Ayanda Kota is determined to cast his ballot next week, honouring the struggle that finally overcame apartheid and gave all South Africans the right to vote.
This time, however, the middle-aged activist will also place something else in the ballot box — his own curriculum vitae. His planned protest symbolises the growing despondency felt by many in the black majority 25 years after the first democratic election.
When South Africans head to the polls on May 8, more than a third of working-age voters, nearly all of them black, will not have a job. For 20m young people who came of age under the African National Congress, unemployment is even higher. Africa’s most industrialised economy has failed to grow faster than the population. The official unemployment figure is put at 27 per cent but the figure rises to 37 per cent if those who have given up looking for work are taken into account.
“After 25 years of a so-called democratic dispensation, it’s only politicians that have access to the good life, the better life. We haven’t seen this new dawn. We haven’t experienced what you call freedom,” said Mr Kota, who chairs the Unemployed People’s Movement, a grassroots NGO based in the Eastern Cape, the ANC’s heartland.
Mr Kota’s belief that South Africans have become “spectators” to democracy explains the apathy that has greeted the country’s most competitive election since 1994.
The “new dawn” is being promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC’s relatively new leader. Yet the term refers to turning the page on a decade of egregious looting of the state by his own party under Jacob Zuma, his predecessor. It leaves voters in a quandary. In South Africa’s parliamentary system, they can only vote in favour of Mr Ramaphosa by voting for an ANC that still harbours Mr Zuma’s cronies.
And while a record 47 parties are competing against the ANC this year, no single party is considered a threat to its reign. The main opposition grouping, the liberal Democratic Alliance, is polling about 20 per cent, not much changed from its 2014 result.
Mr Zuma’s exit last year removed an easy target. But the opposition’s malaise goes deeper, said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst.
“South Africa has a politics of many choices, but no alternatives,” Mr Mathekga said. “Lack of trust in the ANC translates into a lack of trust across political parties. Elections are never about the opposition winning, but the ANC losing.”
The ANC’s vote will probably fall this election, from 62 per cent in 2014 to something between 55 per cent and 60 per cent, according to pollsters. Radical parties, representing the ANC’s extremes, could benefit the most, Mr Mathekga said.
The hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters is widely expected to double its vote by appealing to the disaffected, jobless youth. Julius Malema, the EFF leader, is a former ANC youth leader turned “son of the soil” in campaign posters that promise “our land and jobs now”.
In the past five years the party used its 25 seats in the 400-member parliament to lead calls for Mr Zuma’s exit, and for altering the constitution to allow expropriation of land without payment. The ANC eventually bowed to both demands.
If it can double its seats, Mr Malema’s party would have even greater influence to outflank Mr Ramaphosa on contentious economic legislation such as land, which will “portray him as a weak leader beholden to the opposition”, Darias Jonker, an analyst at Eurasia Group, said.
Mr Kota is not convinced by the EFF’s red berets and fiery language. The party is “militaristic” and “authoritarian” in its rhetoric, he said. Instead he will vote for the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ party, an offshoot from the national mineworkers’ union — which, in a historical irony, Mr Ramaphosa helped establish as a young lawyer in the days of struggle against apartheid.
Mbekezeli Benjamin has already voted. The 27-year-old lawyer cast his ballot abroad at South Africa’s consulate in Los Angeles on Saturday — Freedom Day, the anniversary of 1994’s first democratic poll.
“It was exciting . . . I didn’t think that it would be,” said Mr Benjamin, who felt a sense of civic duty. He read several party manifestos and was undecided as he entered the booth. But one thing was clear. “I believe in the power of multi-party democracy. It’s worth reducing the dominance of the ANC.”
He voted for a smaller party outside the big three, none of whose economic plans impressed him. Nor did the case for handing Mr Ramaphosa a large majority to implement reforms make any sense.
“I don’t understand that logic” given the “problematic characters” in his party, Mr Benjamin said. “We will not be voting for Ramaphosa. We’d be voting for the ANC.”