The writer is the author of ‘The Plot to Save South Africa’
For 28 years, South Africa has survived on hope. The hope that, as its first democratic president Nelson Mandela put it in his inaugural speech in May 1994, centuries of apartheid and colonialism would be sublimated into “work, bread, water and salt for all” in a just society. The hope that, beyond the talk of being a political “rainbow miracle”, the country would become an economic powerhouse, too.
That hope has been dimming for years now. Corruption, incompetence and greed among the political elite has gnawed away at ordinary citizens as unemployment, poverty and inequality spiral. Nothing illustrates this better than the ruling African National Congress party’s conference. On Saturday, as president Cyril Ramaphosa deployed the army to guard power stations that are being gutted by saboteurs, leaving households with eight or more hours of blackouts a day, delegates shouted at him to resign. His predecessor, Jacob Zuma, laid spurious criminal charges against Ramaphosa to block his re-election to the party presidency.
The chaotic scenes were a new low for Mandela’s party and for South Africa. They were indicators of a dying party which is dragging the country down with it. The ANC’s demise makes the political and economic roadmap choppy, unstable and unpredictable.
Investors will be cheered by the business-friendly Ramaphosa’s re-election to the party presidency, but the uncertainty that has dogged his first five years in office will continue as the internal warring deepens. The ANC is engaged in what Ramaphosa’s spokesman framed in a tweet as “beyond the realms of political contestation”.
“We are now facing an all out war that is inspired by deep seated personal hatred seeking to burn everything and anything in its path. Even the country will not be spared from the wrath of such hatred,” he said.
What comes next is an intensification of the warfare — using the compromised intelligence services, the courts, state institutions, weaponised social media accounts and even violence — that has gripped the party for years. It would be comforting to say that this is an ANC problem but, unfortunately, the party’s dominance of South Africa means that its deep fissures will impact service delivery and stability in the continent’s most sophisticated economy. In 2021, when Jacob Zuma was jailed for contempt of court, his supporters went on a rioting and looting spree that, according to Ramaphosa, left nearly 2mn people unemployed and wiped more than R50bn off the economy.
Meanwhile, the rand has collapsed to nearly R18 to the dollar from R12 when Ramaphosa became president in 2018. Unemployment was at 25 per cent in 2003 — it had ballooned to 32.9 per cent as of November 2022, according to Statistics South Africa. The World Bank says that “poverty has reached levels not seen for more than a decade.”
Ramaphosa has dithered when presented with the opportunity to reform the economy and fire incompetent ministers. For five years he failed to get his trade minister to cut the notorious red tape and make business easier. This year he appointed a business leader to do the job while retaining the minister in his top-heavy Cabinet.
Let me be clear, Ramaphosa’s win is to be welcomed. His main opponents were fronts for the discredited Zuma faction and their win would have led to the collapse of the country. His victory, however, simply gives him and the ANC a little bit more time at the helm. It does not bring new ideas or energy.
The rot of ANC sloth and corruption is too deep, and a Ramaphosa who is compromised by a tawdry scandal — an unexplained stash of $580,000 stolen from the sofa at his farm — is an unlikely redeemer of the party. The president faces investigation by at least six different state agencies and his opponents will continue to exploit his troubles. Five years ago, he promised to smash corruption but delegates to this party conference spoke openly of being paid to vote for certain factions.
The corruption is endemic. The past five years have demonstrated that the ANC stays together so that its leaders and apparatchiks can continue to loot the state. Voters are beginning to see this, though. Several recent polls say ANC support is expected to fall below 50 per cent in the 2024 national election. Engulfed by corruption and infighting, the party will become a shadow of its former self over the next 20 years.
This is incredibly good news. South Africa needs to move beyond a hope that is linked to the ANC. For that to happen, the ANC must wither, die and make way for a more contested political terrain. Ramaphosa’s woes may be his greatest gift to the country.