South Africa, considered a bastion of democracy since its elections in 1994 that ended white minority rule, is scheduled to go the polls again in just a few weeks. Opposition parties remain hopeful they can weaken the ruling African National Congress's grip on the institutions of power. But the ANC itself is confident it will improve on the 70 percent of the vote it won at the previous election, in 2004. The ruling party maintains that it's living up to its slogan of "A Better Life For All" South Africans. However, in the lead-up to the April 22 polls, the ANC government's opponents continue to criticize it for failing to deliver adequate services to millions of poor South Africans. They also blame it for not stopping the rampant crime they say has damaged the country's image.
There's evidence of a rising black middle class in South Africa and development in previously run-down areas of the country, but opposition parties say many South Africans continue to live in terrible conditions, with no clean water, electricity or adequate housing.
But ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said his party has improved the lives of the majority of his fellow South Africans since it began governing the country 15 years ago.
"In 1993, when I was serving in the electricity council of ESKOM (South Africa's national power supply company), only 40 percent of citizens of this country accessed electricity; today 80 percent of the citizens have access to electricity," Mantashe told VOA.
He says 88 percent of South Africans now have access to clean water – a figure disputed by the ANC's opponents, who say it's much lower.
But Mantashe insisted that his party had delivered upon its promise to combat poverty in South Africa.
"3.1 million houses have been built. 2.7 (million) of those have been given to poor people, for free. That's why when you do the analysis of poverty in South Africa, when you talk of personal income, you will see a decline. But when you go to household poverty, it has been reduced dramatically because there have been a whole range of social grants," he said.
Protests against lack of services
Mantashe said while 2.5 million of his fellow South Africans had benefited from social grants in 1996, 12.5 million were beneficiaries last year and that this figure was set to rise to 13 million this year.
"That impacts positively on the status of poverty at household level," he stated. "That social grant has been increased consistently to cushion people from the impact of inflation over the years."
As further evidence of the ANC's achievements, Mantashe added, "There is a school nutrition scheme that goes to all schools that are in poor areas."
Yet, despite the secretary-general's statistics and his insistence that life for most South Africans has improved under the ANC, violent demonstrations against poor service delivery have continued to flare up in various parts of the country ahead of the polls.
The ANC's opponents have seized upon such events as evidence that South Africans are becoming increasingly disgruntled with the ruling party. Mantashe disagreed, maintaining that the protests against the government were at times a reflection of delivery, not lack of it.
He insisted that it was impossible for the government to improve services in all areas at once, and that certain communities, when witnessing development in neighboring areas and not in their own, felt ignored and thus started protesting against the state.
Mantashe appealed to the demonstrators to be patient.
Opposition parties say one of the main reasons not to vote for the ANC is what many see as the government's failure to stem rampant crime, with murder, robbery and rape becoming facts of daily life for South Africans.
Again, Mantashe denied that the ruling party had failed in its duty to protect the citizens.
"You can only defeat crime if you improve the whole criminal justice system. From policing to prosecution to correctional services – that means the whole system must be strengthened," he argued, before pointing out that the government is pouring increasing resources into strengthening South Africa's organs of justice.
However, he added, the responsibility to fight crime rests not only with the state and its security forces, but also with every South African.
"Communities must be organized; communities mustn't tolerate petty crime. Because if communities tolerate petty crime, you cannot stand a chance in defeating serious crime," he said.
Mantashe suggested that South Africa's high crime rate is often a reflection of the ANC government's efficiency in providing "up to date" crime statistics.
"The point that our opponents must also appreciate is that we are moving from an apartheid era, when crime statistics were not published. Now, we are publishing crime statistics regularly. That in itself should be given to us as a credit, because what was off the radar, is now put on the radar."