Some are losing faith in the ANC

Fergal Keane,bbc news, @fergalkeane47

BBC Montage of images related to the South African electionsbbc

They were shadow people moving beyond the light of small fires on a winter dawn. At the time there was no indication that I was about to encounter one of the most extraordinary sights of my time in South Africa.

In this part of the country, winter is a cold, dry season that burns the savanna. The ground is hard as flint and when the wind blows across the plains, dust covers the squatters and everything they carry.

I heard them digging and, as I got closer, I saw a woman cutting the earth. Nearby, other men and women were doing the same. They had old gardening tools, machetes, pieces of stone, anything to make holes into which they put pieces of plastic, tin and wood.

I asked the woman what she was doing. “We are hiding our huts,” she told me.

It was an illegal camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg in 1994, as South Africa was preparing to vote in its first non-racial elections.

To see that vote in a nation brutalized by apartheid was to witness an overwhelming moment in human history. The first voters – mostly elderly – who cast their ballots silently moved history inexorably forward.

Thirty years later, South Africa is a very different country. Democracy has endured. The fear and racist brutality of the past have disappeared. But there is widespread disillusionment with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in power since Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president.

Back then, the woman hiding her hut told me her name was Cynthia Mthebe. Her story has stayed with me for over 30 years.

As the sun rose, the squatter camp gradually disappeared underground. An hour earlier, there was a community of several dozen flimsy shacks and tents. Now there were only people, wrapped in blankets, sitting around the fire.

File image of Cynthia collecting cans in a trash can

Cynthia used to feed her family by selling cans she collected from garbage dumps.

Children dressed in school uniforms were heading towards the main road, about a mile beyond the fields. No matter the degradation they suffered here, parents fought to give their children an education.

Cynthia then had seven children and took care of them alone. Her husband abandoned the family several years earlier and had not been heard from since.

Every day, she and the other squatters buried their houses so the government wouldn’t tear them down. And every night Cynthia came back, dug up her house and slept there with the children. They had been tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets, but they still returned. There was nowhere else to go.

“I want to live in a nice house with my children because I am suffering. I want to be just like white people. “I am suffering because I am black,” she said at the time. Cynthia fed her family by working at a garbage dump, collecting cans that she sold for a pittance. Enough to sustain life on the margins of existence.

Getty Images Photograph from 1994 of people campaigning for Nelson Mandela.fake images

The ANC has been in power since 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president.

In the unfolding narrative of his life is the story of millions of South Africa’s poorest people. He was born on a white-owned farm in 1946, two years before Afrikaner nationalists came to power and began implementing the policy of apartheid.

Racial discrimination became law. Every aspect of non-white life—where they could live, what jobs they could do, who they could marry—was brutally policed ​​by the white government. Torture, disappearances, and daily humiliation tormented the lives of black people.

Under the so-called Great Apartheid, the state would dump millions of black people into barren tribal “homelands” where they would be granted nominal independence. In reality, they were abandoned to poverty under the rule of despotic local leaders. Then there were the laws by which people were classified racially. One of the tests of the race consisted of running a pencil through a person’s hair. If they passed unobstructed, they were classified as white. If not, they were thrown into the world of apartheid discrimination.

‘I want to live in a nice house’: what happened to Cynthia’s dream in South Africa

One of Cynthia’s many painful memories of apartheid is her time working as a maid in a white house in Johannesburg. She was offered scraps of food and she began to eat them off her employer’s plate. “The lady of the house told me that she should never do that, eat from the same plate as them. It was like I was a dog,” she told me.

Cynthia Mthebe was one of the tens of millions to whom Nelson Mandela had promised a land of equality and justice after his release from prison in 1990. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech three years later, the ANC leader spoke of that South Africans would become “the children of Paradise.”

As South Africa entered the final days of its 2024 election campaign, I headed to the rural heart of the country’s northwest to see Cynthia, far from the illegal Ivory Park camp where we first met.

Getty Images A 1994 photograph of a child holding an ANC election poster.fake images

ANC admits corruption failures during 30 years in power

Mandela has been dead for more than a decade and his party, Africa’s oldest liberation movement, is losing popularity. There is widespread disillusionment with official corruption (estimated to have cost billions of pounds) and poor governance. South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world, with the average white family probably 20 times richer than their black counterparts, according to one study. Successive polls have shown that the ANC is in danger of losing the overall majority it has had since the first democratic elections in 1994.

The last leg of the trip to Cynthia takes me down a dirt road, passing meandering cattle, a man digging his garden, and groups of women and children returning from church. Cowbells jingle and kwaito (a distinctly South African version of house music) blares from a radio in one of the small brick huts that dot the landscape in Klipgat, the settlement where Cynthia moved seven years ago.

I recognize the blue house with the lemon tree in the garden. I’ve been here before. In 30 years I never lost contact with Cynthia and her family. I see the old woman approaching through the patio. She leans on the arm of her granddaughter Thandi, a member of Cynthia’s family of nine children, 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Cynthia reaches out to take mine and then wraps me in her arms. “Fergal is you,” she says. Cynthia is now blind. The woman whose sharp eyes once watched over her family in the squalor of illegal camps now lives in a world of darkness and sounds.

Getty Images South African President Cyril Ramaphosa campaignsfake images

Cyril Ramaphosa hopes to be re-elected president, but the ANC has seen its popularity decline.

She is also diabetic. Years of working in garbage dumps and living in shacks have taken a heavy toll. However, her home is a place of security and peace. The local clinic facilities are better than those available in the city. Cynthia also receives a monthly social grant of 2,000 rand (around $108; £85).

But the house was built by his children, with money they patiently saved doing whatever work they could find. Her oldest daughter, Doris, found work in a white-owned store. Eldest son Phillip works in the markets in Pretoria, about an hour away. The grandchildren help too. When I originally filmed with Cynthia in the 1990s, there was great support from BBC audiences who sent money to help the family.

The Mthebes have stayed together as a family thanks to their own efforts, not thanks to what the State or anyone else gave them. “Even now things haven’t gotten better,” says Cynthia. “I’m trying… (to survive) by all means.

“But I don’t have energy because we don’t have food if I don’t have money, because the subsidy is too small.” Nowadays it is Doris who provides much of what her mother needs to live, while at the same time she helps her own son and daughter.

Cynthia Mthebe with her children and grandchildren

Cynthia has nine children, 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Cynthia is angry with the government. “There are no jobs… people are suffering. But they (the ANC) say vote for me, vote for me always. I’m not going to go out and vote. So that? Because it doesn’t matter. The government does nothing for us.”

He points to the lack of running water in his home, the frequent power outages in the area due to the deterioration of the country’s electrical grid, many of them caused by corruption and lack of investment.

The ANC admits it has made serious mistakes, but points to the legacy of inequality from more than three centuries of white rule, something that could not be overcome in 30 years. The party says it has built millions of houses, provided essential services to the poor and more clinics and hospitals. The official estimate is that 1.4 million are still waiting for housing; many believe that figure is a considerable underestimate. The fact is that much more could have been done if so much money and energy had not been wasted on corruption and factional fighting within the ruling party.

Cynthia’s views on South Africa and the ANC (she was a proud supporter of Mandela in 1994) are strongly influenced by her family’s experience. Her middle son, Amos, was shot by criminals and is now lame and struggling to find work in a country with an unemployment rate of more than 30%. Crime in South Africa hurts black South Africans the most.

About 25,000 people were murdered last year, one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Joyce, Cynthia’s second daughter, was abandoned by her husband and is also unemployed. Another son, Jimmy, died of alcohol abuse in a township near Johannesburg.

The family asked me to show them the original films I had made in the ’90s. We sat in the warmth of the tin-roofed living room as the past unfolded on my laptop screen. Cynthia in the tent at night. Cynthia working at the garbage dump. The younger children helping her. Jimmy, already lost to alcohol, looking into the distance.

Watching their own story, tears ran down the faces of Doris, Amos, and Thandi. A great-granddaughter put her hand to her mouth in shock at seeing Cynthia digging in the landfill.

Then Doris spoke. “I want to thank you mom. I am who I am thanks to you. I love you.” Amos wiped his eyes and, struggling to speak, said: “What can I say about a mother like that? I am very proud of her.”

Cynthia had only been able to hear the sounds of that past world from the computer, and now she heard the words of her children. She was smiling. A blind old woman surrounded by love. A brave survivor of her nation’s struggles.

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