After 30 years, South Africa is no longer the lodestar of global democracy: here’s why

Much has been written about the first 30 years of democratic South Africa, much of it focusing on the unfulfilled promise of a post-apartheid dawn and the more recent failure of the sun to rise on a “new dawn” under President Ramaphosa.

What is missing from the debate is the answer to the question: Why has post-apartheid South Africa collapsed?

When Nelson Mandela took office on May 10, 1994, the world was his country’s reach. Who else could have hosted a state banquet for Hillary Clinton and Fidel Castro, both equally excited about the country’s prospects?

Thirty years ago, South Africa embodied the hope that a way could be found to move the world away from its old Cold War dichotomies and into a new era of deep democracy, where the improvement of people’s lives, not the political power, – plays – would occupy a central place.

Thirty years later, we are still a free society, but we are no longer the North Star of global democracy. We are proof of how the best intentions can be fatally undermined by those who put power and clientelism before accountability.

While most South Africans were elated by the potential of democracy, there were hyenas, to borrow former Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi’s description, who saw endless opportunities to get rich and stay above the law.

Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, former Minister of Health of South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Business Day / Tyrone Arthur)

Unfortunately, the roots of this unrest go back to Mandela’s presidency. Let’s revive a forgotten history. When the Sarafina scandal broke, then Health Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was hauled before Parliament’s health committee, chaired by none other than Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. She was horrified. She made her way to Nelson Mandela’s office across the cobbles of Tuynhuys where she, it is reliably told, tearfully asked the great man to make him stop.

This was probably the first major turning point in post-apartheid history. Instead of telling her to face the consequences, which were being imposed by parliamentarians doing their duty, he took her side in a role less concerned with people’s lives than with the health of the party, and the investigation was extinguished.

President Nelson Mandela at his inauguration on May 10, 1994 in Pretoria. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / David Sandison)

Protection from above

The message was clear and immediate: there was protection from above for the real ANC game. Unsurprisingly, the floodgates opened and in 1999, when President Thabo Mbeki was in office, the country was in the midst of a full-blown corruption scandal involving the arms deal.

This would also be swept under the rug by dull investigations, and people like ANC MP Andrew Feinstein, who sat on the public accounts committee, would resign in disgust. When the prosecutions finally came, it was bagman Schabir Shaik and not the director, Jacob Zuma, who would take the blame.

Read more at Daily Maverick: Thirty years after democracy, fed-up Northern Cape residents thirst for more

In the 2000s, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, “greed was good” and Mbeki’s right-hand man, Smuts Ngonyama, went so far as to say: “I didn’t fight to be poor.”

This malaise of corruption, which persists in its mutated forms to this day, has played a major role in undermining the advancement of South African democracy and weakening economic performance.

The Zondo Commission report remains astonishing reading: thousands of pages meticulously document the bloodthirsty ingenuity of the corrupt and the failure, by omission, of the state to take action against them.

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions. (Photo: Gallo Images / Daily Sun / Jabu Kumalo).

The arrogance of the ANC

But is that the whole story? There are other, less dramatic but equally substantial reasons why South Africa has not kept its promise.

The most important of them is arrogance. The post-apartheid ANC failed to grasp the key mechanisms needed to advance the country economically. Chief among them were two factors: the need to attract capital investment and with it the skills, technology and market knowledge needed to grow the economy. And the need to build a highly competent technocratic class capable of managing a sophisticated country.

If there was an exception to the rule about the need to attract capital investment, it was found in the Mbeki presidency. Mbeki and his team, including the then Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, clearly understood this priority and changed course from the Reconstruction and Development Program to a fully “next level” economic programme: the macroeconomic Growth, Jobs and Redistribution programme, known by its acronym Gear. .

By today’s lazy analytical standards, Gear is seen as a “neoliberal” program that failed the poor in the interests of a rich cabal. The facts tell a very different story.

Source: Commercial Economy.

As the graph above clearly illustrates, Mbeki’s presidency oversaw the best economic growth of the post-apartheid era. Gear was introduced in the midst of the 1998 global financial crisis, but once it found its feet, it produced the products. The economy grew more than 5% for three consecutive years. There was even a budget surplus for two years, as tax collection under then-SARS chief Pravin Gordhan improved dramatically.

The private sector flourished and employment improved and, with government finances in a healthy position, one of the world’s largest social welfare programs was expanded.

However, the Mbeki era was not without its demons. There were some deep flaws that would come back to hurt South Africa. The aforementioned arms deal scandal. And Mbeki seemed unwilling to use his influence to stop Zimbabwe’s slide toward brutal autocracy while relying on the Internet to sell a deeply flawed HIV/AIDS policy.

It also planted the seeds of future load shedding, approving a white paper on energy reform that would introduce private power generation. When this was stymied by the left of the party, he failed to adopt a plan B and Eskom went for years without adding new generation capacity, something for which it has since publicly apologized. Ironically, his success in driving economic growth would mean that the lights would go out in 2008, when Eskom would literally run out of fuel.

The party was happy to overlook all these failures, but Mbeki finally crossed a red line.

He attempted to attack the hydra of corruption, firing Zuma as his vice president after the latter’s financial adviser was jailed for bribes related to the arms deal. Zuma was identified as the recipient of those bribes, although this has yet to be proven in court, some 25 years later.

populist politics

It turned out that the Mbeki era was a temporary aberration and soon returned to functioning abnormally. The idea that corruption could have consequences was too much for many party members. A coalition of forces mobilized around a populist agenda, which wrongly caricatured Gear as an elite enrichment scheme in direct contradiction to any economic facts he cared to examine, and removed Mbeki.

In alliance with unions and the ANC Youth League, some of whose members had recently appeared before cameras at a national conference, Zuma defeated the Mbeki faction at the ANC conference in Polokwane.

This represented a watershed moment, ushering in an era of populist politics and destabilizing the country’s ability to achieve the dual objectives of increasing capital investment and building a functional technocracy in public administration.

Instead, the cadre deployment machinery accelerated and the public administration expanded with battalions of low-skilled cadres put in charge across the state, as skills fled to the private sector or left the country.

Source: National Treasury.

As the graph above shows, Mbeki’s successful debt containment was quickly undone under Zuma, who spent like there was no tomorrow, a trend Ramaphosa seems unable to reverse.

Read more at Daily Maverick: Thirty years on, South Africans again need to appeal to their better angels

The economic consequences have been devastating, as state-owned companies have failed to produce the energy and rail and port logistics necessary for a modern economy. Growth has languished around 1% in a good quarter, and the portion of the budget allocated to paying down debt has grown alarmingly.

The challenge of reversing these trends and returning the economy to properly managed spending and execution is enormous, and at least as political as it is technical.

It will require leadership willing to be unpopular among deployed cadres and willing to reject populist criticism that it is implementing conservative economic management. There is no such leadership within the ANC, which will soon face a coalition election between the center or Zuma and the EFF.

But, as Mbeki demonstrated in the 2000s, it is within the country’s power to turn around if the right reforms and leadership are implemented. We can only vote with hope. DM

Ray Hartley and Greg Mills are with The Brenthurst Foundation.