JOHANNESBURG — South Africans say they’re heartbroken over the death of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, the freedom fighter who brought down the racist regime and became the nation’s first black president. But there appears to be growing discontent with the party that Mandela brought to power, the African National Congress.
Mandela often liked to joke that when he died, he would immediately set up a branch of the African National Congress in heaven.
But here on earth, the party he led to power in 1994 seems to be losing its halo.
South Africa faces national elections next year, the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s transformation from white-minority rule to democracy. The ANC has dominated national politics since then, and ANC leaders frequently mention Mandela’s unswerving devotion to his party -- in effect, making the two inseparable.
But South Africans said that since Mandela’s death last week, they are increasingly easily able to distinguish their love for the man from their growing criticism of his party.
South Africa may be free, but it is far from equal today, with black South Africans still on the bottom of the economic heap. Unemployment stands at a hefty 26 percent. The ruling party has also been slammed in recent years with a number of corruption scandals.
Frans Maloka, 66, lives in the impoverished township of Alexandra. He said he no longer has faith in the party that earned him his freedom -- and even less in current President Jacob Zuma.
“No no no no no I won’t go there. I tell you, there’s no security. But I won’t vote ANC. I rather can vote DA. …," he said. "Look , now we are suffer. You see, ANC no more good. Under Zuma, is no more good. … You see … it’s not ANC we need. We voting when Mandela, we put Mandela. This ANC’s no good.”
He’s talking about the nation’s lead opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
DA spokesman, Mmusi Maimane, said the party has avoided talking about politics in the wake of Mandela’s death. Like many South Africans, Maimane referred to Mandela by his clan name, Madiba.
“As a party we’ve taken a view that says we don’t want to divert the focus so that it becomes about politicking and politics. But that in fact it is about Nelson Mandela’s life, it is about the celebration of that, it’s about the Madiba family," Maimane said. "And so to cloud that with so many political issues would be in some ways to do an injustice to a life well lived. “
Maimane said his party accepts that Mandela is inextricably tied to politics. But he notes that criticism of the ANC was swelling long before Mandela’s death.
“That feeling is one that has been growing regardless of the passing of Nelson Mandela. There’s a broad parallel where people are questioning the future of this country and there’s a question about that that still lingers on," he said. "And I think, as, it’s a very difficult time and so people are going to make statements either way or another. Ours is to accept the fact that there is going to be an election next year which is going to be an interesting one, a tough one at that.”
That trend has produced that rare and elusive creature, rarely seen even outside of South Africa: the undecided voter.
Unemployed construction worker Jan Mogano, 32, is that voter. He said he worries that Mandela’s death will lower the world’s confidence in South Africa.
“Even our ruling party, the way things are now, it’s like, I think, lots of people, they don’t know who to vote for now,” he said.
That, truly, is Mandela’s legacy -- a leader so inspiring, so beloved, that many cannot envision a future without him.