South African democracy faces one of its most critical tests

South African democracy faces one of its most critical tests


By: Thomas Harding

Publication: The National

Twenty-two years since the end of apartheid rule, many black South African are worse off than before the country became a democracy. As they say in Johannesburg, you can’t eat the vote.


For too long the international community thought of South Africa as the great rainbow nation whose success in creating a functioning democracy after years of segregated rule could be a beacon for a globalised, multicultural world. South Africa is the glue that holds together much of the sub-Sahara region and has one of the strongest economies on the African continent.


The current economic situation, however, highlights many of the problems with the country’s continuing transition from apartheid to democracy. South Africa today is a pressure cooker full of barely contained anger that could quickly turn into civil strife.


Thirteen politicians from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party have been murdered in the run-up to nationwide municipal elections taking place today.


From one perspective, the murders are a clear indication of widespread desperation.


And it is easy to understand where the desperation originates. Black university graduates can only get jobs as petrol pump attendants and black teachers receive half the pay of their white counterparts. Some call this type of inequality “economic apartheid”.


White business owners and investors that prospered under the apartheid government have made large sums of money in the past 20 years of democracy as South Africa privatised many parts of the economy. These businesspeople, including some members of the black community, want to keep the status quo. There is a slowly growing black middle class in South Africa, but their wage growth lags behind their white counterparts in many sectors.


Many South Africans blame president Jacob Zuma’s ANC for the country’s woes. Not for a lack of vision, but for an inability to fulfil the promise of black economic empowerment and for encouraging a system of political patronage that has left the government rife with corruption. Fears of national unrest are now so severe that the state broadcaster, SABC, has banned footage of government buildings under attack during protests.


South African infrastructure is also in a pitiful state after years of gross neglect. During the hot summer months, the country regularly faces rolling black outs thanks to the ageing electricity infrastructure.


International investors have watched the country’s credit status hover a notch above junk and the South African rand has been on a roller coaster ride along with other emerging currencies.


Meanwhile, South African elites have stashed billions of dollars in offshore bank accounts as they try to maintain the delicate status quo. Many analysts are warning that the country will self-destruct if they don’t deal with the economic problems.


The country is full of other imbalances. Eighty per cent of health-care costs, including private care, is spent on 20 per cent of the population. Just 3 per cent of shares on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is owned by non-whites and, while it remains an estimated figure, around 80 per cent of farmland is still in white hands. As are all four big banks and major mines. South Africans have worked for three centuries under white rule and have just had 22 of those years with the vote. They have some ideas that have worked before.


The old hands of the ANC suggest sitting down and talking. After apartheid ended, the truth and reconciliation process helped heal the nation through constructive dialogue. It has happened before and it can happen again.


The Democratic Alliance (DA), which was born out of the ruling National Party from the apartheid years, now has a black leader and many black candidates. If the DA is successful at the polls today it could provide the necessary shock needed to jolt the ANC into starting serious and substantial negotiations with the white elite. Similarly, the Economic Freedom Fighters, who have called for large-scale nationalisation similar to that in Zimbabwe, are looking to make inroads into the ANC heartland of Johannesburg from their political strongholds in the north of the country.


If the election is disastrous for the ANC, it could precipitate a rapid end to Mr Zuma’s controversial presidency. He could be replaced by someone who decides that “talking left and walking left” is the only way ahead.


That is: to nationalise the mines and seize back the land is the start of winning back the black vote. The consequences of those actions are unknown, but will not be without risk of economic disaster.


Thomas Harding is the former defence correspondent for The Daily Telegraph


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