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Nelson Mandela's party could lose their absolute majority in South Africa

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We now turn to South Africa, where the African National Congress, or ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela and Africa's oldest liberation movement, faces its biggest test at the polls in a matter of days. For the first time in its 30 years in power, the ANC is in danger of losing its absolute majority. Mandela's party once promised a, quote, "better life for all." But for many, it just has not delivered, as NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu reports from Soweto.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Under a cloudless sky, thousands of people are streaming in to the FNB Stadium here in Soweto, the spiritual heartland of the African National Congress, and are here for the final push, the last major event before the polls in a few days' time.

PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: We draw inspiration from the lives and struggles of so many extraordinary leaders.

AKINWOTU: President Cyril Ramaphosa is addressing the crowds and invoking the names of liberation giants of the ANC.

RAMAPHOSA: (Non-English language spoken) Nelson (non-English language spoken) Mandela, Lilian Ngoyi, Andrew (non-English language spoken) Mlangeni.

AKINWOTU: He's galvanizing his party before perhaps the most tightly contested election since it came to power.

RAMAPHOSA: Forward to victory. Forward. Amandla.

AKINWOTU: After 30 years since the end of apartheid, affinity for the ANC remains strong, and its formidable support is still unparalleled in South Africa. But can it continue trading on its history to stay in power when profound struggles in the country have dented its appeal? A somber reality, just a few kilometers away on the other side of Soweto, illustrates the challenge it faces.

ZONGEZILE MAKHUBU: This area at Kliptown is famously known for a document which was reached in 1955, which is called the Freedom Charter.

AKINWOTU: Zongezile Makhubu is a tour guide from the historic city of Kliptown, where his family have lived for three generations. Kliptown was at the heart of South Africa's resistance, where the revered 1955 Freedom Charter was established by anti-apartheid groups as a blueprint for a new country. It later became South Africa's constitution.

MAKHUBU: The first one says the people shall govern.

AKINWOTU: Makhubu leads me into a small brick house where the clauses of the charter are inscribed on a marble tablet.

MAKHUBU: Every woman and man shall have the right to vote.

AKINWOTU: It's within the Freedom Charter Monument, a $30 million site built by the ANC government, including a museum, public square and a four-star hotel.

MAKHUBU: This represents the ideas and the hopes and dreams for everybody in South Africa.

AKINWOTU: A democracy flame above the tablet used to burn here, Makhubu says. But in recent years, it's been extinguished.

MAKHUBU: The structure is falling around. It's falling apart.

AKINWOTU: Strips of metal along the walls of the museum have been torn away. Outside, deep gutters lay exposed, its metal covers looted along with anything valuable enough to be sold. Parts of the surrounding walls have been battered into heaps of rubble.

LEXONO LOMEY: Since the place has been vandalized, they've been saying they're going to rebuild the place, but they are not doing anything.

AKINWOTU: Lexono Lomey (ph) also works in tourism at Kliptown. But few people visit the site anymore, and it's been damaged by outbreaks of riots, he says. The promise of a new South Africa was established in Kliptown, but much of it is overwhelmed by poverty, and no one knows when the Freedom Charter Monument will be restored.

LOMEY: Actually, according to me, our current government is failing South Africa for me. He's saying that the future - it's the youth. But meanwhile, you don't have a plan for the youth.

AKINWOTU: He plans to vote for the uMkhonto we Sizwe Party, or MK, founded by former President Jacob Zuma. The party is one of many threatening to erode the ANC's support.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language)

AKINWOTU: Soweto is also the birthplace of President Cyril Ramaphosa. A few days ago, he led a raucous crowd of several hundreds on a march through Vilakazi Street, where Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu once lived, once again leaning on its liberation history. The ANC has seen South Africa transform to a country where freedoms and education are universal rights, and the Black middle class has expanded. But profound struggles and inequalities have remained and even widened. At the march, he told NPR his party was confident of victory.

RAMAPHOSA: I feel great. Our victory is certain.

AKINWOTU: But in truth, the party has a fight on its hands. And for a younger generation of voters, the ANC's storied history may no longer be enough.

Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Soweto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.