South Africa’s twin towns of Hoedspruit and Acornhoek are quirky siblings with little in common. Located just 30 kilometers apart from each other down a long, straight road on the edge of Kruger National Park, the famous safari destination, these towns are defined largely by their racial differences. While Acornhoek is home to black South Africans of mostly Shangaan and Sotho decent, Hoedspruit’s residents are primarily white, with the exception of the air force base that lies within its boundaries.
But in South Africa, the self-proclaimed Rainbow Nation, race runs far deeper than skin color. Along with their racial differences, Hoedspruit and Acornhoek have different rhythms and energies, characters and lifestyles.
Regardless of the time of day, Acornhoek is a hive of activity. People crowd its central streets, shop at its open fruit stalls, wait in endless taxis queues, or simply visit with friends. Off the busy main roads, where tar gives way to ridged gravel and sand, children in crisp white and blue uniforms walk home from school in the afternoon, back to houses that likely lack indoor plumbing or have chronically dry taps, where a chicken dinner is a luxury.
When considering South Africa’s problems, people here mention the roads with their ruts and divots. They mention the lack of water. But mostly, they mention the unemployment. South Africa’s unemployment rate ranges from 23 to 31 percent (depending on whether “discouraged workers,” who haven’t looked for work within the last weeks are counted). Though localized statistics are hard to find, Acornhoek’s residents seem especially vulnerable to unemployment and underemployment.
In contrast, the largely white town of Hoedspruit is considerably smaller and more subdued than Acornhoek; with just under 45,000 registered voters, it has roughly one-fifth the voting power of its larger neighbor. Most of its residents either work for the air force base, farm the citrus and mango groves on the edge of town, or are part of the tourism and safari industry. Regardless, a khaki uniform suits them just fine, as does sun-loved skin and red meat for dinner. A simple T-junction with four small shopping centers lends the town its shape.
In the neighborhoods tucked neatly away from the main road, most residents have sprinkler-sustained green lawns behind modest walls and electronic gates which encircle their homes. Above all else, people in Hoedspruit worry about South Africa’s soaring crime rate and what they refer to as “reverse apartheid,” or the lack of opportunities they see for whites given the government’s Black Economic Empowerment policies.
But while residents in Hoedspruit, Acornhoek, and across South Africa may not agree on the cause or extent of their problems, they can all acknowledge that, despite how far their country has come in the last fifteen years, there is still work to be done.
In the last four elections, beginning with the African National Congress’s (ANC) first victory in South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, the ANC has been the party of liberation, of Nelson Mandela, invincible in elections and infallible in their policies. To question the ANC was and still is, for many South Africans, unpatriotic.
But in the months prior to South Africa’s April 22, 2009 elections, cracks in the party’s armor began to appear. In November 2008, disgruntled ANC members defected to form their own party, the Congress of the People (COPE), which promised to “prioritize the defense of our constitutional democracy and also offer solutions to the social, economic, and security threats facing the nation.” Frustrated by broken campaign promises and corruption scandals, many South Africans—white and black—seemed ready to acknowledge that there might be flaws in the ANC approach. It seemed, at least initially, like the ANC might face some actual competition in 2009.
But from its inception COPE was plagued by infighting and mismanagement. In the end, they received a paltry 7.4 percent of the vote while the ANC sailed to a clear and decisive victory with 65.9 percent. Helen Zille, the white mayor of Cape Town, led her party, the Democratic Alliance, to a respectable 16.7 percent with a last-minute effort to thwart the ANC from attaining two-thirds of the seats in parliament, which would have allowed them to alter the constitution.
Yet while the results are clear and well documented, statistics can’t speak to the complex nature of South African politics alone. They can’t show what South Africans were thinking as they cast their ballots or share what were they hoping to achieve with their vote. What do they think of their new president, Jacob Zuma, of the corruption charges that plagued him during his campaign, and what do they want to see him do for their country in the coming five years? What do they want from the leaders who will follow after him?
Here, listen to South Africans describe their personal politics and their hopes for their country in their own words. Hear a black South African say that he will never vote for a party other than the ANC, while another reluctantly acknowledges her disappointment with how slowly change has come from the party that she credits with freeing her people. Hear a white South African woman defend the DA, which she has voted for since the end of apartheid, while another explains why she abandoned the DA in favor of the newly formed COPE.
Whatever their color, these South Africans acknowledge their country’s flaws and passionately seek solution. Here, we have the privilege of hearing them describe for themselves how they see that solution—ANC, DA or otherwise.
Tracey D. Samuelson is a freelance writer and editor who currently divides her time between South Africa and the US.