South Africa’s Growing Challenges

Jacob G. Zuma, President of South Africa at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2013. Image by World Economic Forum / Flickr.

The media coverage decreased in August outside the hospital in Pretoria, where Nelson Mandela was treated until he was sent home last week for the final stage of his life. Two South African television crews sat at folding tables next to their cars, looking at their computers and chatting. The outside area was full of posters, postcards and prints, all with greetings to Mandela expressing hopes for his recovery.

South Africa is waiting.

Mandela’s career and personality is unique. And his role as a national and international icon has continued to grow since he finished his calling and left public life.

However, South Africa is unique in many respects. The country stands out from the rest of Africa.

Not by the size of its economy, which almost always tends to be emphasized. GDP per capita is indeed six times greater than the average in Africa, but not higher than other middle-income countries on the continent. About 90 per cent of the population can read and all children go to school, but these advancements have been made in many countries in Africa. The quality is abysmal, as all over Africa.

What distinguishes South Africa on the continent is what people are doing. Agriculture accounts for 3-4 per cent of GDP, and the share drops every year. Also the share of manufacturing is falling rapidly and is now around 30 per cent. Different service industries are increasing and now account for two-thirds of production.

This structure was already established when apartheid collapsed in the early 1990s, and it has been strengthened since. It has influenced the direction of the policies applied. In many African countries, land was the central issue at independence.

In Kenya, the new rulers took over much of the colonists’ lands against various forms of compensation. In Zimbabwe, the takeover occurred brusquely but with the same purpose, to provide power and land for the new leaders.In South Africa, manufacturing and mining were more important and policies have aimed to create opportunities for black people to get involved as owners of companies and as entrepreneurs.

In all cases, the result has been that the new rulers have been able to enrich themselves by combining political power with economic hegemony.

South Africa is also unique because of its low population growth ─ barely over one per cent per year ─ and its low life expectancy ─ 53 years. It is a combination of the impact of HIV / AIDS and changing demographics, more premature deaths and fewer births per woman. South Africa is also unique in having gone from pariah standing for lack of action to curb HIV, to now being held up as an example.

But perhaps most striking is South Africa’s extreme inequality. Brace yourselves: The ten per cent with the highest income get 60 per cent of the country’s income. The ten per cent with the lowest incomes get 0.5 per cent.

Work is the key. Here the failure is monumental, almost one in three South Africans is unemployed. The situation has been made bearable by government grants and pensions. The result is that everyone, after all, has become at least marginally better off since 1995. Without social protection, 40 per cent of South Africa’s population would have had reduced incomes.

Mandela’s presidency focused on reconciliation, trust and association not economic equality. For both his successor Mbeki and the current President Zuma, investment concerns and access to international capital have dominated.

The events at the mine at Marikana a year ago showed the situation in flashlight. Mine owners were totally unsympathetic towards the discontent, the unions defended their own, the government sent in the police, and 34 miners were shot dead. Many asked the question what really changed over the last 20 years.

Against this background it is easy to understand that there is great dissatisfaction with the ANC in South Africa. ANC led and won the fight against apartheid. The movement’s rhetoric is about justice, development and distribution, but people do not notice it in their everyday lives. Many feel let down and people everywhere talk about the leaders’ corruption. The press is outspoken and there is no shortage of information about shady deals.

The pattern is repeated from other liberation movements. A revolutionary movement cannot cope with the transition to political party without riding on the enthusiasm and confidence from the previous role. But new generations do not have the same emotional relationship to their original leaders, and they look at results, not history. Many say: “ANC has stayed too long, they have become comfortable and corrupt. They take power for granted.”

ANC’s salvation is the weakness of the opposition.

DA, Democratic Alliance, has its stronghold in Cape Town; it seems to be gaining followers, but have difficulty getting national acceptance. It is still associated with white rule and white voters. The new party Agang, led by Mamphela Ramphele, is perceived as serious but is given little chance in the absence of a strong party apparatus. Julius Malema, former youth leader of the ANC, can certainly draw some votes for his new party, but is not considered serious. And it’s hard to attack President Zuma from populist direction, it gets crowded in there.

ANC will certainly continue to dominate South African politics. The question is how long Zuma stays in power. His term of office is not aligned to the general election cycle as the President is elected by Parliament. It is therefore obvious that he still has the support of the party. He has support among the poor with his popular image while the middle class sometimes seem ashamed of their president.

A less than visionary, but perhaps realistic hope is that the ANC gets a real warning and learns it lesson. South Africa needs less rhetoric and more of reform policies aimed at expanding the life chances of future generations, not least better schools and increased job opportunities.

Finally, South Africa is also unique by proudly and stubbornly clinging to the creed that the Rainbow Nation is a society for all. As a taxi driver in Johannesburg put it: “When Mandela dies we will be very sad. But it will not lead to instability or violence. Not in this country.”

Bo Göransson, NAI Associate; formerly Special Advisor to the President of the African Development Bank, Swedish Ambassador to Kenya, and Director General of Sida.

This article was originally published by NAI Forum.


For additional reading on this topic please see:
South Africa and the ANC Youth League
Conflict Trends (No 15): Real-Time Analysis of African Political Violence, June 2013
Unlocking South Africa’s Potential


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