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South Africa: what does the future hold for the ‘rainbow nation’?

As part of my work for the University of Sydney and the Australian government, I’ve visited South Africa seven times since retiring from politics in 2006. Each time something new has happened, and what…

President Jacob Zuma’s party remains the dominant force in South Africa despite a number of political and social changes. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

As part of my work for the University of Sydney and the Australian government, I’ve visited South Africa seven times since retiring from politics in 2006. Each time something new has happened, and what appeared as a reasonably stable dynamic within the African National Congress (ANC) is no longer so.

In 2008, Thabo Mbeki was ousted as South Africa’s president and replaced by the unashamedly populist Jacob Zuma. Also in that year, a section of the ANC left to form the Congress of the People (COPE).

In 2013, former anti-apartheid activist, academic and businesswoman Mamphela Ramphele returned to politics after a long absence to form a new party which she has called Agang, Sesotho for “let us build”.

Radical youth leader Julius Malema was also expelled by the ANC in 2012 and has now formed his own party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Malema calls himself “commander-in-chief”, and proposes expropriation of land without compensation, the nationalisation of mines and other strategic assets and free education and health care.

Added to these factors are the new divisions within the working class over which unions are best equipped to represent their interests. No longer is it the case that the Triple Alliance - involving the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC - can say that the workers are “theirs”.

Open conflict between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and a newly-formed rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), is a case in point, with the latter claiming the NUM is too close to management. The killing of 34 striking mine workers in what is now described as the “Marikana massacre” in August 2012 has further exacerbated these divisions and raised doubts about the loyalties and priorities of the ANC.

Given all of these factors, it is not surprising that the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) - led by the gutsy and much-respected Helen Zille - is making progress. It does well where it governs – most notably in the Western Cape where Zille is premier – as confirmed by a report from the nation’s Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation. In each of the four key performance areas – governance, strategy, human resources, and finance – the Western Cape was ranked first among the provinces and national departments.

In the 2009 national election, the DA’s vote grew by nearly 50% – up to nearly 16.66%. For the first time, the ANC fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to change the Constitution.

This all being said, the ANC remains the dominant force in South African politics. It led the struggle against apartheid and under Nelson Mandela managed a remarkably smooth transition to democracy. However, it is now under real pressure, a victim of its own complacency and sense of entitlement. Its opponents on the left (EFF) and in the centre (DA) can point to growing unemployment on the one hand - particularly among the young - and corruption and ineffective (sometimes dysfunctional) government on the other.

A recent survey conducted by Transparency International found that 47% said they had bribed at least one official in the last 12 months. Such bribes, those surveyed claimed, were needed to get the service they wanted or to “speed things up”.

One of the major battlegrounds will be the forthcoming election in the populous and wealthy Gauteng Province, currently run by the ANC. It is, as writer Ranjeni Munusamy has put it: “where decisions, deals and money are made”.

In the Gauteng Province, the DA won 21.86% of the vote in the 2009 elections, and in municipal elections a year later won 33.04%. It is more complicated this time around, however, with the EFF and others in play. Elections are to be held midway through 2014, and indications are that the ANC might fall below the halfway mark and that the DA will be close behind, with the EFF a credible third. Just what Agang’s pulling power will be is difficult to judge.

Poverty and unemployment are two issues that continue to cause political instability in South Africa. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

What this tells us is that the country may be entering a period of political instability. Many within the middle-class are wanting to settle things down with good government but are unable to find the majority to do so while the disenfranchised are on the march and are restless for radical change.

There have been some improvements in South Africa’s Development Index score (a composite measure of life expectancy, education and income per capita) but it isn’t significant and sits alongside increasing unemployment levels. The official unemployment rate for 15-to-24 year olds is just under 50%, and for 25-to-34 year olds it is nearly 30%. In reflecting on politics in South Africa, it is always important to be reminded that it is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with government studies showing us that more than half the population are living in poverty.

The ANC government does have a strategy to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality in the form of the National Development Plan (NDP), but it is seen as too market-oriented by significant sections of the labour movement and some in the Cabinet. The capacity of the NDP to deliver for the government will depend on political leadership, but as South African political expert Richard Calland has written:

Will Zuma continue to back the NDP or will he zigzag on it according to the expedient needs of the day, as he does on most policy issues?

Zuma needs the strength that comes from unqualified legitimacy, but he has found that hard to find given continuing campaigns – mainly but not only by the DA – claiming corruption and maladministration, past and present. He easily fought off the “forces of change” within the ANC that sought his removal in favour of deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe last December, but continues to make headlines in relation to taxpayer-funded renovations to his private retirement home. Zuma’s power within the ANC has grown, but one cannot say the same thing about his authority within the nation at large.

Whichever way you look at it, South Africa is a nation of massive contradictions between rich and poor, modernity and backwardness, and hope and realism. Managing those contradictions in the transition to democracy was a remarkable achievement, but is all that much harder today as the electorate splinters and division replaces unity within the political class.