Is the ANC losing its grip on South Africa?

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South Africa's governing African National Congress is meeting to decide who will lead it into the next general election.

Stunning beaches, impoverished townships, vast potential and a persistent sense of crisis - welcome to Bitou, a place that seems to encapsulate many of South Africa's enduring contradictions.

But could this isolated, sun-drenched, struggling municipality also represent something more intriguing? Might it just be a weather vane for the nation's future political direction at a time of growing uncertainty?

Memory Booysens is rather hoping so.

Mr Booysens - a lean, nattily dressed 43 year-old - is the new mayor of Bitou, a township in Western Cape province, 530km (330 miles) from Cape Town.

He is also, in the colourful assessment of his former colleagues from the African National Congress - the party that has run South Africa since democracy prevailed 18 years ago and is poised to meet for a key five-yearly conference - "a perpetual liar, a traitor and a political prostitute".

Mr Booysens earned those insults by swapping sides. And winning.

He used to be a senior official in the local branch of the ANC. But he says he became horrified by, and outspoken about, the endemic corruption he believed had come to define the town's ANC-run administration.

He was expelled from the party, joined the opposition Democratic Alliance, and in short order became mayor when the ANC abruptly, and unexpectedly, lost its majority in the last local election 18 months ago.

"When we took over it was shocking. We hadn't realised the municipality was insolvent. It was corrupt from top to bottom - councillors were doing business with the municipality," said Mr Booysens, who is now bogged down in a series of legal battles against former employees and suspect tenders, in a forlorn effort to claw back some money.

The previous mayor, Lulama Mvimbi, told me the allegations of corruption were lies, deliberately spread in order to boost support for the DA.

Death threats

Mr Mvimbi earned some notoriety for leasing a top of the range BMW.

He said it was needed for security, and wasn't his personal choice. The car has since been returned, but it evidently touched a nerve among voters tired of seeing the ruling elites flaunt their new wealth.

"This was endemic - it was part of the fabric of how the ANC was running the town," said Mr Booysens, arguing that the councillors were simply emulating the corruption that they saw in the ruling party's national leadership.

Today, a bodyguard walked behind the mayor, as he set off into the narrow alleys of a local township - wooden shacks precariously balanced on a steep hillside. "I'm very fortunate to be alive," says Mr Booysens, who wore body armour for several months after his election, because of fears that his political rivals would try to kill him.

"He's lying," said Phakie Mbali, another local ANC official. "There is no police report to say he's been threatened."

He acknowledged that factionalism within the ANC had prompted some voters to "lose trust" with the party, but he said the DA had run "a campaign based on fear and intimidation". The ANC's councillors, he insisted, in an unintentionally ambiguous phrase, "are the custodians of corruption".

Mr Booysens pushed deeper into the township, and was quickly surrounded by a group of men who wanted to know when electricity would be installed. One local said it had been six years since they'd had power.

The mayor told them that a deal had just been reached with the local landowner and the power company, and the electricity would start flowing within a fortnight.

Another chance

"I was ANC last time, and I'm DA now," said Christina Nikisi, standing outside a new wooden house built by the local authorities after her old shack was destroyed in a fire. "I'm changing because the ANC is not doing well. Not enough. I think the mayor is going to do well," she said.

Image caption,
Christina Nikisi thinks the new mayor will change Bitou for the better

Mr Booysens said he still encountered some hostility from the public, but "that's changing, especially because people are sick and tired of the factional fights in the ANC".

"People see me as fair, because I don't ask them who they vote for. I treat them all as citizens."

But frustration with the status quo does not mean that South Africans are abandoning the ANC in a flood. It routinely wins almost two-thirds of the national vote.

"Our democracy is still 18 years old," said Kenneth Magaga, who works at a recycling initiative in Bitou. Like many people, he believes the ANC needs "a chance to work on those mistakes. I don't think there is any government that can fix what happened in South Africa in 18 years."

The fundamental question for the DA - which has steadily increased its share of the national vote with each election - remains this: are Memory Booysens and Bitou an anomaly, or are they a sign that the DA is now on track to seize power from the ANC across South Africa, perhaps before the end of the decade?

Mayor Booysens struggled to find an easy answer.

"It's very difficult to break that loyalty [to the ANC]," he admitted frankly. "The reason is that a lot of us are uneducated and we don't base our vote on issues, we base it on sentimental things.

The ANC tells people to vote for the ANC to please Nelson Mandela. But people need to understand that the values of Mandela are alive within the DA. The ANC is just lip service. So the more uneducated people we have - the better for the ANC."

His rivals in the ANC bitterly reject that interpretation, pointing to a hillside covered with new homes built by the municipality. "We got awards for the best service delivery," said the former Mayor, Mr Mvimbi. "We built houses, created employment, built tar roads and infrastructure for the poor."

Later in the afternoon, the mayor walked down to the beach to chat with the lifeguards and a handful of foreign tourists.

Plettenberg Bay is one of South Africa's most stunning chunks of coastline, and the town was bracing itself for the arrival of thousands of students who come each December for the "Plett Rage" - a riot of post-exams music and excess.

'Blind loyalty'

The DA has been through numerous re-branding exercises since its origins in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 80s, but in the eyes of some people it remains a "white" party, led by a white woman, Helen Zille, and somehow out of touch with the core values of black South Africans.

"It was difficult for my family to accept it at first," said Mr Booysens, sitting on the beach. "We tend to believe that there is no political life for blacks outside the ANC, which is not true," he added.

Mr Booysens warned that time was running out for South Africans to abandon the ANC before it plundered the state, wrecked the judiciary and constitution, and drove the nation towards "dictatorship".

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The ANC is set for what could prove to be a bitter leadership election

Such alarmism may be compelling to some - and it's a logical, self-serving narrative for an opposition party looking to pick up more votes.

But in Bitou the truth is that, despite some threats and more than a hint of violence, the ANC has surrendered power. It's an experience that the party is slowly becoming familiar with in municipalities across the country.

"We are democratic people. We accept the will of the people. We must now go back to the drawing board," said the ANC's regional chairman Putco Mapitiza.

As for Mr Booysens - he insists he has no regrets.

"This is the most diverse party in South Africa. I'm kicking myself for taking so long to leave the ANC. I was loyal. Blind loyalty," he said wistfully, as his bodyguard stood behind him, watching the surf.

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