Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

The ANC might have liberated South Africa but it doesn't have a free pass to govern forever

The party's diminishing popularity shows how much work still needs to be done to reverse inequality and economic apartheid

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa celebrates victory for his African National Congress party. Mike Hutchings / Reuters
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa celebrates victory for his African National Congress party. Mike Hutchings / Reuters

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa claimed victory yesterday in the country’s general elections – but that doesn’t mean the hard work is behind the incumbent. For the first time since taking power 25 years ago, Mr Ramaphosa’s African National Congress party has failed to win more than 60 per cent of the vote, securing just 57.5 per cent. The main opposition Democratic Alliance maintained its position as the country’s second most powerful party but it too saw a decline of more than 2 per cent, compared to the previous election in 2014. The only party to field a significant increase was the hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which gained more than 10 per cent of the vote for the first time since it was founded in 2013.

Indeed, while 60 per cent of the total population voted – proportionally greater than the number that turned out for the 2016 US election, for example – it was, nevertheless, the lowest turnout in the country’s history. More than six million people failed to register to take part, of whom half were those aged between 18 and 30. Some have blamed voter apathy; others say a younger generation do not feel engaged or represented by political parties and the ANC Youth League, once a force for change, has lost much of its credibility, particularly after backing former president Jacob Zuma, despite allegations of corruption hanging over him. In fact, Julius Malema – now the leader of the EFF – once declared as leader of the ANC Youth League: “We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.”

The election results demonstrate how South Africa’s fragile young democracy is maturing while underscoring just how much work needs to be done to reverse the country’s history of colonialism, apartheid and inequality. The majority of the younger generation might not be able to recall life during apartheid but they will know the struggles of finding a job in a country where unemployment runs at 27 per cent, with more than half of those affected under 30.

The corruption-tainted tenure of Zuma hollowed out the country’s resources and left many living in an economic reality just as harsh as the height of apartheid. As one of the continent’s most powerful nations, if South Africa cannot get it right by healing the scars of the past and forging forward, with a firm commitment to economic equality, what hope is there for its neighbours?

South Africans sent a clear message to the ANC at this election that while it might be the party that liberated the country, it doesn’t have a free pass to govern the country forever. Indeed, liberation movements across Africa have spotty track records once in power. In southern Africa, for example, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party freed Zimbabwe from the shackles of colonialism but ultimately drove the country into the ground. Zimbabwe was once Africa’s breadbasket, yet today is forced to deal with food shortages, thanks to grave mismanagement of government finances, inept wealth redistribution and corruption.

The election results demonstrate how South Africa’s fragile young democracy is maturing while underscoring just how much work needs to be done to reverse the country’s history of colonialism, apartheid and inequality

Since the fall of apartheid 25 years ago, the question of whether South Africa will follow Zimbabwe’s lead has been a contentious one. In the election campaign, there were echoes of Mugabe’s regime in calls from Mr Malema and the EFF to appropriate land from white farmers and redistribute it among the poorer black population, and for the nationalisation of private enterprises. While post-colonial regimes often appear alike, the subtle differences between them are significant. The impact and legacy of apartheid in South Africa have been largely economic and social. The country’s powerful business elite designed a system in collaboration with the government to keep the majority of South Africans disenfranchised. Imposing racial divides was a vehicle to ensure such an economic reality was sustained.

Under pressure from an international boycott, the fightback from the ANC and a shifting global geopolitical environment, spurred by the fall of the Soviet Union, the racial and undemocratic foundations of apartheid were dismantled in the early 1990s. But it was done in a way that ensured the continued economic domination of the white minority – or at least, slowed the unravelling of the imbalanced system that the apartheid government had entrenched throughout society.

This is different to how Zimbabwe dismantled white minority rule. Today, however, South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies. Black South African households earn 20 per cent less on average than those of white South Africans, according to the Financial Times.

Fast forward to these elections and the contours of economic apartheid are still very much on the minds of South Africans. For the majority of black South Africans, their economic position has not dramatically changed after 25 years of ANC rule. For some, things have only worsened.

Seizing on the opportunity presented by the failure of Mr Zuma’s eight years in power, the EFF has given voice to the frustration of many when it comes to the economy. In starkly populist terms, firebrand leader Mr Malema, who was thrown out of the ANC’s youth wing, moved the political discourse back to revolutionary terms. “Apartheid never ended, it merely changed complexion,” is a popular refrain and, based on the party’s continued growth, that view has traction in society.

Whether the EFF will be able to right the wrongs of history more successfully than the ANC is a matter of debate. The ANC, after all, was the party that liberated the country from the most grotesque manifestations of apartheid. Its inability to unravel the system in a manner that narrows the gap between rich and poor says more about how entrenched systems of colonialism are in southern Africa than it does about the ANC’s own failure.

It is unlikely these questions will be answered in the immediate aftermath of the election. The ANC has dug South Africa a deep hole after allowing Mr Zuma to hollow out the country’s resources. With his weakened mandate, Mr Ramaphosa faces enormous challenges. He needs to raise foreign capital to fix state apparatus such as the national power grid while rooting out corrupt elements still in power inside his party, and fighting off the resurgent EFF.

Despite a weaker showing at the polls, many still believe Mr Ramaphosa, with his extensive private sector experience and long-standing ANC credentials, is the right person for the job. But that doesn’t mean that he has all the time in the world to enact reform. South Africa’s economic future is teetering on the brink of a tipping point and without clear signs that a new regime is in place and ready to tackle the scourge of corruption and inequality head on, disaster could be imminent. This is, perhaps, the ANC’s greatest test as a true party of liberation.

Joseph Dana is the editor of emerge85, a project exploring change in the emerging world and its global impact

Updated: May 12, 2019 05:02 PM

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