ENNERDALE, South Africa (Reuters) - In many countries, protesters throwing rocks, torching government buildings and blocking roads with burning tires on an almost daily basis would strike fear into the ruling party in the run-up to an election.
In South Africa, such is the dominance of the African National Congress that polls suggest it will maintain its near-two-thirds majority on May 7, even as the anger of young people demanding jobs and better services continues to swell.
The ANC’s legacy as the party that freed millions of blacks from the shackles of white-minority rule ensures it maintains a fiercely loyal support base - and even for its rock-throwing detractors, voting against it remains a step too far.
Rather than backing the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party that is still seen as the political home of privileged whites, or the new ultra-leftist Economic Freedom Fighters, many disenchanted ANC supporters are choosing simply not to vote.
“The ANC has been in power for 20 years and they’ve done nothing,” said 22-year-old laborer Kevin Varion, marching with a rowdy crowd last week through Ennerdale, a township of tin-roofed shacks and potholed roads south of Johannesburg.
“But I don’t see any political party that will change things. I won’t vote for anyone.”
Although the marchers brandish spades, steel pipes and rusty golf clubs, so far the protests have been mostly attention-seeking in nature rather than a threat to life and limb.
But there are signs that dissatisfaction with ANC leaders, including President Jacob Zuma himself, could take a more serious turn among the poorer black and mixed-race “colored” communities that have kept the ANC in power since 1994.
“The protests are going to get worse after the elections if things don’t change,” Varion said menacingly as police in riot gear cleared away smoldering car tires and toddlers scavenged through rubbish piled on the roadside.
Gareth Newham, head of the Governance, Crime and Justice Division at the Institute for Security Studies, agreed.
“There is no real plan of action that suggests that the government have a clear idea of how they’re going to manage this,” he said. “So I think it will probably escalate.”
The so-called “service delivery protests” have risen steadily over the last decade, with 470 major incidents recorded in 2012 compared with just 13 in 2004, according to a University of Johannesburg (UJ) report.
A study by the think tank MunicipalIQ predicted a record number this year, many of them stoked by rival parties or ANC factions trying to gain electoral advantage.
Though the protests often target local politicians for failing to deliver on promises, they are increasingly directed at Zuma and ANC leaders who many believe have used their time at the top to amass personal wealth at their citizens’ expense.
Zuma was criticized in an anti-graft report last month for “benefiting unduly” from a $23 million state-funded security upgrades to his private home in Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal, which included a swimming pool, amphitheatre and chicken run.
“Sell Nkandla”, read one banner being held up by protesters in Ennerdale. “We are the step-children in South Africa,” read another, held up by a group of young women.
The ANC counters accusations of negligence by pointing to the 2.5 million cheap homes built since apartheid, as well as the undisputed improvements in services for townships, although analysts say the pace of change has slowed in the last decade.
Deputy ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa said the party was aware that many communities felt “left behind”, but that the protests were only part of the “growing pains” of democracy.
“As each one of us grew up, we ran, we fell, we had scratches on our knees,” he told reporters last week.
Police have been accused of exacerbating tensions with sometimes deadly responses ranging from tear gas and rubber bullets to live ammunition.
At least nine community protesters have been killed by the police this year, adding to 11 last year, five in 2012 and nine in 2011, the UJ report said.
These numbers exclude the 34 striking miners killed by police at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in 2012, the bloodiest security force incident since the end of apartheid.
“The police go there and, because the protest is spontaneous, they act in a very angry manner too quickly,” Newham said.
“That can lead to running battles. Police going heavy-handed tends to escalate the problem rather than solve it.”
Some of the once-loyal ANC supporters who witnessed at first hand the township violence of the 1980s and early 1990s, in which thousands were killed, are anxious now.
“I think there is going to be war,” said 74-year-old Ennerdale pensioner John Deysel, shaking his head as a teenage protester swinging a golf club ran past.
“The whole country feels disappointed,” he said. “We need a new government. That’s the bottom line.”
($1 = 10.6193 South African Rand)
Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Ed Cropley and Kevin Liffey