How world sees SA: What happened to Mandela’s dream?

Our partners at the Financial Times have a fantastic podcast episode that tracks the fortunes of President Cyril Ramaphosa since he took over the reins of power from embattled former head of state Jacob Zuma. While Ramaphosa’s 2017 Nasrec win at the ANC’s elective conference came with much fanfare about South Africa being on the precipice of a new dawn – it wasn’t to last, with the sitting head of state now dogged by his own Phala Phala skeletons, while his party faced spiralling fortunes in last year’s local government elections and what promises to be a bruising time in the upcoming national election in 2024. In the Rachman Review, the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman chats to writer and political activist Songezo Zibi –  chairman of the think-tank the Rivonia Circle – a man who may one day plan to run for the highest office in the land. The next 30 minutes is an interrogation of a South Africa run by what Zibi believes is an ANC not only morally bankrupt but intellectually starved. – Michael Appel

Songezo Zibi on the biggest problems facing South Africa 

The biggest issue is the economy specifically as it relates to jobs, because we have 36% unemployment. Youth unemployment is north of 60% in South Africa. So that’s the first thing. I think the second issue is directly related in many ways, which is crime. People are feeling unsafe and in the focus groups we do, they refer to the criminals as kids, which means the people who perpetrate the crime are from within the same community. And the third is corruption. People complain about corruption a lot, and specifically that the president hasn’t dealt with it in the way that he said he would.  

The ANC in the Jacob Zuma era destroyed institutions and institutions are nothing more than the corporate capability to get things done. So we are unable to get things done in the public sector. You’ve got a private sector investment which can be unlocked, but you don’t have the enabling mechanisms in the state to make it work. So that’s the first thing. The second thing, in my view, is that the orientation of the ANC is incongruent with how a modern economy works or should work – and also just the economy we have. The interventions are for an economy that you wish we had, but don’t actually have. 

To give you some specific figures from the most recent quarterly labour force survey. If you don’t have a post-school qualification, the unemployment rate is north of 90%. If you have a post-school qualification, that drops to 50%. So already you can see the training that gets offered is for people with post-school qualifications. There are people who really fall between the cracks. So that’s the first. The second, I think, is that we just need to work with the economy that we have in the sense that the ANC has got a big industrial society conception of the economy where people are going to work at 8am and come out at 5pm and they work in big factories and that sort of thing. The sectors that we really need to focus on, given the skills deficit, are the agriculture sector, tourism and so on, which would give us better labour absorption protectionism to get those kinds of equations. 

On the energy crisis 

We get up to 9 hours of power cuts in a 24-hour cycle.. And that’s just indicative of the problem I just explained, because the idea of unlocking private capital to bring renewable generation on stream is being opposed in the ANC by people who’ve made investments in the coal sector. And those people fear that if the country transitions too fast into a renewable energy scenario, then they’d be out of pocket. So you’ve got these vested interests which are militating against a faster transition. You also have an ANC that does not know how to articulate the length of the transition, the country’s energy mix and so on. Our Integrated Resource Plan for Energy Provision, which is a 50-year plan, is supposed to be updated every two years, but gets it right about every six or seven years. So by the time another one comes, it’s out of date already.  

For the longest time the ANC, for fear of losing one or other election, emphasised the need to keep the lights on, which means you skimp on your major maintenance so that you don’t have too many power plants out of commission that cost the country. So there is a backlog of maintenance that basically needs to be untangled. The second is the building of new generation capacity. It doesn’t have to be coal, but we’ve just fallen behind because just on approving the renewable emission licences alone, we’ve taken an inordinately long amount of time, as if we’re not in a crisis. There seems to be a lack of appreciation of how fast you need to move. 

On who he sees coming up post-2024 if the ANC falls below 50%

It’s much less about the who, and more about the what. I believe what we need – and there’s a huge appetite for it at the moment – is a broad coalition brought together by common values and principles, common priorities and consensus on how those priorities are going to be tackled. That will take the shape of a combination of some political actors, civil society organisations, but also community and other groups. It’s a difficult proposition to put together, but I think South Africa now, since the early 1990s, does have a history of coalitions moving together for change. Let’s now get to the who. The who obviously doesn’t come from the African National Congress. I also don’t think that person or that group of people can come from the opposition parties because they are not trying to build a coalition either. But I think building that coalition, that broad coalition, not necessarily to contest an election, but behind an idea, is a necessary step.  

On if he’s thought about getting into politics

The Rivonia Circle, which is the think tank that we’ve started, is a political endeavour. I’ve made that very clear. One of its purposes is to explore political alternatives that South Africans should explore in the short to medium term. That is 2024, all the way to 2029. 2024 is the national election, 2026 local elections, 2029 a national election again. So it already is a political endeavour. My approach to this is that we need to use the Rivonia Circle to try and build that coalition. If that coalition looks possible and doable, then there is no reason why I wouldn’t go into politics myself. 

We need to do the hard work because the problem with South Africa politically and why voters are so cynical is because a big man stands up on a podium and says, I’m going to consult South Africans about forming a new political party, and then they form it. But it’s about themselves and voters are tired of that. And that’s why I talk about coalition a lot, because I actually think we genuinely need it. You need business, you need the community and other civil interest groups draw on a set of priorities and say, okay, if we solve these five or six things and we all make a genuine effort to solve them, we can start making an impact on the hundreds of other similar issues that we have.  

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