South Africa’s economic, social and political outcomes drive sub-Saharan Africa. At least it did for a few years at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. After all, South Africa for many years harboured sub-Saharan Africa’s most dynamic economy, its most vibrant political system, its most advanced infrastructure and its most established educational system. South Africa also became a member of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) — supposedly a group of the leading nation states of the developing world. After the defeat of apartheid, South Africa also was led by Nelson Mandela, a glowing icon of positive change and humanistic achievement for his country, for Africa and for the world.
South Africa was expected to lead sub-Saharan Africa’s emergence onto the world scene as a major player, soon equivalent to Asia. But no longer. This decade’s sad tale is of great promises unfulfilled, of Mandela’s legacy blemished and discarded, of political leadership failing a now-cynical nation, and of increasing internal anger over inequality. Thanks to bad management and collapsing commodity export prices, South Africa could easily slip into recession this year.
Political regimes everywhere depend on projecting and demonstrating legitimacy. From Canada to Chile, from the United Kingdom to Uganda, the ability of a government to govern and a leader to lead effectively depends on retaining the legitimacy that each gained through electoral approval or as a result of widespread, generalized citizen-provided approbation. When such legitimacy recedes, as it did even before the Harper administration was voted out of office in Canada, the ability of a leader, or a regime associated with a flawed leader, to continue to preside assuredly over the affairs of a nation becomes severely compromised.
That is what has happened, relentlessly, in South Africa. President Jacob Zuma’s political star, once shining brightly over a legitimized post-Mandela, African National Congress-mediated, limitless horizon, has now dimmed to the dark point where good governance in Africa’s formerly most accomplished nation is largely gone. According to a late 2015 Afrobarometer opinion survey, public distrust of Zuma personally increased from 37 percent in 2011 to 66 percent in 2015. Public “approval” of Zuma’s performance as president fell from 64 percent in 2011 to 36 percent in 2015. Afrobarometer stated: “A majority of citizens believe[s] that he routinely ignores both the legislature and the judiciary.”
Zuma’s US $251-million jet, $21-million villa
Despite an unyielding drought that imperils South Africa’s much-vaunted agricultural productivity; the failure of Eskom, the state-owned electric monopoly, to supply steady power to cities, towns and rural areas (cities are often plunged into darkness for hours at a time); and a likely annual economic growth rate of a measly one percent, Zuma blithely condemns his critics and giggles when criticized in Parliament. Recently, he purchased a US $251-million presidential jet. Last year, he lamely defended the state’s expenditure of US $21 million to construct a massive villa for him in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, a retreat he intends to inhabit after eventually leaving the presidency. (Just before Zuma assumed South Africa’s presidency in 2009, he had 783 counts of corruption, fraud, money-laundering and tax evasion over his head, charges that were dropped as he entered high office.)
Zuma probably plunged himself and his government to a nadir in December when he dismissed an able finance minister who had been thwarting Zuma’s wild attempts to purchase Russian nuclear reactors (with big side payments) and buy new aircraft through shady middlemen (with more kickbacks). Zuma installed an amateur ministerial replacement, and then, after a national uproar, was compelled four days later to replace the amateur with a well-respected finance minister from the past. Even so, the first sacking led to a run on the rand. In early 2016, the rand had lost almost half of its value against the U.S. dollar.
Nelson Mandela united South Africa when he vaulted to prominence in 1990, after 27 years in prison, and proceeded to reconcile the peoples of the post-apartheid nation. His too-brief presidency, from 1994 to 1999, was remarkable for its harmony. Thabo Mbeki, anointed to succeed him, denied HIV-AIDS, flirted with various “alternative” cures for the viral disease and — crucially — allowed corruption to flourish. Regarded as imperious and disdainful of parish politics, he was ousted in a palace coup by Zuma and others in 2007, when South Africa was still relatively well-managed (despite growing corruption) and the then-ANC-led government fully legitimate. Kgalema Motlanthe finished out the remainder of Mbeki’s presidential term until Zuma could take up the reins constitutionally. Motlanthe is now critical of Zuma.
Since then, South Africa has rolled uncontrollably downhill, with economic growth rates and GDP levels per capita suffering. A sizeable number of newly empowered African businessmen have grown immensely wealthy by partnering, according to a Mbeki affirmative-action scheme, with the pre-existing white corporate and mining establishments. But most Africans, Coloureds and Indians have seen their living standards fall. Unemployment rates are officially only 25 percent; unofficially, according to South African academic researchers and other experts, more than 40 percent of Africans are unemployed. That is, 40 percent are outside the formal wage sector, existing precariously by “informal” means.
Crime rates in South Africa, high under apartheid, are much higher today. Although Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela have overtaken South Africa as the most murderous nations of the globe, it still scores among the notorious top five or six civilian-killing places in the world. In 2013, 47 South Africans were murdered each day, roughly 32 per 100,000 citizens annually. Rapes are all too common, officially totalling 99 per 100,000 nationwide in 2014-15. However, the well-regarded South African Institute of Strategic Studies believes that only 1/13th of all rapes are reported, so the overall figure could be much higher. Certainly, local watchdog groups and civil society organizations believe that South Africa has a plague of rapes, including rapes of very young children.
Murdered farmers, land redistribution promises and food shortages
On the increase over 2008 are violent property crimes — “aggravated robberies” — including street robberies, house robberies, business thefts and car and truck hijackings. South Africa’s rate of 225 violent property crimes per 100,000 people was among the highest in the world in 2013-2014. A number of African- and Coloured-populated townships have demanded better and fairer policing, largely to no avail. When New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton visited South Africa with me in 1997, he was surprised to see so few police patrolling Johannesburg; senior officials told him that their men were fearful of being out on the streets at night, even in groups of two. Little has changed in 2016.
A worrying and growing category of crime occurs on farms, especially in this unusually dry year. According to the Transvaal Agricultural Union, a long-established local farmers’ organization, and Afriforum, the murder rate of white farmers was 133 per 100,000 in 2014 (a devastatingly destructive number by global standards). In 2015, the rate was lower — 65 per 100,000. But even that lower rate is almost as high as the murder rate in Honduras. Most of the killers of white farmers were Africans, but Africans also killed African farm owners, 35 percent of the total murdered in 2015. White and black farmers say that South Africa’s police ignore farm crimes — a common complaint from nearly all sectors of society. Because South Africa’s agricultural sector is at risk economically, and because the ANC and Zuma have noisily suggested that Africans should own considerably more farms than they do, farming and farm ownership is much more precarious than it was a decade ago. White farmers are fleeing farms, thus depressing agricultural output and making South Africa poorer than before.
South Africa’s deteriorating educational system hardly provides the basis on which young Africans can emerge capable of replacing deprived circumstances with new kinds of lives and fortunes. The statistics are harsh: Only about half of the Africans who finish high school and sit the compulsory matriculation examination ever pass. They are therefore denied school completion certificates and, in effect, are unemployable in crowded urban job markets. More telling, in some ways: only 12 percent of the 500,000 Africans who try to “matriculate” each year score highly enough to qualify for university training. One recent study of how well students across the globe performed in science and mathematics ranked South Africa next to last. Two of its older universities are ranked among the best in Africa, the remainder far lower.
South Africa, having dismissed or retired a cohort of white (mostly Afrikaans-speaking) civil servants and artisans in the years after independence in 1994, now suffers a massive skills shortage. Approximately 800,000 positions — from accountants to plumbers — are said to be vacant and effectively unfillable despite the very large pool of unemployed Africans. The Economist reports that a key reason South Africa under Zuma is so short of electrical power and Eskom so badly run is, first, that a cadre of experienced engineers was replaced by unqualified African political appointees, and second, that the ANC insisted on installing party hacks in senior positions. “You don’t deploy cadres to play on the national football [soccer] team, so why do you deploy them to Eskom?” a senior African reputedly pleaded, unsuccessfully, with Zuma.
The same incompetency prevails in the 700 other state-owned corporations, especially those under the aegis of Transnet, the overseer of harbours, rail transit and the money-losing South African Airways. (China recently promised big loans to shore up Transnet and Eskom, but that funding and some experts from China may arrive too late for major rescues of a collapsing infrastructure.)
School principals who steal cash earmarked for students’ books and food
Despite lapsing legitimacy and protests over service delivery failures, cabinet ministers, Zuma and civil servants have enjoyed fat pay raises and increased perquisites. The number of civil servants has grown by 25 percent since 2000; a whopping 20 percent of all employed Africans work for the central government, its nine provinces or its municipalities.
But even those who have gainful government employment bemoan how little is accomplished. Health services have declined, but it is the schools, on which Africans depend for their advancement, that infuriate parents. According to South Africa’s Corruption Watch organization, there are at least 1,000 crooked school principals, some of whom have walked off with cash meant to provide textbooks and food for their pupils. Many teachers turn up drunk. Many fail to show, and very few appear on Fridays, instead beginning their weekends early. Officials of the powerful teachers’ union have been charged with selling access to comfortable school positions.
Corruption is everywhere, certainly at the highest ANC levels. But the stench of corruption also pervades most municipalities beyond the non-ANC-run Western Cape Province. The police, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Health Professions Council and most dealings between government and citizens are riddled with corruption. Some years ago, parliamentarians were accused of padding their travel allowances. More recently, Zuma’s example has emboldened many of his subordinates to abuse their public positions for blatant private gain. Because the Office of the Public Protector, an ombudsman, was publicly critical of illegal spending on Zuma’s retirement villa, her office has since been starved of funds.
Only a still mostly free press, a handful of private radio and TV stations and South Africa’s Constitutional Court prevent Zuma’s South Africa from regressing to the distressing African weak governance mean. Many judges on the constitutional and lower courts still uphold the rule of law and despite ANC verbal attacks, the Constitutional Court often rules against the executive. There have been a number of significant reversals of official policy. Yet often, the ANC government pays the courts little heed. When a lower court ordered Zuma to detain visiting President Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan in late 2015 because of an outstanding International Criminal Court indictment, Zuma let Bashir quickly fly home from a government airbase.
Zuma’s and the ANC’s legitimacy will be tested electorally in May or June, when elections at the local level are scheduled. The ANC kept its parliamentary majority with a reduced 62 percent vote in the 2014 parliamentary elections, down from 66 percent five years before. The liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) increased its total to 22 percent and the militant Economic Freedom Fighters won six percent. Given its decreasing legitimacy, the ANC fears it will lose control of a number of major cities, including Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. (The DA already runs Cape Town.) There could be a decisive turn against the ANC, and thus against Zuma (whose term runs to 2019).
If the ANC loses massively, testifying clearly to its forfeiture of legitimacy and dominance, it could easily regard Zuma as a liability and force him to retire early. That could promote Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader and anti-apartheid campaigner who became wealthy as an empowered elite. Or the ANC might overlook Ramaphosa (from a minority ethnic group) and choose someone else much more sympathetic to Zuma (and prepared to protect him from retribution). Ramaphosa is capable of restoring a Mandela-like legitimacy within the ANC and South Africa, but those who prefer the wages of corruption and naked power may prevent such a return to stability and progress. If so, Mandela’s legacy of integrity and inclusivity will continue to be thwarted and denied.
Only someone of Ramaphosa’s stature and ability, heading a rejuvenated and reformed ANC, could restore South Africa to its rightful position of leadership within Africa in the second and third decades of the 21st Century. Absent a Ramaphosa, South Africa’s national performance will continue to deprive its people of beneficial outcomes, and an Africa of integrity and positive developmental advances.
Robert I. Rotberg is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and founding director of Harvard’s Kennedy School program on intrastate conflict.