South Africa

Why this is South Africa’s most important election since 1994

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Economist
May 29, 2024 at 06:23
Photograph: Lindokuhle Sobekwa/Magnum
Photograph: Lindokuhle Sobekwa/Magnum

It may force the country’s indecisive leader to make a fateful choice

Since taking office in 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa has turned indecisiveness into an art form. No matter the problem, South Africa’s president will dither about the solution. Six years after pledging a “new dawn” he has yet to get to grips with the country’s multiple crises, including record unemployment, the highest murder rate in 20 years and widespread corruption.

So it is troubling that Mr Ramaphosa may soon have to make a momentous choice. On May 29th South Africa will hold national and provincial elections. The Economist’s poll tracker suggests the ruling African National Congress (anc) will win its lowest share of the vote ever, probably falling below 50% for the first time. South Africa’s proportional voting system means that it would then need to form a coalition to govern. Potential partners range from thuggish black nationalists to multiracial liberals, making Mr Ramaphosa’s decision a fateful one for South Africa, and this election the most important since 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president.

Mr Ramaphosa’s options will be determined by how far the anc’s vote share falls. If it ends up closer to 40% of the vote than 50%, it may need to join forces with one of the bigger opposition parties. That presents it with a stark choice between pragmatism and populism. It could opt for a “grand coalition” with its biggest rival, the Democratic Alliance (da), which campaigns for clean, liberal government. Alternatively Mr Ramaphosa could turn to one or both of the next most popular parties: the Economic Freedom Fighters (eff) or uMkhonto weSizwe (mk). The first is an anc offshoot which adores Vladimir Putin, castigates white South Africans and wants to nationalise much of the economy. The second is backed by Mr Ramaphosa’s predecessor as president and leader of the anc, Jacob Zuma, who was jailed in 2021 for contempt of court after ignoring a summons from an inquiry into corruption during his presidency. When he was arrested, his supporters rioted, leading to hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage. Any deal involving the anc and either of these parties would horrify investors and all those who believe in what Mandela called the “rainbow nation”.

Don’t go lose it baby

Even if the anc does well enough in the election to ally with a relatively moderate minor party, Mr Ramaphosa will face a variation on the same dilemma. Thirty years after the end of white rule South Africa is in trouble. Graft is endemic, gdp per person is lower than it was in 2008 and the state is becoming ever less effective. The temptation to resort to ruinous populism to stay in power will only increase. Though the worst outcomes may be averted this time around, South Africa cannot escape fateful choices for ever.

To appreciate the stakes, rewind to when Mr Ramaphosa took over. The new president would speak of “nine wasted years” under Mr Zuma. The implication was that his predecessor’s reign was an aberration: that the era of corruption so severe it was dubbed “state capture” was the fault of one man—and could be resolved by another. Yet that was never likely to be the case, given the nature of the anc, what it has done to the South African state and Mr Ramaphosa’s own failings.

Start with the ruling party. The anc is an ideological mishmash, a blend of communism, socialism, black nationalism, Christianity and other ideas. But the assumptions that the state should be the chief source of development, that the anc must wield influence over the state and that markets cannot be trusted are shibboleths. In 1997 South Africa ranked 47th of 123 countries in the Economic Freedom Index, a ranking by the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank, based on the size of the public sector, the extent of regulation and so on. By 2021 it had slipped to 94th, just ahead of Nicaragua. The institute’s survey of the attractiveness of mining jurisdictions places South Africa, once the commodities giant of the continent, in 62nd place out of 86 countries, behind Congo.

Regulations around affirmative action and “black economic empowerment” (bee), whereby firms must give stakes to black-owned companies and use black-owned contractors, have raised the costs of investment. By one measure—gross fixed capital formation as a share of gdp—private-sector investment is down by a third since 2008. Labour-market regulations more in keeping with France than with a developing country raise the cost of hiring.

The deliberate blurring of the lines between party and state predated and outlasted Mr Zuma. The anc has a long-standing policy of “cadre deployment”, whereby loyalists are appointed to public jobs on the basis of loyalty to the party, not competence. Mr Ramaphosa chaired the anc committee responsible for this between 2014 and 2019, according to News24, a South African news organisation.

The blend of state and party abetted a culture of entitlement. “The bedrock of state capture was the anc’s ideology,” argues Mcebisi Jonas, a former cabinet minister, who says he left Mr Zuma’s government to avoid taking part in its corruption. Many in the anc behave as if the point of power is to acquire the lifestyles once enjoyed only by the white minority. As a spokesperson for Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor, declared, “I did not join the struggle to be poor.” Both Mr Mbeki and Mandela turned a blind eye to graft.

Under Mr Zuma corruption was grotesque. The largest state-owned firms were robbed of about 57bn rand ($3bn), according to the inquiry whose summons Mr Zuma ignored. The former president used public funds to build a family compound with a swimming pool that he claimed was a justified expense since it was to be used by firemen in case of conflagrations.

Still grazing

Mr Ramaphosa, who was Mr Zuma’s deputy, called the anc “accused number one” over corruption. But how much has changed? Billions of rand in emergency spending during the pandemic broke procurement rules, according to the police. Last month the speaker of parliament resigned after being accused of taking bribes. Local media report that the police are investigating allegations of corruption against Paul Mashatile, Mr Ramaphosa’s deputy and potential successor. (Both deny wrongdoing.) In a sign of the lethal competition for party jobs, which come with access to public funds, assassination attempts on politicians and officials claimed the lives of 37 people in South Africa last year, according to acled, a conflict-monitoring group. Just 10% of South Africans think the government is doing enough to stop graft, down from 25% in 2018, notes Afrobarometer, a pollster.


Young Xhosa girls walk to school in Eastern Cape, South Africa
A long and bumpy roadphotograph: steve mccurry/magnum

Over time, corruption and patronage have corroded the state. Data from the World Bank suggest that the effectiveness of South Africa’s government has plummeted since 1996. The result is a bad mix: heavy-handed regulation and administrative incompetence. “It’s like a black hole,” one adviser to the president says of the national bureaucracy. Local government is even worse: the vast majority of anc-run municipalities were not given clean audits in their most recent review by a watchdog.

A report published in November emphasised the role of “collapsing state capacity” in South Africa’s economic malaise. (Growth has consistently lagged behind other emerging markets: in 1994 South Africa’s gdp was almost double that of Malaysia; now it is about 20% smaller.) Because the anc kept spending after the commodity boom slowed around 2010, debt as a share of gdp has more than tripled, from 24% in 2008 to 75%. South Africa’s shocking unemployment rate (33%) has risen by about 0.5 percentage points a year on average since 1994. Entrenched joblessness is the main reason South Africa is so unequal. The richest tenth are about as wealthy as their counterparts in Greece, but the bottom decile is as destitute as the poorest Cameroonians.

State failings are clearest in infrastructure. Last year Eskom, the state-run power company, had to schedule a record number of blackouts because its generation fell so far short of demand. Almost 40% of piped water is lost before it reaches customers. Dysfunctional railways and locomotives mean that Transnet, the state freight firm, is unable to transport what firms want it to shift. The lost exports amounted to about 1bn rand a day over the past two years.

There is a vicious cycle in which criminals exploit a weak state, further weakening both the state and the economy. ceos regularly cite mafias as a brake on business. The World Bank reckons that crime costs South Africa at least 10% of gdp annually. Last year South Africa was the seventh most crime-addled country in the world, according to an index compiled by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an ngo, worse than Honduras, Libya and Syria. Over the past year reports of “tanker mafias” have proliferated: gangs who first sabotage the water network and then sell water from tankers to some of the country’s poorest people. Just 15% of murders are solved. No one has been sent to prison for crimes committed during state capture, or for instigating the riots after Mr Zuma’s brief jailing (Mr Ramaphosa remitted his sentence). The government spends more money protecting “vips” (including politicians) than it does on the Hawks, its equivalent of the fbi.

Mr Ramaphosa’s supporters argue that he is an institutionalist trying his best to repair the damage. In 2020 he launched Operation Vulindlela, an effort to overcome bureaucratic inertia in areas like electricity and immigration, supported with money and people seconded from the private sector. Vulindlela has removed regulations restricting private investment in renewable electricity, and so helped reduce power cuts this year. Yet all too often the president has appointed a commission to study an issue rather than fix it. When Mr Ramaphosa tried to appoint a “red tape tsar” it took months for him to start work, partly because of red tape.

The bigger issue is that Mr Ramaphosa has repeatedly prioritised the interests of his party over those of the country. He can sound moderate when speaking but the legislation actually passed by the anc shows his willingness to indulge the worst instincts of his party. In March, for example, parliament approved a bill to allow expropriation of land without compensation in the “public interest”. On May 15th he signed a law creating a vast but unfunded state-run health-insurance scheme. Few details were given about its cost. By one estimate personal income taxes would have to go up by 30% to pay for it. Doctors worry they will go out of business. Medical associations fear their members will soon be joining the many skilled emigrants to have left the country since 1994.

The president’s favourability ratings have fallen from an average of 57% in 2019 to 43% this year. This mostly reflects the poor state of the economy. But Mr Ramaphosa has also not properly explained a scandal that broke in 2022, in which hundreds of thousands of dollars that had been stuffed in a sofa were stolen from his game farm. (The president says he had sold some buffaloes to a Sudanese tycoon.)

Soweto blues

No wonder the anc’s support continues to fall. Record shares of South Africans tell pollsters that they are pessimistic about the future, are dissatisfied with democracy and have lost trust in their political leaders. In local elections in 2021 the party lost control of the five largest cities; most urban South Africans now live in municipalities not solely run by the anc.

The anc is being kept in office, like many “liberation parties” across Africa, by older rural voters. They are more likely to remember apartheid and depend on welfare payments. A conversation with Nyaniso Mhlabandela, in Qunu, a rural village, is indicative. Asked how life is, he responds with a grim litany: crime, shoddy roads, a lack of jobs and no water for several years. Nonetheless, he explains, “I’m going to vote for the anc once again…I don’t believe that other political parties can bring change. I have no hope in them, I will stick to the one I know.”


Protesters from Sir Lowry's Pass Village, South Africa, throw rocks at police during a protest over water upply
The way things are goingphotograph: reuters

Apathy also helps the anc. In 1994, the first election after the end of apartheid, 86% of those eligible went to the polls. In 2019 that share was just 49%. Perhaps only a quarter of those born since apartheid ended will bother to vote this time.

This is an indictment not just of the anc but of the opposition. In 2006 62% of South Africans told Afrobarometer they trusted the ruling party, but only 29% said the same of its rivals. In 2021 the anc’s tally had plummeted to 27%, but trust in opposition parties was also lower, at 24%. South Africa is quite unusual in having a primary opposition party—the da—that does not capitalise much on the ruling party’s troubles. This is partly a matter of race: black people vote overwhelmingly for the anc or its offshoots; minorities generally opt for the da. But the da’s leaders have affirmed the suspicions of the majority by suggesting that colonialism was not all bad and by issuing a campaign ad in which the “rainbow” flag, a symbol of post-1994 South Africa, is burned. John Steenhuisen, the da’s (white) leader, says the idea was to warn voters about how bad an anc-eff coalition would be. The party has long been stuck at little over a fifth of the vote.

Some close to Mr Ramaphosa suggest he would rather try to do a deal with the da than the eff. He chaired the anc committee that expelled Julius Malema, the eff leader, in 2012, so there is little love lost between them. But others in the party would prefer to “bring the family back together”, as a party official puts it. Since the eff will do well in Gauteng, the most populous province, and mk will score in KwaZulu-Natal, the second-largest, a pact involving mutual support at the national and regional level may emerge.

In truth the president is hoping he can avoid making a big call. Most analysts assume the anc will get around 45%, enough to do a deal with a small party. The anc may yet eke out a majority by itself. But even if the vote goes well at the national level, elections for the nine provincial governments could result in more of the calamitous coalitions involving extreme parties that plague big cities such as Johannesburg and Durban. If the eff does end up with a role, at least in Gauteng (home to Johannesburg and Pretoria), disaster awaits. Mr Malema’s party admires Zimbabwe’s farm invasions. He has urged supporters to sing “Kill the Boer” and declared, “There is an Indian agenda to undermine Africans.” He has magnanimously stated, “We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people—at least for now.”

uMkhonto weSizwe, named after the anc’s old armed wing, could be worse still. Mr Zuma, now 82, shows no compunction for his record. A proud Zulu, he has drawn on tribalism to appeal to the country’s largest ethnic group. The party’s manifesto suggests it would like to ditch the constitution. His supporters had threatened violence were Mr Zuma to be banned from standing for parliament—although, when the constitutional court did just that on May 20th, there was no immediate unrest.

The anc also faces internal turmoil. The constitution limits presidents to two full five-year terms. Mr Ramaphosa’s second term will begin shortly after the elections. Soon thereafter the anc will become embroiled in a succession battle.

Whoever comes out on top, the temptation to peddle pat solutions to South Africa’s problems will be huge. Almost a third of 18- to 24-year olds say they would prefer a non-democratic government. Nearly three-quarters of all South Africans say they would ditch elections for a government that could provide security, jobs and houses. Such despondency is fertile ground for populism.

Many in the anc may see the next five years as a last chance to enjoy the spoils of power. In “Who Will Rule South Africa?”, published last year, the journalists Adriaan Basson and Qaanitah Hunter note that, in local government, electoral setbacks have not spurred the anc to reform. It would be “delusional”, they argue, to imagine “nefarious elements in the anc” will not use “this term of governance as a last-ditch opportunity for self-enrichment”.

Unless it changes course, South Africa, not just the anc, will continue its slow decline. The state is weak, the economy stagnant, the ruling party decadent. Widespread poverty will mean voters consider radical alternatives. The anc will be influenced more by its populist offshoots. Mr Ramaphosa, as ever, may hope to avoid a defining choice. But dithering is also a decision of sorts—and a bad one.

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