In South Africa Elections, A.N.C. Can’t Count On Black Middle-Class Voters

A protest against the lack of services in Alexandra, outside Johannesburg, in April.CreditJoao Silva/The New York Times


— Ahead of the general elections on Wednesday in South Africa, Josiah Tsheko found himself in a category now familiar to members of the nation’s growing black middle class: the undecided voter.

He liked the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former business tycoon and the leader of the long-governing African National Congress party. But as Mr. Tsheko oversaw workers who were adding an extension to his ranch-style house on a recent morning, he said he had deep misgivings about the party itself.

“My friends like Cyril — I also do,” said Mr. Tsheko, 42, a human resources manager at a mining company. “Remember, the guy knows business. The problem is the guy is surrounded by the party mafia.”

The A.N.C., the party that was led by Nelson Mandela and helped free black South Africans, is all but certain to garner the most votes nationally in the election, ensuring that Mr. Ramaphosa will win a five-year term as South Africa’s president.

But whether enough black middle-class voters return to the A.N.C. will help determine the party’s margin of victory — and, more important, whether Mr. Ramaphosa gets the strong mandate to carry out his push against corruption and efforts to clean up his own party.

Nearly as significant, the political fate of Gauteng — the nation’s richest province, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria as well as the biggest concentration of black middle-class voters — rests on how they will cast their ballots.

The loss of Gauteng would be a big blow to the A.N.C., which lost control over the nation’s second richest province, the Western Cape, a decade ago. It would increasingly transform the A.N.C. into a party dependent on poor urban and rural voters — the people over whom it holds sway through social benefits and patronage.

“It’s the A.N.C.’s last chance to hold the middle class, and certainly in Gauteng,” said David Everatt, head of the Wits School of Governanceat the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

It is up to Mr. Ramaphosa to persuade black middle-class voters that he can change the A.N.C., “which is now identified with corruption and maladministration,” said Mr. Everatt, who has also done polling for the party in the province.

In local elections in 2016, Mr. Tsheko, enraged by the A.N.C.’s endemic corruption, voted for the first time against the A.N.C. His vote helped sink the party in Chantelle, a suburb of Pretoria where he and his neighbors complain on a WhatsApp message group about faulty street lamps and potholes.

With heavy losses in Chantelle and other black middle-class neighborhoods that year, the A.N.C. lost its control of the city council in Pretoria, the nation’s capital. The party’s loss of two other major cities — including Johannesburg, the commercial capital — came to symbolize the alienation of black urban professionals, once part of the A.N.C.’s core support.

Mr. Ramaphosa, an anti-apartheid labor leader who made a fortune in private business before returning to active politics in 2012, was narrowly elected the A.N.C.’s leader in late 2017. Two months later, he became South Africa’s president after forcing out his predecessor, the scandal-tainted Jacob Zuma.

Mr. Zuma, whose base was among the poor, especially in rural areas, had a tense relationship with black middle-class voters. He dismissed them as “clever blacks” who, he and his allies said, failed to show gratitude for the A.N.C.-led policies on government employment and affirmative action that helped fuel black upward mobility.

Reacting against the corruption that flourished during the Zuma years, many black middle-class voters began abandoning the party.

[Read more on corruption scandals in South Africa under the African National Congress.]

That was most evident in the 2016 local elections in communities like Chantelle, an all-white community under apartheid that is now more than 90 percent black. The A.N.C. won only 40 percent of the votes in the district that includes Chantelle — down from 69 percent in the previous local election in 2011.

Sybil Louw, who is 66 and recently retired after working as a nurse for 47 years, stopped registering to vote in 2014. A lifelong supporter of the A.N.C. until then, she had become disgusted by what she saw as the party’s culture of prioritizing personal gains for members and their allies.

“They’re thieves, they steal to the core — that’s our tax money,” Ms. Louw said, sitting on her front porch, facing a large, well-kept lawn in Chantelle.

“So I haven’t registered to vote,” she said, laughing. “What do I get out of it?”

An increasing number of South Africans have joined her in not registering either, a striking fact in a country where black citizens earned the right to vote a little more than a generation ago and where voter turnout is usually high.

In a country where blacks make up 90 percent of the total population of 58 million, the black middle class has reached 5.6 million people, according the Unilever Institute for Strategic Marketing at the University of Cape Town — though other experts estimate the number is lower.

Excitement over Mr. Ramaphosa reached its peak in the months after he became president, as he aggressively courted black middle-class voters, exhorting them to give their “love back” to the A.N.C.

But the enthusiasm has cooled as Mr. Ramaphosa has failed to revive the economy and fix state enterprises, including Eskom, the national power utility which has been carrying out the worst rolling blackouts in years. What’s more, many voters and media commentators expressed deep disappointment that despite Mr. Ramaphosa’s pledge to fight corruption, not a single member of the A.N.C. has been held accountable.

Mr. Ramaphosa himself is now under investigation by the Public Protector’s Office, the government’s anti-corruption agency, for accepting a campaign donation from Bosasa, a logistics company that is accused of systematically paying huge bribes to A.N.C. leaders in return for government contracts.

If Chantelle is any indication, the A.N.C. is struggling to win back the hearts of the black middle class.

Agnes Mnguni, 55, a supermarket manager, said she was planning to endorse the A.N.C. as she has done every election since the end of apartheid. But it was not out of any enthusiasm; it was simply in memory of her brother, who died in the liberation movement’s armed wing during apartheid.

“Even though I’ve lost interest in the A.N.C., I won’t stop voting for it because of my late brother,” she said.

Young residents of Chantelle, like Tumi Hihumba, 20, had no such emotional attachment. Even though he was eligible to vote in an election for the first time, he had not registered.

“I don’t see the point of voting actually,” he said, explaining that he did not support the A.N.C., but that the party would win nationally thanks to older voters.

Only in 10 years would the A.N.C. lose nationally because of changing demographics, allowing for real change, Mr. Hihumba said, a prediction echoed by many political analysts.

Some, like the Zitha family, said they had quit the A.N.C. for good.

In the 2016 local elections, the family of four abandoned the A.N.C. to support the Economic Freedom Fighters, an A.N.C. spinoff that supports taking white-owned land for poor blacks. This time, the mother and younger daughter were sticking with the Economic Freedom Fighters, while the father and older daughter were gravitating to the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party.

Danny Zitha, 66, a retired schoolteacher, said he was annoyed by the A.N.C.’s attempts to woo back voters like himself, especially with talk that the black middle class owed its success to the party.

“I’m proud of what I have,” he said, pointing to the improvements he was making to his home. “All the structure I have here is my money, not the A.N.C.’s.”