May 13, 2011 / 11:48 AM / 6 years ago

Rich-poor divide runs through S.Africa local polls

4 Min Read

<p>A file photo shows a general view of Alexandra township, commonly known as Alex, a slum overlooking the Sandton sky scrappers in Johannesburg.old</p>

ALEXANDRA, South Africa (Reuters) - Just beyond the sprawling mansions guarded by private security and the high rise office blocks of Sandton, Africa's richest city, the poor in neighbouring Alexandra township struggle to eke a living.

The streets of what is known locally as "Alex", a shantytown next to Sandton's wealth, teem with thousands living in poverty, many of whom share water, toilets and illegal power connections.

The two districts, which nestle cheek-by-jowl in the Johannesburg conurbation, are among 278 municipalities holding local elections on Wednesday.

In post-apartheid South Africa, areas such as Sandton and Alex are stark examples of lingering economic disparities. The gap between rich and the poor has remained among the highest in the world since decades of white minority rule ended in 1994.

Policies introduced by the democratically elected African National Congress (ANC) have meant more blacks are among the wealthy and progress has been made in tackling infrastructure deficiencies, but the backlogs are immense.

There is growing concern that the rich and politically connected are becoming richer, the poor masses have no way to escape poverty and the middle-class has been squeezed so hard that many wonder how it will make ends meet in the future.

"If they don't wake up, all hell will break lose. The government is selective in their development," Themba Gramany an unemployed, 50-year-old father of three from Alex said.

"Ten years down the line Alex is sill not developing and there is only development where there are whites."

More and More Expensive

In the nearby leafy suburb of Morningside, with its swimming pools and exclusive schools, residents also complain.

"People think we are living the life but it comes at a price, one that is becoming more and more expensive to afford," said Kgotso Mokhele, an executive at a global accounting firm.

Sipping a cappuccino at a cafe, Mokhele, said he saw little return from the high taxes he paid or the municipal rates levied on his property.

"We are not getting value for our money. The public schools are in shambles and, unless it's a real emergency, you know to avoid public hospitals," he said.

There are 4,275 ward seats and 460 proportional representation seats up for grabs in Wednesday's elections, which are held every five years. The Independent Election Commission said 121 parties were taking part.

Many voters like Mokhele and Gramany are reluctant to cast their ballots because they believe the post-apartheid government has done little to improve their lives.

With 12 percent of the population paying taxes and about 30 percent receiving welfare benefits, the economy faces long-term risks from increasing the burden on taxpayers to finance ever-expanding government programmes to help the poor.

The combination waste through corruption, a small tax base and increasing welfare spending under the ANC and President Jacob Zuma is not sustainable, political analysts say.

Stringent labour laws make it difficult and costly to hire and fire workers. In addition, organised labour --- part of the governing alliance with the ANC -- for years has won salary increases double or triple the rate of inflation.

This has kept unemployment at about 25 percent for years despite consistent growth since the ANC has been in office.

"I have a diploma in IT but I have been unable to get a job. So what's the point?" asked Alex Harrison, 24, who now sells second-hand clothes in Alex.

The veteran journalist and political commentator, Allister Sparks, wrote in the financial daily Business Day that South Africans were not getting what they deserved.

"The Zuma administration is a failure. Under it the country is sinking into a morass of corruption, service delivery failure, wasteful expenditure, incompetence and general maladministration," Sparks wrote.

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