JOHANNESBURG — As South Africa's powerful ruling party hits 20 years in power, it is bleeding loyalists - including big-name supporters who helped the party back when it was banned and seeking to overthrow the oppression of apartheid. The growing group of defectors says it is tired of the corruption in the African National Congress and it thinks that more should be done to improve the lives of South Africans.
Justice Magagula knows that the African National Congress is the party that won him the freedom he enjoys in today’s South Africa. He was born just before the death of the racist apartheid system, and says he remembers well the awful treatment that he endured as a young black South African - and then, on that historic election day in 1994, how everything changed.
But in the last 20 years, persistent inequality, widespread complaints about the ANC-led government’s failures to provide basic services, and a series of embarrassing scandals around President Jacob Zuma have led many South Africans to disavow the party they fought for during the nation’s darkest days.
A new campaign headed by former ANC stalwarts is calling on citizens to vote against the party in May - or to intentionally spoil their ballots to show their dissatisfaction.
Magagula is part of this growing demographic: the disgusted voter. Except, he says, he plans to skip the polls entirely.
“I’m not gonna vote, to be honest with you… I‘m just going to... go on with my life because my life is more important than everything about… this thing, of voting, voting," said Magagula.
He is not alone, says journalist and analyst Khadija Patel, who runs a Web site called SA Votes, which tracks trends around this election and has surveyed tens of thousands of voters.
“We are hearing a lot of South Africans telling us that instead of changing - especially ANC voters - we’re hearing from them that they’re not voting at all in this election because they don’t see their vote to have made any difference. They can’t see any tangible difference made in their lives, so they find the whole exercise of voting rather futile," said Patel.
Patel also says she has picked up on another, related trend.
“What is interesting here that instead of shipping over their vote to any of the opposition parties, instead they are choosing not to vote at all. A lot could be said here, then, of the weakness of the opposition in South Africa. But, certainly I think this also speaks to somewhat of a growing disenchantment with the ANC, and indeed, with the political process in South Africa," said Patel.
Magagula, again, illustrates this trend perfectly. At 26 years old and without steady employment, he is in the crosshairs of a rising political party that was formed out of disgust for the ANC, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters. But, Magagula says he has little faith in that party’s key figure, expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema.
“I’m gonna say I’m gonna vote Malema, but after that, what is Malema going to do? He’s gonna betray every one of us. So what am I going to do is, I’m just going to shut up, not vote for anyone, just go for my life," he said.
Gardener Jeremiah Phakedi says he was a supporter of the ANC before. But this time around, he says the scandals around Zuma - including spending $23 million of taypayer money on upgrades to one of his personal homes - have left him uncertain.
“I can’t think about the ruling party just now. Because I think all the parties have got corruption… Maybe I can vote for another party, yes. Because I’m looking first for the other [another] president, not Zuma," said Phakedi.
No one expects the ANC to do anything as drastic as lose at the polls. The party has won a consistent majority since its debut election in 1994, under Nelson Mandela. The ANC maintained that level - never going over 70 percent - in subsequent elections, but some critics say the end is near.
Helen Zille is the leader of the nation’s top opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. She says the ANC is overburdened with scandal, and that this election will be the start of its downward slide.
“The realignment of politics is going to involve the disintegration of the ANC as we currently know it, and the reconstitution of the new majority at the non-racial center of South African politics. And if that happens by 2019, we will have saved our constitution and our democracy and be on a very good platform to grow our economy and to create jobs that will include everybody in a meaningful economy for the future," said Zille.
The nation votes May 7.