South Africa's ruling ANC party risks losing its grip on power in watershed election

South Africa is set to go to the polls for the most unpredictable election in the country's 30 years of democratic rule, ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports

Rats scurry and sewage water trickles past the ramshackle huts, which are home to tens of thousands of people in the township of Alexandra in South Africa.

"There’s no water at all. There’s no toilet, there’s no electricity, there’s nothing," Pamela Nhobela, who has lived in the same shack for 12 years, tells me.

“My life is not worth living here. It’s like living in a graveyard. We live with rats and the environment is not good. There’s nothing good about this area, nothing at all.”

As she leads us towards her home, past neighbours wearing T-shirts bearing the logo of the African National Congress (ANC), the party of government ever since the birth of democracy, she says she "cannot feel any love for a party which does not love her".

She admits to a growing sense of shame as we inch closer towards her tinned-roof squatter shanty, where we will see the place she is forced to call home.

”This is my shack, this is where I live. Just look at it. They expect me to go and vote for this?”

The township of Alexandra in South Africa. Credit: ITV News

It has been 30 years since the euphoria of April 27, 1994 - or "Freedom Day" - when democratic South Africa was born.

This week, its people go to the polls again. But to Pamela, and for many people in the Alexandra township, democracy now feels like a draining disappointment.

"The government we've been voting for is not helping us, so it's not worth it for me to vote," she says.

"How can I vote for someone who is going to be on top of the world while I am down here struggling and suffering? I keep on voting, but it's for nothing. There's no change so I'm not going to vote this time."

Support for the ANC has fallen because of so-called "service delivery problems" - widespread cuts to water and electricity supplies, corruption and poverty.

The electricity poles in her community have become a symbol of promises undelivered. Because although they haven’t carried a regular power supply for as long as anyone can remember, they remain a plaster board for the political parties.

It is where posters are hung showing pictures of their smiling candidates pledging a better life.

Pamela Nhobela has lived in the same shack for 12 years. Credit: ITV News

And goading the Alexandrans from across the motorway are the gleaming skyscrapers of Sandton, the richest square mile in the country.

Every morning, minibuses pick people up to be taken to cook and clean there - the business district provides some people in the township with work, but unemployment is thought to be in excess of 50 percent.

South Africa was meant to embody the aspirations of the developing world - but the promise of equality upon which the Rainbow Nation was founded has come to feel like a mirage.

The national unemployment rate rose to 32.9% during the first three months of this year.

The country remains the most unequal in the world and “race remains a key driver” behind the gap, according to a 2022 World Bank report. It found that the richest 10% of the population owns more than four-fifths of financial assets.

For Dr Mamphela Ramphele, the anti-apartheid icon, the ANC is a "criminal enterprise" which has deceived its supporters to enrich themselves, handing lucrative government contracts to friends while doing little to improve the lives of ordinary people.

“Betrayal doesn’t begin to capture the actual pain, because not only have they betrayed me but particularly, they have betrayed my peers who in the end made the ultimate sacrifice," Dr Ramphele says.

"I have come to the sad conclusion, as Archbishop (Desmond Tutu) did, that the ANC no longer represents the people of South Africa and their dreams. They represent themselves, and themselves, and themselves."

Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Credit: ITV News

Dr Ramphele was the partner of Steve Biko, a leading anti-apartheid activist who died in custody in 1977 and who might have become the first black president of South Africa.

"This ANC government for decades has refused to teach civil education in the classroom and so they are perpetuating a colonial mindset, they are perpetuating dependency. They are denying us the ability to be licensed drivers of this beautiful country, this beautiful constitutional democracy."

"A grievous error, a grievous betrayal, has been committed by the current government and its predecessors. So it is time for every South African to stop complaining and exercise the power they have. "

Some polls have suggested that the ANC could score less than 50 percent of the vote, which might force it into a shaky coalition with a smaller party such as the Marxist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters.

But in Soweto, once the home of the anti-apartheid movement, we are reminded that despite the distance left towards what most would call ‘liberation’, the country has travelled a long way since the ANC came to power.

The perspective is shared by the Molefes family who we first met in 2010 as the football World Cup was being opened in a stadium a few minutes drive from their home.

Their neighbourhood felt energised that day as South Africans welcomed the world.

But, Nothemba, a school teacher, and her husband Mandla, a municipal worker, worried about the longer term: What direction would the country go in once the party ended and the vuvuzelas stopped playing? Would this become the society they had been promised, where their children would be allowed to thrive?

Wearing a Bafana Bafana shirt, their shy son Kutlwano told me at the time that his dream was to go to university to study physiotherapy and to find a way to combine it with his passion for football.

“For (my parents’ generation) their politicians were the politicians but our icons are these football stars,” he told me.

Kutlwano now works as a physiotherapist at Orlando Pirates. Credit: Ayanda Shots

Meeting Kutlwano again fourteen years later, in the family’s newly-extended home, he proudly reveals he is "living his dream".

He now works as a physiotherapist at Orlando Pirates, the football team he, his parents, and his grandfather have supported all their lives. His newborn baby would almost certainly become a "Pirate" too.

Kutlwano travels the world to treat the superstar players.

"In 2010, I spoke about dreams and this is me probably living the dream” he tells me. “I never thought that I would be a physiotherapist for a team I grew up supporting - one of the biggest football clubs in the country.”

Kutlwano's sister, Ofentse, who as a school pupil 14 years ago said she aspired to have a leadership role in the education system, has just been promoted to principal at an elite school.

This week she is teaching her pupils - white and black - about the importance of democracy.

“We teach a generation that is very vocal compared to us, we teach a generation that is not easily influenced into thinking a certain way.”

Her parents see in their family a story of South African success.

“For me the ANC has worked very much,” says their mother Nothemba.

She will not forget apartheid, and credits the ANC for helping to bring the racist system down.

The data is damning for the governing party. But elections are won and lost on emotional connections too.

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