Is the ANC losing control of South Africa?
That’s the intriguing premise explored in a story on the BBC. The piece focuses on a town on the southeastern coast, Bitou, a tourist town about 330 miles east of Cape Town where the ANC’s mayor lost the last election to a candidate from the opposition Democratic Alliance.
It is a trend that is being repeated all over Africa’s richest nation, as the ANC is being sunk by the disillusionment of many black South Africans who haven’t seen much improvement in their standard of living and by the perceptions that corruption is running through the management of the African National Congress. The story in Bitou reflects the national struggle that South African President Jacob Zuma faces, as many South Africans are growing frustrated with his leadership.
South Africa is grappling with the question of who will emerge as the leader of the African National Congress at the party leadership conference this month. Many question whether Zuma has been so damaged by scandal, the mining massacre and the resulting labor unrest this year that he doesn’t have enough support to retain the presidency.
In Bitou, the former ANC mayor, Lulama Mvimbi, told the BBC reporter that the allegations of corruption were lies, deliberately spread in order to boost support for the Democratic Alliance—but Mvimbi didn’t help his cause by driving around in a top of the line BMW. He claimed the car, which was since been returned, was needed for security and was chosen by someone else.
In the last local elections last year, the Democratic Alliance won 24 percent of the vote, and the party won 17 percent of the vote in the 2009 national elections—enough to capture management of the Western Cape province. This is a huge jump from the 2 percent the party won in 1994, the start of South Africa’s democratic majority rule.
Memory Booysens, the new mayor of Bitou, who used to be a senior official in the local ANC, said he was shocked by the level of corruption he saw when he took over.
“When we took over it was shocking. We hadn’t realised the municipality was insolvent. It was corrupt from top to bottom—councillors were doing business with the municipality,” said Booysens, who the BBC says is now engaged in a series of legal battles against former employees and suspect tenders, in a desperate effort to get back some of the money.
“This was endemic—it was part of the fabric of how the ANC was running the town,” Booysens said, adding that the local officials were simply emulating the corruption that they saw in the ruling party’s national leadership.
But the ANC officials called Booysens “a perpetual liar, a traitor and a political prostitute.”
Booysens now moves around his town with a bodyguard because he says his life has been threatened. He even wore body armor for several months after he won 18 months ago.
“I’m very fortunate to be alive,” Booysens said.
But Phakie Mbali, another local ANC official, said of Booysens, “He’s lying. There is no police report to say he’s been threatened.”
While Mbali acknowledged that factionalism within the ANC had prompted some voters to “lose trust” with the party, he alleged the DA had run “a campaign based on fear and intimidation.”
“I was ANC last time, and I’m DA now,” said Bitou resident Christina Nikisi, standing outside a new wooden house built by the local authorities after her old shack was destroyed in a fire. “I’m changing because the ANC is not doing well. Not enough. I think the mayor is going to do well,” she said.
“People see me as fair, because I don’t ask them who they vote for,” Booysens said. “I treat them all as citizens.”
But Booysens knows DA faces an uphill battle.
“It’s very difficult to break that loyalty [to the ANC],” he admitted. “The reason is that a lot of us are uneducated and we don’t base our vote on issues, we base it on sentimental things. The ANC tells people to vote for the ANC to please Nelson Mandela. But people need to understand that the values of Mandela are alive within the DA. The ANC is just lip service. So the more uneducated people we have—the better for the ANC.”