South Africans Cast Ballots 20 Years Since Apartheid

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This election marks 20 years since Nelson Mandela was elected and will be the first since his death. Renee Montagne talks to Verashni Pillay, associate editor for the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg.


And voters in South Africa are casting ballots all over the country this morning. The polls are open in a vote that comes 20 years after that country made history with its first multi-racial election. That election ended minority rule and apartheid, Nelson Mandela became president, and the African National Congress came to power in a landslide. Today the ANC will win again with its candidate, Jacob Zuma, being reelected as president.

But the ANC government has been hurt by a series of scandals, which is where we begin our conversation with Verashni Pillay, an editor of the Mail and Guardian newspaper in Johannesburg.

VERASHNI PILLAY: We have to say, of course, that the ANC has done its fair bit for the country. In the 20 years of democracy there has of course been major access to water, electricity, housing, all manner of things. However, one cannot ignore the many problems besetting the ANC. Chief of those being corruption. Over $20 million of public money was spent on security upgrades at President Jacob Zuma's house, much to the public's outrage.

Another issue is, of course, increasing police brutality which was epitomized during the ‚ÄéMarikana massacre in 2012, where dozens of protesting mineworkers were just shot in cold blood, shocking images that really reminded South Africans of apartheid, and of course related to that is just the rising rate of protests over(ph) delivery of key services to the poorest of the poor.

MONTAGNE: The ANC is expected to win, but your own paper, the Mail & Guardian, which has endorsed it for several elections, this year the paper editorially is encouraging people to vote for other parties. What's the thinking there?

PILLAY: You know, it's been an interesting question. Looking at the ANC, you see a lot of infighting, a lot of factionalism. It's undermined certain state institutions that should be upholding our democracy, and we're saying, you know what, we actually cannot endorse them again. We also have the prospect of a stronger opposition party than we've had in the past.

So previously, when we endorsed the ANC, there really wasn't a great alternative. But now there are some alternatives for the voter to look to.

MONTAGNE: Well, I gather there is one rising political star and he's with the Democratic Alliance, known as the DA, which up until now has been identified more as a party of whites, or at least of non-blacks, or very few blacks. But this is a young man who is in fact black.

PILLAY: Absolutely. I take it you're talking about Musi Maimane.


PILLAY: Musi Maimane is a very interesting politician. The DA, opposition DA has rightly identified Musi Maimane as the face of the party's future. He is young, black, charismatic, everything the party was not in the past. It was very uncharismatic, not to mention perceived as white dominated. It's not clear how much grassroot support he has, but he is a refreshing breath of air.

MONTAGNE: You know, I think one thing, though, that people find somewhat sad or unfortunate about this election is that it seems that young people, the very people who have been referred to as born frees - that is, people born either just before or just after the end of apartheid, young people do not seem interested in this election. Why would that be?

PILLAY: There's so many reasons for that. I was talking a youth leader and she told me that this sort of disinterest amongst that particular generation is the same every election. We've just put a higher significance on them this time around because they're the so-called born frees. So you're right. The registration rates are pretty shocking. Only about 35 percent of 18 and 19-year-olds even bother to register to vote.

And this is much lower than the rest of the country. Everyone over the age of 30, about 90 percent of them register to vote. However, young people in this country do participate politically. They just do it in different ways. They're very vocal on social networks. They're very excited. A lot of them just don't quite make it to the polling stations, I think.

MONTAGNE: This is clearly not an election that is going to see the ANC lose power, but is it seen in any way as the sort of end of one era and the next election will be the beginning of potentially something else?

PILLAY: I think a lot of people are expecting that. If the ANC were to fall below 60 percent based on today's results, that would be something to talk about. That would probably prompt the party to somehow replace the very problematic president in Jacob Zuma and it will also be a wakeup call for the party to get its house in order.

So in that sense it could be the beginning of a new age for South Africa.

MONTAGNE: Verashni Pillay of the Mail & Guardian speaking to us from Johannesburg, thank you very much.

PILLAY: Renee, thank you so much for having me.

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