South African President Jacob Zuma is set to lay out the ruling party’s successes when he leads official celebrations to mark 20 years since the end of apartheid, amid a three-month long strike in the platinum industry and a 24 percent jobless rate.
Zuma, 72, will give a speech in Pretoria, the capital, on April 27 to commemorate Freedom Day, when South Africans of all races went to the polls for the first time in the 1994 election that brought the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela to power. The government is driving the celebrations this weekend at the Union Buildings under the theme of “South Africa, a better place to live in.”
In its two decades of rule, the ANC-led government has quelled political violence, scrapped discriminatory laws and ended segregation in suburbs, schools and universities. It’s been less successful in delivering on its 1994 election campaign slogan of “a better life for all,” with millions of black South Africans unemployed and living in squalor in shantytowns.
“What has been achieved in developmental terms in the short space of 20 years is unprecedented,” Aubrey Matshiqi, a research fellow at the Johannesburg-based Helen Suzman Foundation, which promotes constitutional democracy, said in an April 22 phone interview. “There are deficits in the pace, scope and quality of delivery. On balance we have done very well but could have done much better.”
Zuma has become a lightning rod for discontent. He’s been jeered in front of U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders at the December memorial service for Mandela, three weeks later at a soccer match and on several occasions while campaigning for May 7 elections.
Critics say the ANC no longer governs on behalf of the people. They point to the police shooting of 34 striking workers in August 2012 at a Lonmin Plc mine in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, and allegations by the nation’s anti-graft ombudsman that Zuma unduly benefited from 215 million rand ($20 million) in state spending to renovate his private home at Nkandla that included a swimming pool, an amphitheater and a cattle enclosure. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to apartheid and has criticized the ANC in the past, says democratic South Africa has made significant gains.
“We should pat ourselves on the back, we should boast and say we have done some remarkable things,” Tutu told reporters in Cape Town on April 23. “All of those prophets of doom said we were not going to make it. We have made it.”
In the past two years, frustration among poor communities has sparked an unprecedented wave of unrest. There were 214 strikes and protests over the lack of proper sanitation, housing and local government services in the first quarter of this year and 714 last year, according to the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.
A three-month strike this year over wages at platinum mines has crippled output in the world’s biggest producer.
ANC officials such as Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize say the party is facing its toughest election yet, even though three recent polls show the ANC winning more than 60 percent support for a fifth straight time.
“There is also a whole mismatch between expectations and the reality of the availability of resources,” Mkhize said in an April 3 interview. “The question is: ‘After 20 years, how can I still be living in a shack?’”
The government has made headway in addressing some of apartheid’s worst deprivations, building 2.8 million homes for the poor and increasing access to water and electricity.
The proportion of the population of 53 million living below the extreme poverty line of 290 rand a month fell to 31.3 percent last year from 41.1 percent in 1994, as the number of welfare grant recipients swelled to 16 million from 2.7 million, according to official data.
“Since the ANC has come into power, we get treatment at the clinic for free,” said Basana Maswanganyi, a 34-year-old single mother of two who earns a living selling food on the streets of Alexandra, about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the business district of Sandton. “At the pharmacy I wouldn’t spend less than 800 rand a month, and now I can get it for free. So that’s what I would say is a good change.”
Black citizens still earn on average a sixth of what their white counterparts do, a 2011 census showed, and 1.9 million households had no income at all. More than 10 million people lack proper shelter, as evidenced by the sprawling shantytowns that skirt almost every city.
The government has had mixed success in stoking an economy that was stifled by sanctions during apartheid. Growth has averaged 3.2 percent over the past two decades, lagging other emerging-market economies such as India, which expanded an average 6.8 percent. The unemployment rate has risen to 24.1 percent from 22.9 percent in 1994, with job creation failing to keep pace with the number of new entrants to the labor market, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The rand has dropped 15 percent against the dollar in the past year and was trading as low as 10.6637 in Johannesburg today.
Among the government’s biggest failures is an education system in which half of all children who start school drop out before completing the 12-year curriculum. South Africa’s mathematics and science education was the worst of 148 countries ranked by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC’s deputy president who’s among the frontrunners to replace Zuma when he ends his term in 2019, says South Africa needs more time.
“We could never have wiped out the poverty of our people which accumulated over decades and decades of apartheid misrule,” he said in a March 30 interview in Cape Town. “We have achieved a great deal.”