South Africa

How to save South Africa

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Economist
May 29, 2024 at 13:51
Image: Lisa Sheehan
Image: Lisa Sheehan

The rainbow nation needs an alternative to decline under the ANC

In 1994 south africa provided some of the most joyous scenes of the late 20th century, when it elected Nelson Mandela as its first black president. The more or less peaceful transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy demonstrated what can happen when political enemies show courage and imagination. Yet as our Briefing this week explains, 30 years later the question is whether South Africa’s hard-won democracy can reverse the country’s perilous decline. After a creditable first decade, Mandela’s African National Congress (anc) has presided over economic stagnation, rampant crime, failing public services and epic corruption. Most South Africans say they would do away with elections if an unelected government could provide safety, jobs and housing.

When they vote on May 29th, they should throw out a party that has proved unable to govern. But that seems unlikely. Many voters still associate the anc with liberation itself. So the next five years will test whether South Africa’s young institutions can withstand yet another assault from predatory politicians, and whether its opposition can reinvent itself. Despite all the difficulties, South Africa still has a fighting chance.

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The anc’s popularity has been steadily declining. Polls suggest it will win less than 50% of the vote for the first time and thus need to form a coalition. The best option for South Africa would be for the anc to work with the Democratic Alliance (da), a moderate, liberal party that governs well at a local level. But that, too, is unlikely unless a disastrous result forces its hand. Instead the anc could reunite with its extremist offshoots, the Economic Freedom Fighters (eff) and uMkhonto weSizwe (mk), parties that would want to nationalise land, banks and mines, and which sometimes sound as if they hate every white person save Vladimir Putin. Alternatively it could cling to power with a slim majority, or in a coalition with a minor outfit.

Hopes that the anc might reform itself have repeatedly been dashed. When Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the negotiators who helped end apartheid, became president in 2018, he pledged a “new dawn” after almost a decade of grotesque graft, known as “state capture”, under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. The Economist urged South Africans to vote for the anc the next year, reasoning that a strong mandate would empower Mr Ramaphosa to clean up his own party. He deserves some credit for a few reforms, and for bolstering a justice system subverted by Mr Zuma. But Mr Ramaphosa failed because, ultimately, he put party unity above the national interest. He has pussyfooted around party figures alleged to be corrupt, many of whom are standing for re-election. Power has become so lucrative that people kill to become local anc candidates. Since 2022 almost 100 people have died in political assassinations.

The consequences of all this have been dire. Mr Ramaphosa has mostly indulged his party’s failed statist and racially biased approach to the economy. On average, the unemployment rate has risen by about half a percentage point annually since 1994, to 33%, and is the highest in the world. gdp per person is lower than it was 15 years ago. Policies that, in effect, force companies to give stakes to black-owned firms have deterred foreign investors. Private investment as a share of gdp is a third of what it was in 2008. A bid by bhp, an Australian mining giant, for its London-based rival, Anglo American—minus its South African mines—shows that foreign investors have a dismal view of the country. The World Bank reckons that crime reduces gdp by at least 10%. The anc has put tariff-free access to America at risk by allying itself with autocrats in Russia and Iran.

After the election the anc will start looking for a successor to Mr Ramaphosa, who cannot serve as president beyond 2029 and will step down as party leader before then. But that offers little cause for optimism. The next generation of anc leaders will feel pressure to copy the racial nationalism and populism espoused by the eff and mk. Recent legislation shows which way things are going. In March parliament approved a bill to allow land expropriation without compensation in the national interest. On May 15th the president approved a law that promises national health care, with no clear way to pay for it, and dramatic restrictions on private health insurance.

If the anc remains in power, how can South Africa protect itself? Fortunately, it has a feisty press, a vibrant civil society and unbowed judges. Their importance was emphasised on May 20th when the Constitutional Court barred Mr Zuma, who now leads mk, from running for parliament, owing to a criminal conviction in 2021. Honourable people in the anc must defend the rule of law, as some did at great personal cost during Mr Zuma’s presidency. ngos and activists will have to keep fighting for clean party funding and independent prosecutors.

If the economy and institutions can weather the coming storm, the election in 2029 offers a chance for change and renewal. There is no shortage of ideas for how to fix South Africa. Jobs are scarce partly because labour laws make it expensive to hire and hard to fire anyone. Lowering the cost of transport—which can be equivalent to more than half of low-wage workers’ net pay—would make getting a job more attractive. Granting title deeds to the millions who lack property rights would offer them dignity and assets. Paying private chains to run failing state schools would help the 80% of ten-year-olds who cannot understand what they read.

After the ANC

Yet saving South Africa is not just about clever policies; it is also about winning elections. The moderate opposition parties need a new vision as bold as that of 1994. They must explain how growth helps people more than a zero-sum fight over a stagnant economy, and demonstrate that better government in opposition-run regions benefits everyone who lives there. Above all they must ensure that they appeal to the black majority. If South Africa wants to inspire the world again, it must show that a failing democracy can redeem itself. 

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