South Africa’s illusion of revival: ANC leadership has failed to deliver change

Terrence Corrigan describes the current state of South Africa, highlighting various challenges and shortcomings the country is facing. He suggests that the national mood is at an all-time low since the transition to democracy in 1994, with a sense of despair overshadowing the earlier optimism. The economy is struggling, marked by high unemployment rates and insufficient investment. The state is perceived as incapable of fulfilling its duties, exemplified by crises in electricity supply, logistics infrastructure, and water scarcity. The phenomenon of “state capture” under former President Jacob Zuma has further eroded confidence in the government. While President Cyril Ramaphosa initially brought hope, there is a growing disillusionment with his ability to bring about meaningful change. Corrigan concludes that a fundamental shift in leadership and direction is needed for South Africa’s recovery, as the ruling party has demonstrated its limitations.

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The illusion is ending: this is good

By Terrence Corrigan*

South Africa’s national mood is now probably at a lower point than it’s been since the transition in 1994. A case could even be made that it is worse now that it was in the years preceding the transition, since despair at the multitudinous wrongs in the country at that time were at least tempered by the expectation that liberation was inevitable.

Not so much now. We’ve seen the euphoria of democracy dissipate, the good times of the mid-2000s come to an end, and in the ensuing decade, the metastasization of the country’s failings. Today we sit with an economy in which a third of its people are officially unemployed, or over four in ten (not too distant from half the workforce) if the ‘expanded’ definition is used. South Africa’s economy typically manages growth of between 1% and 2% and struggles to attain half of the 30%-of-GDP investment that the National Development Plan called for. Indeed, IRR analysts have shown that per capita investment has been on an overall decline since 2008.

We also sit with a state that is manifestly incapable of performing its functions. The flagship of this has been the electricity crisis, but it is matched by the state of the logistics infrastructure. The recent cholera outbreak, with 32 deaths at this time of writing, comes after years of warnings about the state of the country’s water supply. Chronic insecurity shows itself in the persistent crime plague and in – as the riots in July 2021 – the often-tenuous grip on the country that the state exercises.

Much of our present take on the country has been conditioned by the so-called State Capture experience; this is certainly the dominant narrative among public commentators.

As this was tied intimately to President Jacob Zuma, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s accession to the leadership of the African National Congress in 2017 and to the South African presidency early the following year was greeted with jubilation.

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Second liberation

Almost a second liberation, Ramaphosa was seen as a necessary antidote to what had taken place over the past decade. For millions of ordinary South Africans, it was probably enough that President Ramaphosa was not Jacob Zuma.

But he was also the man who’d taken the lead in putting the Constitution together, he had spent years in the business world, and he had held high office in the state. Plus, he was personally avuncular and approachable – his morning jogs on the Cape Town waterfront were a particular hit.

Optimism rode high. The Financial Times headed its report ‘Cyril Ramaphosa, a leader’s long wait to save South Africa,’ lauding his ‘credible, indeed compelling, CV and range of experience to beguile both investors and at least some of the feuding wings of the ANC.’

In the Mail and Guardian, veteran commentator Richard Calland foresaw an approach to South Africa’s problems in terms refreshingly at odds with so much of what had gone before: fruitful cooperation and evidence-based action. ‘He will,’ Calland wrote, ‘seek to draw both his friends and his foes into processes he will convene and that he can then, to a large extent at least, control. Their destination will always be the same: reasoned consensus, based on an intelligent, well-informed understanding of the strategic trade-offs.’

More directly, I was at a major business conference towards the end of 2018, at which a prominent commentator put the sentiment succinctly: Ramaphosa was ‘the best we’ve got.’ She at least deserves some credit for dogged consistency, as she has maintained this view until today.

For his part, the President consciously fostered a narrative that his administration was one that is uniting the country’s good people – ‘we’ – bravely struggling against the odds to rejuvenate the country after the ‘nine lost years’ associated with state capture. Call this the ‘New Dawn’.

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‘Long game’

Here at least he could claim to be effective: tardiness in action could be explained away as playing the ‘long game’. He was, after all, ‘a master of the art of strategic patience.’ Ground-breaking reform was perpetually over the next horizon. There was also a curious silence on the incongruity that someone who had served as number two in both the ruling party and the State during the height of State Capture would be an effective agent to undo its consequences. Peter Bruce memorably declared that he would vote for the ANC in the 2019 election to support the good people in the ANC.

Even as President Ramaphosa pushed anti-business and anti-growth policies, notably Expropriation without Compensation, most of the country’s most senior business figures and commentators dismissed them as mere posturing that would be defanged in time.

Perhaps it’s a paradox that the great global trauma – the Covid pandemic – gave Ramaphosa’s authority a boost. There was a widespread appetite for decisive leadership, which the lockdown seemed to signify, something that went beyond a mere pragmatic acceptance of the restrictions as counter to the virus. There was something distinctly disquieting about the citizens of a constitutional democracy praising the president for limiting their freedom in a blizzard of laudatory hashtags such as #weareled, #CyrilFridays.

It’s difficult to find that sort of sentiment now.

Last December, Peter Bruce demonstrated this turnaround when he wrote a piece towards the end of last year headlined ‘Ramaphosa is toxic now, thanks to his own lack of common sense.’ He has been far from alone in this. Audible stirrings of discontent have come from a generally controversy- and conflict-averse business community. They have offered their support for managing reform, but this is itself a recognition of the virtual collapse of the state, and hardly an endorsement of the capacity of the incumbent government to address it. It’s no more than a palliative anyway.

Bruce, incidentally, responded to this initiative by criticising business for being too standoffish. ‘It absolutely should be trying to micromanage the state,’ he wrote in the Sunday Times. He went to remark that business needed to throw whatever money was necessary at the reform-minded opposition to enable them to remove the ANC next year. A decent investment, he said, because the ANC is just too costly.

Eusebius McKaiser said something similar just before he died: ‘We need to normalise mentioning the name “ANC” when telling stories about the economic and deeply personal impact of blackouts, such as a child dying because of lack of oxygen when an inverter runs out of backup power. The effects of blackouts aren’t random natural events. They are the foreseeable consequences of corruption, state capture, technocratic ineptitude, and unethical and ineffectual leadership by the ANC-misled government. Make it a habit to tie the story of Eskom to the ANC.’

No pedigree

This is all for the good. President Ramaphosa had no pedigree as a reformer, merely the illusion of being one. Not being Zuma is not enough for what the country needs. While some of his initiatives have been useful, they have generally attempted to tinker with existing policy and practice, not to change them. Operation Vulindlela, for example, may assist in easing the choked visa system – which needs to be done – but offers nothing to address a clutch of the most prominent disincentives to doing business, such as onerous labour legislation and crippling empowerment demands.

Nor has there been any sense that he is personally committed to a change of course. It has been under his watch that his party has pursued an assault on property rights. This included, it must be said, the first attempt to tamper with the Bill of Rights – the core of the very document whose drafting secured Ramaphosa’s reputation. The state has finally imposed what are in effect racial quotas on the private sector. Racial quotas in water allocation are on the cards.

A state deliberately politicised through the illegal cadre deployment programme of the ruling party (a programme overseen personally during the height of ‘state capture’ by then Deputy President Ramaphosa himself) will continue in this vein, since the President and his party remain committed to this toxic practice. This is despite the findings of the Zondo Commission.

Particularly jarring – for we’ve become accustomed to internal decline – has been South Africa’s inept handling of geopolitics. Maintaining a ‘non-aligned’ posture in the face of a polarising conflict like that in Ukraine would demand considerable diplomatic nous. Pretending to be ‘non-aligned’ while exuding sympathy for Russia and keeping relations with its Western trading partners intact has proven altogether beyond the nous of the President or his government. AGOA access to the United States is now under threat. What may well be among the least important political considerations for South Africa’s people could well hold the most important consequences for them.

So, with few prospects for reform ahead, and with President Ramaphosa having shown himself to be unable to step outside the paradigm that has brought the country to this point, any honest analysis has to confront something that for many would be unthinkable: the country’s malaise will not be resolved through a change of party leadership. It demands a change of direction, which the ruling party is simply not going to provide.

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Competent professionals

If we seek institutions, utilities and logistics systems that function efficiently, we need them managed by competent professionals. Racial and sex characteristics and political allegiances must necessarily be a distant secondary consideration. For the incumbent government, these are both primary and non-negotiable.

For the state to work, it must run on fundamentally meritocratic principles. The National Planning Commission stated baldly – I’ve quoted this often enough – that the South African state has ‘rejected’ this idea. Any rebuilding strategy must put this idea front and centre, but to do so would be to betray the core ideas of the ruling party, which the President has endorsed. That the President would be willing to commit taxpayer resources to defending cadre deployment in court speaks volumes about the realities of South Africa’s condition. (The Democratic Alliance has just won an important victory in demanding access to records of the ANC’s Cadre Deployment Committee during the Zuma years, when it was chaired by the current President. This will likely be very revealing and deeply embarrassing.)

And if President Ramaphosa is ‘the best we’ve got’, we’ve not got a great deal; we can expect no more on the current trajectory than continued decline.

All of this indicates that a recovery is going to depend on something quite revolutionary (in the sense of a complete about-turn) for post-1994 South Africa.  That renewal will not come from within the ANC. Its political repertoire does not include the possibility of an about-turn. The President, whatever his personal attributes, exists firmly within the limitations of his party.  This is now undeniable.

The illusion of an ANC-driven revival is dead.

It remains for those of us committed to a future for South Africa to say this openly, and to act accordingly.

*Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and has been republished with permission