Twenty years ago they went to the polls in South Africa full of hope and in the knowledge they were casting the votes that would make history. It was the first democratic election in a land ruled for decades by the oppressive regime of apartheid. The black majority was finally having its say. The future was theirs.
Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was now in charge.
Today they are back in the polling booths, but, truth be told, it is more in disappointment and frustration than in hope. The ANC will win and probably win big but it is relying on the past to get by. In Alexandra township, one of the poorest in Johannesburg, the election posters exhort the voters to “Do it for Madiba” referring to Mandela by his clan name.
Significantly there is little mention of the current President, Jacob Zuma, who is mired in scandal and accusations of corruption and who is perceived to have not done enough to lift the poor from the misery of their still desperate lives.
Just after Mandela passed away I visited Alexandra and was shocked by how little had changed in two decades. A charity worker in the township walked me through the overcrowded, shack-ridden, squalor and said he had expected more from the ANC. They took power but not responsibility, he told me. They have let too many people down.
It is why these elections take place against a backdrop of protests, looting and violence in some areas. They are called “service delivery protests” and they are aimed at the ANC. It is why these elections see for the first time dissident veterans of the party breaking away, forming new parties and challenging the ANC elite. And it is why a former leader of the ANC youth wing is winning support from the township young, burning with anger .
It will be fascinating to see how much the margin of victory is whittled away this time round. Many voters will, for the first time, come from the so called “born free” generation, those 18 and 19-year-olds who have never known life under apartheid. Much is being made of them, though only a third of those eligible have actually registered to vote.
So, yes, the ANC will win. Just five months after Mandela’s death it may well be a vote in his memory. But they can’t rely on him forever.
The people of South Africa need new heroes for a new future.