South African politics has entered a new phase. For the first time since the end of apartheid, the ruling African National Congress agrees municipal elections last month drop below 50 percent – a disastrous outcome for Nelson Mandela’s party and a charge of his performance. Not before that time, the ANC’s political monopoly is faltering.
Admittedly, these were only local elections. For now, the ANC continues to rule the country, though the word “rule” may be too generous for a party struggling to keep the lights on or to stop corruption.
At municipal level, several of the capitals, including all three in the industrial heartland of Gauteng – Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and Ekurhuleni – fell into the hands of the opposition. The Democratic Alliance, a liberal centrist party that officially supports a social market economy, will run those cities with Cape Town. It barely failed to take Durban.
In fact, the ANC has been plodding for years. Even under the relatively stable governments of Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, it has failed to address the structural injustices left behind by apartheid. Inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient is as severe as when black people were deliberately held back by racist laws. Attempts at black empowerment created a small elite, but millions had to be content with state handouts. Jobs are scarce and schools are failing to prepare most children for the few opportunities available.
Under Jacob Zuma, president for almost 10 years until 2018, things got worse. His accomplices looted the suitcases and hollowed out institutions. Growth slows to a crawl. Cyril Ramaphosa, Zuma’s successor, tried to reverse the rot. But progress is glasses. Voters gave him a yellow card.
Thoughts are now turning to the 2024 general election when the ANC may not be able to win straight again. It could possibly go ahead by merging a coalition. But the political discourse has turned to what a post-ANC future might look like.
Unfortunately for South Africa, the opposition is just as divided and seemingly lacking in coherent ideas as the ruling party. Despite its apparent success in local elections, the DA was a mess, torn apart by internal struggles that were often centered on race. It now has a white leader and has drifted to the right in the pursuit of the Afrikaner vote, election self-harm in a country with an 80 percent black majority.
To the left of the ANC are the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by firefighter Julius Malema, who names Hugo Chávez among his role models. If Malema were to take over the presidency in some way, the country’s prospects would deteriorate further.
Another rising force is Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA. Mashaba, a successful black businessman and former mayor of Johannesburg, is campaigning for free markets with an emphasis on service delivery, but takes a strong stand on immigration. As a potential kingmaker, he can probably emerge himself as a presidential contender.
From this mess, South Africa must enchant a political force capable of performing an almost miracle. The country needs radical solutions to gaping inequalities, yet those that do not deter businesses. Its problems cannot be addressed with an economy that is shrinking in per capita terms. It urgently needs private-sector-led growth.
“What is unfolding is how democracy works,” Ramaphosa said of the voters’ stabbing verdict. It is true. More dubious is his claim that the ANC is a party that “learns very quickly”. History would suggest otherwise. We are not yet in a post-ANC era. But that time is approaching.