At 24, Abetse Mashigo was born a year after South Africa’s brutal apartheid system was dismantled. Yet she still feels frustrated by what she sees as continued economic inequality for its people.
And that will be on her mind as she and others vote May 8 to elect a president and parliament.
“South Africa is a great country, but it has many shortfalls,” Mashigo said, flicking her dreadlocks back with a flourish . “Seeing the spectrum of both wealthy and poor, it’s a constant everyday struggle.”
Many of the country’s young voters never directly experienced apartheid’s racial oppression and segregation that was ended in 1994 under South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, and his African National Congress. But they and others say they want to see more drastic change, and leaders of opposition parties are hoping to win their support.
Mashigo said she is angered by apartheid’s legacy, which keeps many blacks in poverty. She said she’s impatient for change, and that’s why she backs the Economic Freedom Fighters, known as the EFF, one of the three main parties among dozens vying for power in the election.
“I’m part of the Red Sea,” she said, jokingly referring to the bright red clothing worn by supporters of the opposition party. “I like the EFF because it is radical and different. It’s rebellious, and I like that.”
The party has pledged to seize white-owned land without compensation and nationalize mines and banks.
Mashigo’s 59-year-old father, Thamsanqa, watches with pride as his daughter voices her outspoken opinions. He shares many of her beliefs but has a more cautious approach, saying he is still undecided which party will get his vote.
Many older South Africans among the 26 million eligible voters still support for the ANC, which has governed for a quarter-century. But they also say they are disgusted by widespread corruption blamed on the party. President Cyril Ramaphosa has pledged to root out corruption in the country. A former trade union representative, he came to power in February 2018 after Jacob Zuma resigned amid mounting scandals.
The elections are taking place amid growing pessimism. About 64% of South Africans are dissatisfied with the country’s democracy, an increase from 34% who described themselves as unhappy in 2013, according to a Pew Research poll released Friday.
“I have voted in every election (since blacks could vote) and I’m not going to miss this one,” Thamsanqa Mashigo said. “I’ve never had doubts in my mind about who to vote for, but this time … I’m still deciding. … There is doubt in my mind.”
He described a “frightening” life under apartheid, when “people disappeared. I think some families even today don’t know what happened to their loved ones.”
When apartheid ended, “we were really excited about that. … We had a black government and Mandela was president. That was progress! … We said freedom at last was arriving in our lifetime!”
Mashigo, who works in information technology, said he is now disappointed with the ANC.
“The gap between black and white has just grown bigger and bigger. And by 25 years, I expect it to be much better. The gap should have closed, not totally, but at least be on the right track,” he said, adding that the ANC should have focused on education and health care.
Like his daughter, he complained about rampant corruption and the high unemployment rate of 27%.
Unemployment is an even more pressing among the young, with nearly 40% of those under 34 without jobs, according to the government’s Stats SA.
Although disillusioned with the ANC, Mashigo is suspicious of the Economic Freedom Fighters that his daughter supports.
He said he doesn’t trust the EFF’s firebrand leader Julius Malema because “he was caught with his hands in the cookie jar.”
Malema was kicked out of the ANC after allegations of corruption surfaced.
“These guys are disgruntled, that’s all,” Mashigo added.
Nor is he convinced by the other major opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. It was started by white liberals but has attracted considerable black support, winning control of city councils in Cape Town and Johannesburg. It now has a black leader, Mmusi Maimane.
“I don’t think he controls the party the way a leader should control his party,” Mashigo said, leaving him still undecided about how to vote.
There are 5.6 million registered voters between the ages of 18 to 29, nearly one-fifth of those eligible to cast ballots.
They could boost support for the Economic Freedom Fighters, which got about 6% of the vote in the 2014 election and is widely expected to improve on that number.
“These elections are exciting for young voters,” said Lwazi Khoza, a 22-year-old university student and project manager for YouthLab, a youth advocacy group.
“The EFF are appealing to many young voters. The EFF leaders present themselves as rebellious and non-conformist,” she said.
Khoza, who will be finishing her degree this year, said many young voters want change.
“As a young black woman living in post-apartheid South Africa, I am frustrated by the slow pace of change. Yes, things have improved since the apartheid days, but not enough. Things have become stagnant,” she said.
“Are we free? Really? Or are we still being held down because of the past?” she said. “We cannot say we are on an equal playing field, educationally or economically. That’s why many young voters want to see change.”
Makhumo Kwathi, an unemployed 25-year-old who lives with her parents in Soweto, Johannesburg’s largest black township, said she is looking forward to voting.
“I want my voice to be heard,” Kwathi said. “To be quite honest, I’m not going to vote for the ANC, because the ANC has been giving us all these false hopes till now. … All these scandals … Now we can see where our money is going. The ANC is promising us the opposite of what they have been doing.”
Kwathi, a high school graduate who is looking for work as a bank teller, would not say which party she will vote for but said she wants a new government that will create more jobs.
“I want to see change. More youth need to be employed,” she said. “How can we, the youth, be the future of the country when we are unemployed? How can we go forward as a country?”