percent did. But throughout the nation there were long lines at polling stations.

Polling by The Washington Post and other news organizations put unemployment, crime and HIV/AIDS at the top of voter concerns. Those interviewed in Diepkloof mentioned joblessness far more often than the other issues.

The ANC economic plan relies largely on investment in public works projects to provide construction and related jobs, although opponents and economists have noted that most of those jobs would be temporary.

Opposition parties have suggested targeted tax cuts and deregulation. Economists have urged the government to ease credit. And export-oriented business executives have begged the government to allow the rand to weaken, arguing that a strong currency is hurting their competitiveness worldwide.

Ordinary South Africans, meanwhile, expressed uncertainty about whether anything would work. "It's no more politics any more," said Morena Sebolelo, 25, who is unemployed, as he walked the streets of Diepkloof. "It's poli-tricks."

He said he would not vote.

Among those who did vote, many expressed a willingness to give the ANC more time to bring change. The loyalty to the ANC runs strongest among voters belonging to the generations that recall the harshest years of apartheid and the bloodiest years of the struggle to overcome it.

Thoko Mahlinza, 68, was a florist at a grocery store chain. Her husband also had steady work. They now have pensions to live on, but they also have three of their six adult children -- including Linda and Regina, not to mention Regina's two children -- living in their house.

"I want the ANC to make things better. I still believe in them," she said. "We must still give them time. Ten years is not that long."

But out of earshot of her daughters, Thoko Mahlinza added, "They must move out."