No one can really be in any doubt that South Africa is in a deepening crisis. A quarter of a century of government by the African National Congress has left the country drowning in corruption, declining living standards and stagnating job prospects. A recent World Bank report [see page 19] shows that its people – many already impoverished – have seen their incomes fall still further, with declining per capital GDP.
President Cyril Ramaphosa himself admitted, at the Financial Times African Summit in London last month, the cost of corruption is “much bigger than I think most people could ever have imagined”. He put the cost at more than a tenth of the South Africa’s entire gross domestic product: between R500bn ($34bn) and a trillion Rand. Drug gangs are so rampant in the Cape that the army has been called onto the streets in a last ditch attempt to contain them.
The ANC’s attempt to redress the balance left by generations of racism and apartheid have failed. Policies apparently designed to uplift the black majority have been skewed by the party’s determination to allocate key jobs to party members – the so-called ‘cadre deployment policy.’ This has pushed ANC members into positions for which they have few, if any, qualifications. Those appointed are answerable to the party, not the public. It is wide-open to corruption.
Combined with racially based attempts to redress the legacy of apartheid, this has deprived the country of its best and its brightest. Many – of all ethnicities – have simply left to pursue jobs abroad. Little surprise then that key state owned enterprises, from the airlines to the electricity supply corporation, are now deeply indebted and poorly managed.
The opposition’s disarray
Under the circumstances, the main opposition party – the Democratic Alliance (DA) – should have made major inroads into the ANC’s hold on power at the April general election. Instead, under Mmusi Maimane, it fell backwards. The fall was not dramatic (less than 1.5%) but the DA had been advancing election after an election and it provoked a crisis in the party. Maimane was challenged about his performance – accused of taking the party on the wrong path.
Under Maimane, the DA had to face a central question: should it remain true to its free market, liberal roots or move towards the social democratic, interventionism of the ANC? It’s head of policy, Gwen Ngwenya, supported by others in the party leadership, proposed that it should dump the ANC’s racially defined policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), claiming that it had not worked for the country. In a 152-page document titled, ‘Vula: The “open” economy, Open for business’ Ngwenya suggested that the party should replace BEE or later versions of the same policy – Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) with an environment social governance (ESG) index that removes race from the score-card.
The paper went on to argue that the quotas currently in place should be dropped since B-BBEE had created ‘insiders and outsiders’. The ‘insiders’ were predominantly African men, who had hoovered up directorships and places on company boards, leaving most of the population, of all racial groups, excluded from key positions. ‘DA empowerment policy would seek to be comprehensive by recognising a wide range of voluntary environmental, social and governance disclosures and interventions, of which ownership schemes and diversification could be a part, but with no minimum requirements,’ the document stated.
Maimane decided the policy was unsaleable to the electorate. Rejecting Ngwenya’s suggestions, he moved the party closer to the policies the ANC has pursued since 1994. This has meant downplaying the Democratic Alliance’s traditional commitment to values of equality and merit and focussing instead on supporting the ANC’s long-held plans to back ‘previously disadvantaged’ groups: black Africans and – to a lesser extent, coloureds, Indian and women. This has – inevitably – caused tensions.
Gwen Ngwenya resigned in disgust, accusing the leadership of failing to support her, or her initiatives. In her resignation letter, she quoted from Maimane’s own words, arguing that she was doing no more than work for what he had called for. She quoted her leader as saying: ‘we need a wholesale change in empowerment policies, to move away from race-based policies that enable elite enrichment, towards policies that fundamentally break down the system of deprivation that still traps millions of South Africans in poverty.’ True or not, when facing the 2019 election, Maimane found the consequent policy changes too difficult to stomach.
With the election behind it, the DA held an inquest into what went wrong. It concluded that there had been a “general incoherence in the party’s philosophical approach to the issue of race.” Maimane decided to resign. Helen Zille, the former party leader, was elected to become the Chairperson of the party’s powerful Federal Council, and John Steenhuisen was elected by the DA Parliamentary caucus as interim Parliamentary leader. This led to fierce criticism, with accusations that the party is ‘stumbling into the past’ with white politicians taking key positions. DA supporters have responded by accusing their critics of failing to understand the party. They argue that “DA is not only the most racially diverse political party in South Africa, but it remains – objectively – the party that has delivered the biggest basket of the highest quality basic services to citizens where we govern.” Both statements are accurate, but the question of perception remains. The DA has struggled to find black leaders who are both effective and embrace the party’s philosophy.
Perhaps the best summary is that South Africa is struggling with the legacy of four centuries of racism. This has, naturally, infected its polity making rational debate difficult and attempts to find a way forward very complex indeed. The hopes embodies in the nation by Nelson Mandela and the spirit captured by its rugby team show that sometimes South Africans can rise above their rifts and divisions. Presently this is sadly the exception rather than the rule.
Martin Plaut is a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute of Commonwealth Affairs.