As polls open in South Africa, SUE REID warns turmoil might lie forward

Thank heavens it wasn’t raining last Tuesday morning, as it can do in late autumn in South Africa. It would have meant a drenching for the most unusual ­politician fighting today’s election — a 32-year-old farmer’s son called Chris Pappas, who is white and gay.

Peering through owlish glasses, he was giving a campaign speech to 70 locals in their decaying village hall, a half-day’s drive inland from the coastal city of Durban in the sprawling province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The building had gaping holes in the tin roof through which you could see the sky. In every window the glass was shattered, and an entire wall was missing, affording a huge vista of stupendous landscape.

Chris Pappas, a 32-year-old farmer's son who is white and gay, is fighting today's election

Chris Pappas, a 32-year-old farmer’s son who is white and gay, is fighting today’s election

Cow dung from farm animals wandering into the building littered the floor’s cracked tiles. And many of the villagers who had walked miles to listen to Pappas had to stand because the plastic chairs had been stolen.

‘This is a room with a view,’ Pappas told his audience in their own Zulu language, a joke which raised a laugh. ‘Look at what the ­African National Congress (ANC) government has handed you after their 30 years in power.’

We were in the village of Mzimkhulu, an area the ANC has controlled for three decades, letting corruption run riot, poverty soar and community halls like this one collapse into ruins.

Despite his skin colour and sexuality, ­Pappas is the successful mayor of a well-run district elsewhere in the province, and has won the trust of many black residents who say the blood in his veins is the same as their own.

If his moderate Democratic ­Alliance Party wins power here in KwaZulu-Natal on polling day, he will be crowned premier ­(governor) of the province.

The party already has a fifth of the seats in parliament and is the official opposition to the ANC, which today may lose its ­parliamentary majority in a truly historic election for South Africa.

Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, at the far-Left party's manifesto launch in February

Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, at the far-Left party’s manifesto launch in February

The country is at a crossroads, exactly 30 years after the ­sensational election of the ­country’s first black president, Nelson ­Mandela, following the end of the loathed apartheid ­system which separated black and white people by law and was ­condemned worldwide.

Mandela had become the most famous political prisoner of the 20th century after being locked up in jail by the white minority government because of his anti-apartheid campaigns and as leader of the ANC.

International pressure and sanctions against the regime, coupled with increasing acceptance among whites that apartheid could not continue, ended in his release after 27 years inside.

And when he was made leader in South Africa’s first democratic election in May 1994, he created his famous ‘rainbow nation’ — as well as an economic miracle.

The miracle did not last, however, after Mandela’s hardline colleagues in government imposed a ruthless black empowerment programme.

White state workers, from energy experts and nurses to transport planners, were ordered to re-apply for their jobs. Most never got them back again.

A fifth of whites, both English and Afrikaans speakers, left the country. Emigration from the entrepreneurial Asian communities soared.

‘The outcome was a disaster especially for ordinary black ­people who were impoverished while a tiny ANC elite became fabulously rich,’ says Andrew Kenny, a respected South African commentator.

To begin with under Mandela, the state was providing its ­population with the world’s cheapest electricity, the transport system worked like clockwork and freight trains carried vast ­quantities of mineral ore from the mines to the ports as the economy flourished.

‘The ANC then wrecked it all with looting, corruption and a plethora of racist policies,’ argues Kenny. 

Today, businesses complain of dire energy shortages with daily power cuts across the country, a broken rail network, and badly run seaports hampering exports.

Meanwhile, rocketing crime figures show there is now a murder every 20 minutes in South Africa, with distrust of the police at an all-time high.

The aspirant middle classes of whatever race have fled the ANC strongholds of Johannesburg and Pretoria, where inner cities are now plagued by no-go zones, ­shuttered shops, joblessness and gang and gun warfare.

Many have flocked to the flourishing Western Cape, where Cape Town is the capital and nicknamed the ‘jobs engine’. It ­happens to be the only province in South Africa controlled by the Democratic Alliance which has risen in popularity as fast as the rest of the country descends into chaos.

Today, according to the World Bank, only 12 per cent of South Africans earn enough to pay tax. At least 33 per cent of all adults are out of work — the highest tally of any nation in the world. Most survive on state social ­payments of under £4 a week.

Hideous inequalities are fuelling the unrest. Last week, South Africa’s mining companies revealed the mind-boggling salaries of their, often white, top directors, with some earning £30,000 a day.

No wonder South Africa faces a defining moment.

Crucially, the ANC is being rejected by young blacks — the so-called Born Free generation who cannot remember apartheid — as they rebel against the only government they have ever known.

Julius Malema was raised by a single mother in a black township. He was a leading light in the ANC's Youth League before founding his own party in 2013

Julius Malema was raised by a single mother in a black township. He was a leading light in the ANC’s Youth League before founding his own party in 2013 

Political pollsters say the ANC, led by ageing black veterans of the apartheid struggle, may be forced into a coalition with the country’s third biggest party, the Marxist-Leninist Economic ­Freedom Fighters.

The EFF is headed by a race-baiting, nationalist fire-brand, Julius Malema, who was raised by a single mother in a black township.

He was a leading light in the ANC’s Youth League before founding his own party in 2013.

Forty-three-year-old Malema speaks at packed mass rallies where his cadres dress in red boiler suits and berets.

Party members hand out free sanitary products at their ­meetings in order to highlight period poverty and have a huge female following. Malema hopes that any pact between the EFF and ANC — a deal described here as the ‘bloodbath’ scenario by middle-class blacks and whites — would allow him to push through at least part of his radical manifesto.

His party pledges to nationalise banks and mines under a Cuba-style Communist regime.

Land, it adds, must be seized from private owners without compensation and redistributed to black people, while the borders should be opened to Africans from everywhere on the continent.

Malema’s party insists apartheid did not end in 1994. It preaches that Mandela handed power to ‘white capitalists’ who still exist and must be destroyed.

Adding to the already horrendous murder tally, brutal killings are continuing to take place on farms owned by the Afrikaners and English at the rate of one every five days — and Malema encourages such atrocities by chanting a vile anthem ‘Kill the Boer’ (a term meaning white farmer) at his rallies.

Standing on an electric platform raised high in the air, he whips up a frenzy of hatred from his mainly young supporters who shout the words back to him.

Shockingly, some of the ­convicted farm assassins have sung ‘Kill the Boer’ as they tied up their victims before knifing or shooting them.

The terrifying truth is that Malema’s EFF is winning the hearts and minds of disappointed young voters who feel the ANC has left them jobless and in poverty. ‘This is the reckoning time,’ warned Redi Tlhabi, a South African journalist a few days ago. ‘The country that we live in now is not the one that we hoped for 30 years ago.’

Residents of the town of Gujedlini sing at a gathering organised by Chris Pappas during his campaign trail through rural Zulu land

Residents of the town of Gujedlini sing at a gathering organised by Chris Pappas during his campaign trail through rural Zulu land 

Last week I spoke to one of Malema’s supporters on the seafront in Cape Town where the Democratic Alliance runs things with quiet efficiency so the traffic lights work, the roads are Tarmacked, and the people pay their council rates on time. The beautiful city was bedecked with Democratic Alliance posters declaring simply: ‘Western Cape Works.’

Nevertheless, 29-year-old Litha, a well-spoken hotel junior ­manager, told me fervently: ‘We young, everyone I know, will vote for the EFF.

‘We hate the old men of the ANC who have done nothing for us or our parents who trusted them. We want ownership of everything, the mines, the banks, the land,’ adding: ‘Our day has come.’

Many like him in this country of 62 million people may swallow Malema’s hate-laced mantra, but where the EFF has had a taste of power, it has failed miserably.

Take the town of Knysna. It is a rarity in the Western Cape area because it is jointly run by the ANC, a leftist party called Patriotic Alliance, and the EFF. They formed a coalition a few years back when Knysna was still picturesque and desirable.

Today, sewage and refuse spills on to the streets. The water is constantly being turned off and a decomposing corpse was found in its supply system last year.

Rates and local taxes have been hiked and a recent ‘clerical’ error meant residents had to pay ‘astronomical’ charges twice.

After a February visit to the town, Democratic Alliance ­politicians called for an investigation, saying: ‘The town is a living hell for Knysna residents who

no longer get a basic service. ­Parties like the ANC and EFF promise the world, but the minute they govern, communities ­deteriorate rapidly.’

Also prominent in this election battle is the country’s scandal-plagued former president Jacob Zuma — he succeeded Mandela in 1999 — who was convicted of ­contempt of court in 2021 for refusing to testify at an inquiry investigating corruption during his reign.

He is banned from standing for his newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party — which he joined after falling out with the ANC — but his face still appears on its posters.

Meanwhile, Chris Pappas of the Democratic Alliance is fighting his corner hard. We sat together on Mzimkhulu village hall’s chipped concrete steps as he told me: ‘I came on the political scene ten years ago. The white man was viewed as an oppressor. The ANC would like it to remain that way.

‘The party leaders always paint a picture of South Africa’s problems being caused by apartheid.

‘But there have been 30 years of problems since that regime — the corruption for instance. More voters realise this. I have gained their trust by my actions, not words. I tell them if we win, don’t worry, everything will be all right. I will not take anything from you. Look at how I run things well.’

That said, there is still a visceral racial hatred here. It runs deep. In the last few days, I have met a female accountant and a male scientist, both of them professionals at the top of their game, who told me openly they could never give their votes to a white politician whatever their policies.

Pappas believes such attitudes can be changed — although tellingly, he is flanked by security men and, before now, has been hustled away from hostile audiences objecting to his white skin.

He won’t drink anything he is given on the campaign trail for fear it is poisoned. ‘I even have bottled water checked by the ­party’s manager,’ he tells me.

Pappas, born a year after Mandela won power, is determined to fight the trend of blacks voting for black candidates or parties, and whites for white.

At a rally in Cape Town on Saturday, his party’s leader, Afrikaner John Steenhuisen warned in an urgent voice: ‘If you don’t support my party, the vote will be split, letting in the EFF by the back door.’

In Pappas’s mayoral constituency of uMngeni with 120,000 ­residents, he is on good terms with black voters. When he came to office in 2021, overthrowing the ANC, his first decision was to hire a public buildings manager.

If Pappas' moderate Democratic ­Alliance Party wins power in KwaZulu-Natal on polling day, he will be crowned premier ­(governor) of the province

If Pappas’ moderate Democratic ­Alliance Party wins power in KwaZulu-Natal on polling day, he will be crowned premier ­(governor) of the province

‘Maintenance didn’t exist. It was a foreign concept,’ he explains. Under ANC control, when the uMngeni council needed to change a light bulb it issued an outside contract. ‘Now we fix it ourselves with our own team, saving £4,500 pounds a year,’ said Pappas.

At the end of the first year, through sensible management, the party paid off the council’s £428,000 debt, meaning residents no longer had to cover interest payments through their local taxes.

Pappas installed solar power to get round the unreliable electricity supply, and street lamps now make it safer to walk at night.

Following locals’ requests, potholes in the roads were mended and school bus services reinstated. And now, in uMngeni’s towns and villages Pappas is jostled by young Zulu men demanding selfies who tell him: ‘We are voting out the old ANC people.’

The local media recently interviewed Thembi Mchunu, a 60-year-old pensioner who said she was deeply disappointed with the ANC who she voted for in 1994.

She referred to the white mayor by his first name and said ‘Chris is attending to everyone’s needs. He speaks Zulu like he is a black person. He goes round the schools, the churches, and even attends our funerals’.

Dismissing a race divide, unemployed 38-year-old Siyabonga Zundi also told interviewers: ‘Chris has the same blood as my blood.’

After Pappas made his speech last week in Mzimkhulu village, amid hallelujahs from supporters in blue ‘vote DA’ T-shirts, I was approached by a Democratic Alliance stalwart, 43-year-old father of four Sthembiso Ngema who is the party’s deputy leader for KwaZulu-Natal.

‘We want to work with white people,’ he told me. ‘We cannot separate brother and sister on racial lines. We need to be together to create jobs, stop the electricity cuts, attract people back here from overseas.

‘This area has no libraries, no computers in schools which means our children can’t compete in the workplace or college. There are only gravel roads, and no ­running water. It comes in by truck and often doesn’t arrive. We need the ANC out and the DA to take over.

Mr Ngema said the ANC ­government had failed people whatever their skin colour. ‘There should be no white and black.

We want to create a South Africa for everyone.’

The success of the Democratic Alliance today will depend on ­getting people out to vote. People without cars in remote areas of South Africa are unlikely to walk miles through rain to a ­polling station.

Sadly, the forecast today in Mzimkhulu village with its broken-down hall is for very heavy showers. ‘And that’s not good for us,’ Pappas told me, with a grimace.