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South Africa's 'Born-Frees' Look Beyond Mandela's Party


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's turn now to South Africa, where elections are being held today. Twenty years ago, the country went to the polls for the first democratic elections after the end of apartheid.

But this election is taking on some additional poignance (ph), because this will be the first time the so-called born free generation - those born after the end of apartheid - will be going to the polls. The ruling African National Congress is expected to maintain its hold to power, but that's accompanied by very disappointment after a series of scandals involving the party and the current president, Jacob Zuma.

We wanted to hear more, so we've called Ferial Haffajee. She is the editor of the City Press newspaper in Johannesburg, and we speak to her from time to time about events in South Africa. And she's with us now again, from their offices. Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

FERIAL HAFFAJEE: Thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, I think a lot of people in this country remember that famous quote from former archbishop Desmond Tutu after he voted for the first time, saying that it was a wonderful feeling, like falling in love. What is the sentiment today?

HAFFAJEE: Everything I read - I've just come back from voting myself. There's a very festive around the voting stations. And I think that even 20 years later, for many of us, it's still something of a novelty and we know how hard won it was.

MARTIN: It's a public holiday, is it not?

HAFFAJEE: Yes, it has been declared a public holiday.

MARTIN: And what are the expectations for turnout?

HAFFAJEE: The turnout is lower than the uhuru, or the freedom election of 1994, where there it was unprecedented at something like 89 percent. I think we're becoming quite normal now. The worst-case scenario is a 54 percent turnout. I'm certainly hoping that it will be higher than that.

MARTIN: As I mentioned that this is the first time that those born after the end of apartheid will have the opportunity to vote. And we wanted to hear what some of them thought about voting, so we called a number of people. Here's Dedre Engelbrecht. She's a 20-year-old student at the University of Johannesburg, and this is what she told us.

DEDRE ENGELBRECHT: As a young person, I feel that this election today, marking 10 years of apartheid, it's a big thing because we are now part of it. And we do have the power to change it ourselves.

MARTIN: Is that a prevailing sentiment among many of the born free generation from what you've been able to determine?

HAFFAJEE: You know, I'm very happy to have heard young Deirdre speaking so excitedly about the elections. But the sad big picture is that lots of young people didn't even register to vote. They're they largest cohort of those people who didn't register to vote. We certainly are hoping that by the time that results come in on Friday, those who did register actually went and made the X today.

We were speaking about the Archbishop Desmond Tutu earlier. I was just reading a piece and watching a beautiful picture of him with his walking stick and a very jaunty beret on going to cast his vote. And his message to young people is that they shouldn't become blase about voting, I think very much speaking to the youngsters who you call the born frees.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, you know, we talked to another young woman named Cindy Dube. She's a 19-year-old student at Wits University. This is what she told us along those lines.

CINDY DUBE: So many of my friends aren't even going to vote. And so many students are not going to go vote because of the fear, the possibility that we could be failed, or we could be let down by these parties.

MARTIN: What do you think that's about?

HAFFAJEE: It's a global pattern. You see the same thing in Greece, in Spain, perhaps even in the U.S., where, increasingly, young people don't feel like their voice can be effectively exercised by electoral politics, casting your vote once every five years. Instead, they're more excited by a movement, by different kinds of citizen action, even by social media as a form of citizenship and social activism.

The additional issue we face in South Africa is I do think there are 3 million young people who are unemployed and have never had a job. And for them, I think the country feels like something they look into rather than something they're a part of. And I certainly hope that's going to be right at the top of the minds of politicians' agendas come next week.

MARTIN: We are told, though, that President Jacob Zuma of the African National Congress, which is the party of Nelson Mandela, does appear to be headed for another five-year term. And the party is also expecting a decisive win in the legislature as well. How is that possible if there is this widespread discontent? And while you're at it, why don't you tell us a little bit about what the source of discontent is?

HAFFAJEE: President Jacob Zuma, I think, has done good things in health and education, specifically fighting AIDS, in a far more committed, coherent way than his predecessors, including Nelson Mandela had done. In education, similarly, it's beginning to change very slowly, but it is changing.

Unfortunately, this has been a presidency besmirched by scandals, the last of which is a massive, massive payment on his private home, that has, I think, very much dogged the governing party in this election campaign. Yet he is still going to be president for the next five years, undoubtedly. He's fought a confident and very long campaign. Figures are showing up that he's less popular than the governing party is. But the ANC of Nelson Mandela is still, I think, the party of - the very clear party of the majority in South Africa.

MARTIN: Mr. Zuma does have a challenger, as I understand that. Julius Malema, founder of the breakaway Economic Freedom Fighters, is one of the stories of the election. Could you talk a little bit about him?

HAFFAJEE: Sure. I was just watching - looking at a picture now. Julius Malema voted in the North of the country. He attended a polling station with his granny, holding her hand. It's very much been his campaign, Michel - young man, early 30s, has really brought his party right to the forefront of the black imagination in South Africa.

I think he fought it on the idea of economic freedom, that while South Africans may have attained political freedom, they haven't attained economic freedom. And polls are suggesting he'll get about 4 percent - not a bad showing for a very, very new party that has only started a few months before the campaigning began.

MARTIN: I have a short clip of him speaking.


MARTIN: And I'll just - I'll play it for you, and then you can tell me what you think.


JULIUS MALEMA: Like this generation, we have our own generational mission, that of fighting for economic freedom in our lifetime. Our mission is a mission to restore the dignity of African masses.

MARTIN: What is the core of his message? Is it generational - it's time to move on from the anti-apartheid fighter generation, which was Nelson Mandela's generation? Is it primarily a racial appeal, or is it an economical equality appeal? Is it all those wrapped up together?

HAFFAJEE: Probably all wrapped up together. A little bit of context is important. He used to be the leader of the youth wing of the governing party. He was pushed out after he began to take sides against President Jacob Zuma. He was expelled and then started his own party. Many commentators at the time thought it would go nowhere.

In fact, he's proven them completely incorrect. His party members wear red berets and kind of red - I think after Hugo Chavez, who was a real hero of his - red overalls, red berets. They call themselves Chavistas. And I think that his campaigning is very much borrowed from that model, quite radical, lots of nationalization, lots of expropriation of land and a message that has resonated with many, many South Africans, not only a poor and working class one, but middle-class people as well.

MARTIN: Is there a candidate that has support across racial lines?

HAFFAJEE: I think the party that's going to come out with the best cross-racial result this time around is probably is the second-largest party, the Democratic Alliance. They fought quite hard for the economic heartland here, the province in which Johannesburg is based, polls suggesting they're going to be the big winner of this election coming up - 6 percentage points higher than they did the last time around.

They've told me that those new wins would be in black areas. That would make them the largest cross-racial party. The ANC, the governing party, really tried at the beginning of the campaign to make itself a party for all. But right at the end of it, our calculations show it's still the party of the black majority, really.

MARTIN: If Mr. Zuma is reelected, as it appears that he will be...


MARTIN: ...And his - the party maintains its hold on the legislature, what will be their mandate over the next five years?

HAFFAJEE: They've made that pretty clear, and it is that the economic redistribution has to begin properly. So whether that be in the workplace, whether it be the redistribution of land, but we have to complete that work, what that they call the second phrase of freedom - difficult to do in an economy that's not growing as fast as it should be to enable the country to make those kind of policy measures.

MARTIN: Ferial Haffajee is the editor of the City Press newspaper. She was kind enough to join us from her offices in Johannesburg, South Africa. Ferial, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

HAFFAJEE: Thank you so much for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.