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South Africa’s young radicals are turning on Mandela They view the ANC as an elite project

An EFF rally in Johannesburg (GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images)

An EFF rally in Johannesburg (GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images)


May 28, 2024   8 mins

In 2021, at the age of 24, Chad Louw became South Africa’s youngest ever mayor. Then a member of the governing African National Congress party (ANC), Louw was elected in Oudtshoorn, a town in the Klein Karoo region of the Western Cape. This is a sparse, dusty world of open expanses, straight highways and dramatic mountain ranges. In the early 20th century, it supplied a global fashion for ostrich feathers, a boom period that endowed Oudtshoorn with a crop of stately colonial mansions known locally as ostrich palaces. Today, these buildings give the town a quaint character that sits uneasily amid the signs of poverty and unemployment.

Louw’s stint as mayor was short-lived, thanks to the fractious nature of municipal coalitions, but he remains active in politics. The son of a domestic worker and a warehouse worker, he belongs to a group known as the “coloureds”, whose mixed descent includes the Cape’s indigenous Khoisan people, Dutch settlers and Malay slaves brought to South Africa during the early colonial period. They share the language of the white Afrikaners who governed the country during apartheid, but under that regime endured severe discrimination similar to black South Africans. In my experience, few Westerners even know of the coloured people’s existence — and yet, they constitute about 8% of the country’s population, and more than 40% in the Western Cape.

When Louw joined the ANC in 2017, years of corruption and mismanagement had already tainted its image as the party of Mandela which ushered in democracy in 1994. But he believed the ANC was still the best vehicle for change. “There is more to do after 1994,” he tells me. “I wanted to implement what we were promised — not just freedom, which we have now, but economic freedom.” According to Louw, assistance has been too slow in reaching poverty-stricken rural areas. His own community of Dysselsdorp has recently benefited from a new housing project — but that was the first in 27 years. In particular, Louw wanted to fight on behalf of coloured people, many of whom feel neglected by the ANC. He even speaks of a “reverse apartheid”.

But in February this year, Louw left the ANC. The party, he says, has “become so toxic I don’t think that dream of economic freedom will be realised”. He found that political opportunities were distributed according to internal factions and personal relationships, while there was little interest in representing coloured people. Louw has now joined a small party called the Patriotic Alliance, which was established in 2013 and has been winning seats at municipal elections since 2016. The Patriotic Alliance has a strong emphasis on the interests of coloured people, though it says its populist stances on issues such as crime and illegal immigration resonate with ordinary South Africans more broadly. Louw, for instance, favours introducing the death penalty to counter South Africa’s severe problems with violent crime (the country recorded 27,500 murders last year), citing the precedent of El Salvador.

Louw’s story is emblematic of the ANC’s declining fortunes among young South Africans. Ahead of the national elections on Wednesday, which could well see the party losing its absolute majority for the first time, a survey of 18-to-24-year-olds showed a disturbing degree of disillusionment. Only 16% expressed optimism about the country’s future, the lowest score of the 16 African nations surveyed. Almost three quarters said South Africa is heading in the wrong direction, citing a bevy of grievances including government corruption, unemployment, the presence of undocumented migrants and problems with basic services such as water.

I have found a similar picture of frustration in my own conversations with members of the “born free” generation — those born after 1994, who have lived their entire lives under ANC rule. The electoral implications of these sentiments are still unclear, for they have contributed to pitifully low levels of voter registration and political engagement more broadly. But speaking to those who are engaged, the vision of national unity and gradual transformation which Mandela’s party stood for 30 years ago is now wearing dangerously thin. Among South Africa’s many different groups, there are few who do not feel in some way unjustly treated, and young people increasingly favour movements which speak to those injustices.

In Louw’s case, that movement is the Patriotic Alliance. But in South Africa at large, the most effective practitioners of youth politics are undoubtedly the radical-Left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). This party emerged in 2013 from the ANC’s own youth league, under the leadership of charismatic firebrand Julius Malema. Visiting South Africa in April, I found Malema’s portrait with its trademark red beret staring out from long rows of election posters at the roadsides. His movement’s irreverent stance towards Mandela’s legacy can be gleaned from its manifesto claim that “We are not part of the 1994 elite pact. We are a completely new generation, with new demands.”

The EFF presents itself as the agent of an unfinished black liberation in a country where the white minority still controls a large proportion of the wealth. The “non-negotiable cardinal pillars” of its constitution include the expropriation and equal redistribution of land, nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, free education, healthcare and housing, and a move “from reconciliation to justice” across the entire African continent. The party registers around 10-15% in national polls, meaning that if the ANC fails to win a majority, it could become part of a governing coalition.

Hundreds of miles to the north east of Oudtshoorn, in the province of Mpumalanga, I heard about the issues shaping the politics of young South Africans. Unita Mdhluli works as a receptionist inside the Kruger National Park, a popular tourist destination, where she hopes to one day become a field guide. She is 24, and with her confident demeanour, she seems to be living proof of the opportunities available in post-apartheid South Africa. But Mdhluli credits her education largely to the private school she attended during her primary years. Her state-run secondary school, by contrast, was chaotic. She had to share textbooks, switch between classes taught in Xitsonga and exams set in English, and “spent most of my days fighting other pupils for something as simple as a chair to sit on in class”.

As a share of national income, South Africa spends more on education than the EU average, but experiences like Mdhluli’s remain common. “We grow up with the saying, ‘use what you have to your advantage’,” she tells me, but many find themselves with little to use. South African students struggle to achieve basic skills such as literacy, with around half of them failing to complete secondary education. Lacking academic or trade qualifications, “most of the youth try to start a business, and since they don’t even have the knowledge to do that, they end up selling alcohol without licence or selling drugs”. Youth unemployment stands at a staggering 45%. Another option is leaving South Africa altogether. But while some emigrants find success and become “the icon of the community”, Mdhluli says, others fall into criminality and “have ended up coming back home in a coffin”.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that young black South Africans are attracted to a movement promising radical change. Explaining the popularity of the EFF among her friends, Mdhluli tells me “its agenda is based on improving the lives of the youth of South Africa”. But she also observes that political engagement is concentrated among students in higher education. This, it seems, is the paradox of the EFF. While presenting itself as an authentically African movement fighting for the oppressed masses, some of its most committed supporters, like those of radical movements in the Western world, are educated young people who feel deprived of social mobility

“It is unsurprising that young black South Africans are attracted to a movement promising radical change.”

These people observe that in South Africa’s poorer communities, the young are submerged in immediate material concerns and fail to engage with broader questions of governance. Louw calls this straatpolitiek — street politics — and characterises it as: “I just want my electricity to work, I just want to fix my burst pipe.” Despite its poor record with infrastructure in recent years, this localised field of vision probably works to the advantage of the ANC, since it has established relatively generous welfare entitlements during its decades in office. Almost half of South Africa’s 60 million citizens receive state grants, and the ANC is now promising to extend a monthly benefit dating from the Covid pandemic in the form of a basic income system. Similarly, state procurement contracts loom large in the politics of local communities, as small businesses and mafias demand a share of government spending.

This presents a stark contrast with the broad horizons that students encounter at universities. Here one finds South Africa’s peculiar circumstances merging with global trends in theory, activism and identity politics. In 2015, a major student protest movement erupted under the banner of “Fees Must Fall”; its main demands were for greater financial support, as tuition fees represent a genuinely intolerable burden for many South Africans. It achieved only limited concessions, but was more successful in changing the political culture of universities with its “decolonisation” agenda, challenging various forms of racial inequality and legacies of white rule. The protests even washed over to Britain, where students at Oriel College, Oxford, followed their counterparts in Cape Town by demanding the removal of a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. It was during these convulsions that the EFF secured its place as the movement of choice for young radicals, not least within the Student Representative Councils (where, at South African universities, candidates are elected as members of political parties).

When I contacted EFF representatives at leading universities, I found young activists who were articulate, strident and ideologically committed. They reminded me of the erstwhile supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, though their brand of socialism is a much purer shade of red. Hlamulo Khorommbi, student council president at the University of Cape Town, said confidently of EFF policies on land appropriation, industrialisation and state capacity: “These are things that young people want to see happen.” He told me that his generation views the record of the ANC as “a complete failure”, whereas under Malema’s party, “prospects for the youth will be limitless”. These cadres also feel a strong personal connection to the cause. As a student representative at Wits University, Michelle Mbhalati, put it: “The EFF’s ideology resonates deeply with me, especially as a young black woman.”

The rise of the EFF is, of course, part of a wider fragmentation of South African politics. As dissatisfaction with the ANC has grown, no other party has looked capable of achieving a similarly broad appeal: the main contender, the Democratic Alliance, has never achieved more than a quarter of the vote. Instead, a plethora of smaller parties has emerged. Former president Jacob Zuma has formed another breakaway party from the ANC, with a programme similarly radical to the EFF, and a similarly militant name (uMkhonto weSizwe, once the title of the armed wing of the anti-apartheid movement). It has a tribal flavour, with its strongest support in the populous Zulu heartlands of the north-east. The overall picture here is that South Africans are moving into smaller political silos, responding to movements that represent their particular identities and experiences. The EFF is, at least in part, the movement that fills this role for educated and politically engaged young South Africans. As a number of my interviewees pointed out, it is the only party whose leadership prominently features young people with academic qualifications.

But feeling represented is one thing, active participation quite another. Student activists such as Khorommbi say that “the attitude of the youth is that of thinking they can exist outside of politics”, describing voter registration drives where “we go out to the streets to humbly ask people to exercise their constitutional right”. Even within universities, the popular engagement of the Fees Must Fall period has all but vanished. Activists suggest that fellow students have succumbed to another kind of despondency by focusing on their personal prospects.

In any case, the EFF and its dubious figurehead are bound to disappoint their young supporters. Malema’s hardcore socialism, which would plunge South Africa into still greater chaos, is designed to secure a devoted following, not provide a programme for government. His movement will either continue to stoke division at the margins of politics, or it will enter a governing coalition and reveal itself to be another cynical player within a corrupt system.

Ironically though, the EFF has revealed a continuing strain of idealism within the apparent disillusionment of youth politics. Young radicals are most scathing about the empty dreams of 1994, but it is they who have taken those dreams most seriously, insofar as they still believe in politics both as a source of collective purpose and a means of pursuing justice. The tragedy is that South Africa’s governing class has become so enmeshed in games of patronage and personal enrichment that such hopeful energies can only find expression in minor parties and lost causes.


Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.

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Ian_S
Ian_S
22 days ago

Just sounds like a rerun of Robert Mugabe, beginning his run as a saint of “decolonisation” and ending with rampant violence and 1000% inflation while blaming “Whaat Pip-pol” for everything. It seems from this article that the future for South Africa holds only a toxic coupling of will to despotism and a politically illiterate populace who fall for the same hopes and deceits every time.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
21 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

Tragic, and the only way out is a rubber dinghy across the English Channel back to the economic model of their former colonisers

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
22 days ago

Why do capitalists always think that communists don’t mean what they say? There is a story of someone who spent a great deal of time behind the Iron Curtain, and when he was asked what was the most memorable experience he had had there, he answered: “That they truly believe in Communism.”

John Murray
John Murray
22 days ago

All sounds very exciting, and no doubt will end up the same high standard of living and liberty enjoyed by so much of rest of Africa where similar policies have been tried.
On the plus side, it does bode well for future rugby talent coming to play in Ulster.

Paul
Paul
22 days ago

With problems that severe, it’s a wonder the country still finds the time to lead the legal charge against Israel.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
22 days ago

How anyone could think that economic freedom would be possible under the ANC, which was rooted in communism and funded by the Soviet Union, is beyond me.

R Wright
R Wright
22 days ago

Excluding Boers and ‘coloureds’ the average IQ is 75, so is it that surprising?

Dr E C
Dr E C
22 days ago

Why is the university-educated elite always the stupidest section of society (these days)?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
21 days ago
Reply to  Dr E C

The business model universities were forced to adopt from the late 1980s is a direct cause of this stupidity. Once students became consumers teachers were forced to treat them like paying customers and the customer is, of course, always right. If the customer decides they are an oppressed non-binary lesbian, but is coughing up $20,000 a year to attend college then who are we to tell them otherwise?

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
22 days ago

Here we read of Chad Louw campaigning with a “strong emphasis on the interests of coloured people”. Of Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe and its “tribal flavour”. And though the author can’t bring himself to mention it, the EEF self-defines itself as a black nationalist political party.

This isn’t democracy. It is tribalism. This isn’t the best manifesto for government winning. It is the largest tribe winning control of the treasury for themselves. It’s what humans do when there are clearly identifiable groups. To pretend otherwise is to ignore all of history.

The rainbow nation is literally that. Distinct, identifiable colours, with one colour on top of another. The rainbow flag is an emblem self-segregation. And it now flies high across the West, allegence to it a Test Act* for all who want public office.

* An ideological test in Restoration England.

R Wright
R Wright
22 days ago

“The overall picture here is that South Africans are moving into smaller political silos, responding to movements that represent their particular identities and experiences”

This is simply ‘tribal politics’ as it is done north of the Zambesi. South Africa is merely reverting to the continental mean, where tribes fight over the spoils of the colonial order and patron chiefs direct their clients to vote along ethnic lines over a slowly diminishing pile of goods, most of which is spirited away to Swiss bank vaults. It took South Africa thirty years to reach the same point as Congo (which took weeks from independence) which is quite good going, so I doff my hat to them for that.

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
22 days ago

Wessie may not be in SA and does not speak to the polls. A large fraction of the EFF vote is being taken by MK (i.e. they are the same people – they are both polling around 10%). He dismisses the Democratic Alliance (DA) with a single sentence (“never been able to get more than a quarter of the vote” despite it governing multiple municipalities (including Cape Town) and one of the 9 provinces (Western Cape) and polling well over 20%.
In a PR system fragmentation is almost inevitable and a quarter of the vote is significant. The DA has many young leaders, except they are of all races. But this doesn’t fit the doom-laden tribal narrative.
Having said that, a neglected aspect of the discussion is that this year, unlike previously, there are two votes for the National Assembly. If voters split their vote, and not among the current big three (ANC, DA, EFF,) but vote for the plethora of smaller parties (like the PA, but there a many others), then there will be even more fragmentation. The polls have not asked voters whether they intend to split their national vote, and there has been little voter education on the issue.

Angus Douglas
Angus Douglas
21 days ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

Wessie doesn’t like to talk about the DA, because it’s a “white” party, and the young black intellectuals he was hanging with don’t like the DA.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
21 days ago

It always amazes me that these “bright young radicals “ always seem to think that the way to solve their problems is to take what someone else has worked for and give it to them.
It really worked well in Zimbabwe didn’t it?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
21 days ago

If you were in SA during the mid-90s, there was great optimism. In spite of its background, the ANC had some capable people who had spent decades waiting for their chance to build a new nation. Within ten years they were gone. Mbeki’s AIDS denialism was the start of the rot.
It’s pity, but once again we are reminded that revolutionary and liberation movements always make terrible governments.

Steve King
Steve King
21 days ago

Just sounds like more Marxism to me. Excluding one group at the behest of another. Anti-wealth. Perhaps this time it will work. I mean it has never worked before….but perhaps this time…..

edmond van ammers
edmond van ammers
21 days ago

These educated young people will become the future apparatchiks in the future ‘socialist state’. They will be like the pigs in Animal Farm.

Chipoko
Chipoko
21 days ago

When will Unherd publish an article on the anti-White racism that is rampant in South Africa? The most toxic element of this is the EFF with its leader, Julius Malema, openly spouting genocidal hate speech with seeming impunity – not just from the authorities in South Africa; but, more significantly, with no reaction or response from the ‘progressive’ western ‘democracies’. God help the poor Whites in South Africa as nobody is interested in their fate.

J. Hale
J. Hale
21 days ago
Reply to  Chipoko

Racism and tribalism in South Africa (and the rest of Africa) is a “dog bites man” story. It’s so common and accepted that it’s not newsworthy.

Susie Bell
Susie Bell
21 days ago
Reply to  Chipoko

But the politicians like the white money and the white tourism

Jim M
Jim M
21 days ago
Reply to  Chipoko

They are going to wind up like the whites in Haiti. Be as smart as Scott Adams and don’t live anywhere near them or you will be killed.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
21 days ago

Almost half of South Africa’s 60 million citizens receive state grants, and the ANC is now promising to extend a monthly benefit dating from the Covid pandemic in the form of a basic income system. 
How is that a good thing? Fostering a culture of dependency is never good for either side. The recipient, perhaps once grateful, now feels entitled. The benefactor has to siphon scarce resources from priorities to fund the dependency class. That’s a great way to disenfranchise the people who are paying the freight via their taxes.
Whatever unifying vision for the country might exist is lost in the tribalism that almost makes Western divisions seem quaint. Or a sign of things to come. Whenever I read a line along the lines of “especially as a young black woman” (or the demographic descriptions of your choice), it represents the lowest of low-resolution thinking. Identitarian politics is bad enough as the reductionist exercise that it is, treating human beings as nothing more than skin color and genitals. It’s far worse when individuals see themselves in those terms.

Angus Douglas
Angus Douglas
21 days ago

The comments below are more accurate than anything the commentariat can come up with. That’s because the plain truth is too ugly for the printed page. I’ve lived here all my life and watched myself transition from progressive to liberal, to disillusioned liberal and finally to hardened conservative as the racists of the apartheid days have been proved right on every score. Yes, the mess of South Africa is the result of all the ugly things that ordinary people can see with their own eyes: tribalism, mass stupidity, and ideological overreach. There is no polite way to say it, other than Africa is Africa and always will be.

Jim M
Jim M
21 days ago
Reply to  Angus Douglas

That’s because the people in Africa are really dumber than the world average. But, the Northeast Asians are supposed to be the smartest race on the planet, so why were they only democratic, South Korea and Japan, after being conquer or rescued by America? Intelligence itself is not enough for competent and free government.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
18 days ago
Reply to  Jim M

South Korea wasn’t, and still isn’t really democratic – while the tiny country developed into one of the most advanced in the world.
Japan also made huge strides in a century when they weren’t democratic.

Intelligence and choosing democracy aren’t the same, even though you might consider democracy to be better as a governance system.

Hans Daoghn
Hans Daoghn
21 days ago

South Africa, like the United States, has effectively an open border.  SA’s border is along its northern frontier across which millions of desperately poor African men and women have flooded south seeking economic betterment.   These motivated newcomers, working without papers or subsidy, earn the entry-level jobs that historically have gone to native South Africans.  There is real hatred by the locals for these newcomers as the newcomers begin their climb up the economic ladder stepping on the heads of those on the bottom rung.

Susie Bell
Susie Bell
21 days ago

The widespread and unashamed ANC corruption is siphoning off the money ear marked for the community. Young people everywhere seem to feel they are the victims of the corruption of their elders in Government. A change is coming.
interestingly the Western Cape has a self determination movement to free themselves from the control of the national government. These movements may well grow especially with special circumstances like the large number of coloureds in the Cape.

Ian_S
Ian_S
21 days ago
Reply to  Susie Bell

I suppose the nightmare is though that, as someone above mentioned, it’s just endless reruns of Animal Farm: corruption, poverty and violence, leading to disillusionment, on to rallying behind a fresh faced new leader who turns into an unaccountable corrupt despot, and onto the next cycle.

James Knight
James Knight
21 days ago

Predict Genocide in SA within 10 years.