Like many rural South Africans, 38-year-old nurse Olga Fokazi lives in a town that since 1994 has been ruled by the powerful African National Congress. And like the majority of voters in her area, she has faithfully supported them in every national election, most recently in 2014. The party has dominated every national poll since the beginning of democracy in 1994.
But as elections approach on May 8, the ANC is preparing to fight the toughest battle of its 25-year run. In recent years, the party has been rocked by multiple high-level corruption scandals and mounting complaints about its failure to provide basic services and end the inequalities left by the legacy of apartheid. Political polls show that the ANC is poised to lose support in this year’s poll, from 62 percent nationwide in 2014, to as little as 57 percent this year.
In 2016’s municipal elections, the party lost several major metro areas — signaling the growing discontent among South Africa’s growing urban population.
But that discontent appears to have bled beyond the cities, and into smaller communities like Fokazi’s, where the party has long counted on support. In the sparsely populated Northern Cape province, where she lives, the ANC won a comfortable 64 percent of the vote in the last election, five years ago.
The party shouldn’t count on the same this time, Fokazi says. This year, disgusted by corruption and poor service delivery in her small town, she said plans to boycott the polls entirely. Political parties are so focused on winning urbanites, she says, that they have long neglected small towns.
“They just like concentrating on all these big towns, but here in the rural places, they’re not even coming,” she said. “They’re not coming to us, they’re not coming to us. So I don’t see why I should vote for the ANC.”
Analysts say voters like Fokazi are among a growing demographic of disillusioned ANC supporters. Many are turning to opposition parties like the Democratic Alliance or the Economic Freedom Fighters, but many others are simply staying away.
“Just because the ANC numbers might go down doesn’t mean that the urban areas have swung to opposition parties,” said professor Ivor Sarakinsky, of the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance. “The ANC’s got an internal opposition in terms of the voters not voting because the voters are not satisfied with the ANC, their party of choice.”
Twenty-six-year-old Mathabo Mokopane is one of those withdrawing her support for the ANC. Her own small town is ANC-run, and she also voted for them previously. Not this time, she says.
“The people we are voting for, actually, when we finish voting for them, they don’t look after the community anymore,” she said, citing small-scale ANC corruption scandals in her small town. She also blamed the party for failing to create work opportunities in her community, a move, she said, that forced her to hitchhike to the nearest mid-size town, Kimberley, to seek work.
In the small maize-farming town of Wolmaransstad, unemployed voter Tshepo Mosoeu says he’s lost hope that the ANC will bring improvements since the death of ANC icon Nelson Mandela, known by many South Africans simply as “Tata.”
“ANC failed us,” he told VOA as stood on the town’s main drag on a Saturday morning, watching others queue at the bank to draw their monthly salaries. “We are going to vote for EFF. It’s either we go for DA or EFF. But we must change. Because of Tata — he left a legacy for us. But what about us? There’s a rate of unemployment, there’s a lot of poverty, look at this road here.”
But hope is alive in the nearby town of Bloemhof, says Martha Phakedi, an energetic 30-year-old mother of two who recently took to the streets of this dusty town to campaign for the opposition Democratic Alliance.
“The rural areas are changing, they are starting to see the light,” she said. “Because they have been lied to for so many years. But to tell the truth, we as the opposition, we only need to work very hard to show these people that they have been used from 1994 until now, only for the benefits of certain families. So they are starting to see the light, and I do have hope that sooner or later the oppositions will take power here in Bloemhof.”
Fokazi isn’t so optimistic. She waited for hours by the side of the road on a recent Monday, hoping to hitch a ride to the hospital in Kimberley, where she works during the week. She wishes, she said, that she could work closer to home, and spend more time with her 10-year-old daughter, who she says dreams of becoming a doctor.
She worries about whether she’ll be able to pay university fees, or whether the underfunded local schools will provide her a good enough education — all things, she said, that she imagined would be possible when the ANC took power in 1994.
“Things need to change,” she said.