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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.

Join the conversation

36 Comments sorted by

  1. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Slight edit here, Geoff.

    "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”."

    Might read: "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”."

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      'Triple Alliance' includes three parties, Fleur, not two.

      Or can't you count yet?

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  2. Rex Drabik

    logged in via Facebook

    For an unflinching, politically incorrect look at contemporary South Africa, I would recommend Ilana Mercer's book Into the Cannibal's Pot. It doesn't paint a pretty picture of the "rainbow nation."

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    1. In reply to Rex Drabik

      Comment removed by moderator.

    2. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Jing lang

      Well, you ARE on The Conversation web site Jing. You expected different???

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    3. Russell Walton
      Russell Walton is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired

      In reply to Jing lang

      "IQ (of which the south African black is civilizationally lacking), etc that explain the destitute of south Africa and why it will forever be destitute."---Really? That seems a rather racist comment, are you claiming that generations of apartheid and colonialist exploitation are irrelevant?

      Similar remarks have been made about other cultures in the past by Europeans, and, so far, history has proved them to be more the result of prejudice than reasoned analysis--the examples are obvious.

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    4. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Rex Drabik

      Were the South African Zulu a cannibal people?
      It causes madness apparently - when brains are eaten.
      This according to veteran travellers in cannibal territories thru Oceania.

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    5. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Jing lang

      The author still apparently doesn't know yet that human beings are not just data to be selected out in support of some academic theory.

      He did the same thing to us here in Western Australia, and we have yet nowhere near recovered.

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    6. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Jing lang

      Hi jing Lang
      IQ is a rationale used to enforce Apartheid.....its not polite.

      Have you ever travelled across South Africa by rail?
      South African rail is more sophisticated than we have ever known in Australia.
      They also made $4 billion staging the World Cup Soccer and building the stadiums to go with it.

      In this sense you could not judge South Africans to have any less of an IQ than Brazilians who live in Sao Paulo or Rio De Janero and who are preparing for the next World Cup....WITH favella…

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  3. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    You can't really look at South Africa in isolation it is bound to what happens in the rest of Africa, especially with regard to it's porous borders.
    With regions of extreme political instability, extreme crimes rates, a continual state of war, extreme ethnic divisions and of course in the background very strong desires by the US Government and the Government of China to ruthlessly exploit Africa (and prevent each other from doing so), the future does look very grim.
    The biggest problems might not be by Africans themselves but by multi-national corporations seeking to exploit the resources of Africa without Africans and how far they will go either directly or via manipulating governments from other regions into doing for them, to achieve this (War, Famine, Disease, Ignorance).

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  4. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    That's easy - look at every other country in Africa that's been decolonised. Voila! There's your answer...

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  5. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer

    We ain’t seen nuthin yet, I’m afraid. Life was so much simpler in the old apartheid days, when the white tribe was in power (it was called “racism” in that specific circumstance). All other tribes were united in their bid to get rid of the supremacist oppressors. Now that that particular enemy has departed the scene, we can get down to the serious business of traditional tribalism (just like the “wantok” system of PNG). I really fear for South Africa, still the wealthiest (per capita) country on the continent: it is shaping up to follow all the other dysfunctional and disintegrating states in that region. Inevitably, it will all be blamed on colonialism, as we know the black man is essentially decent and intelligent, unlike us whites.

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  6. Decortes Fleur

    Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

    Like South Africa, Australia had a policy of Apartheid until ....the late sixties
    We've yet to see an ATSI Parliament presiding as a Governing Body or a third parliament in Australia.

    The Act of Recognition for ATSI Peoples should one day be followed through with seats in the Federal Parliament allocated to Indigenous Australians.

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      150 members in the Federal parliament, Fleur, will under your system grant seats to five 'Indigenes'.

      Five unelected members makes a "third parliament"? I mean, that's hell creative.

      And which five, to represent some 200 different language groups, some as different as Swahili is from Korean?

      Far better the Westminster system under common law jurisdiction that we have in place, that makes us uniquely different from South Africa, allowing anyone to run for parliament on their merits rather than race or, as Labor has yet to learn, sex.

      For that matter, Aboriginality in Australia is neither racially defined but socio-culturally. While there is such a thing as ownership of Aboriginal knowledge, there is also custody and management of that knowledge; representation of that knowledge, in the hands of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.

      Why not simply allow people to elect their own representatives on their own terms, as they do in fact?

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    2. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Dear Gil
      Australia is still a unique country whose original peoples are native to Australia with evidence of a Government of Law - dating back thousands of years.
      As a system of government in the north of Australia clearly pre-dates the Roman senate.
      An Aboriginal Australian Parliament would allow for robust debate between elected representative from an ATSI constituent base where one or four or more ORIGINAL ABORIGINAL LANGUAGES are spoken fluently.
      An Australian Aboriginal Parliament would…

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    3. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      Look, sorry Fleur, it's all been done to death already.

      ATSIC ended up one of the worst, most embarrassing rorts in Australian history, brought down finally by endless internal bickering, scandal, crude power-play, ineffectiveness and waste.

      And worse, anyone who spoke up in criticism; not in opposition in principle or in fact, merely pointing out, hey guys, it's not working, was roundly abused and found their careers and livelihoods destroyed.

      When we all walked away from it; OK fellas…

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    4. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      "Australia is still a unique country whose original peoples are native to Australia with evidence of a Government of Law - dating back thousands of years."
      The number of Australians who can claim that sort of ancestry would be no more than 5,000 or so.

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    5. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      "Australia is still a unique country whose original peoples are native to Australia with evidence of a Government of Law - dating back thousands of years."
      Big deal. In Africa, nearly 1 billion Africans are part of culture nearly 500,000 years old.

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    6. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      If we lived in Africa and not Australia the Africans would have a prescience line AND we would be looking AT their customary or tribal laws with regard to ours...... if you are logged in from AFRICA your perspective on APARTHEID and how you survive street crime in your neighbourhood would be more interesting than the astute observation you make, above.

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    7. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      If we lived in South Africa, we'd live in a gated community with 100 feet high fences and a moat!

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    8. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      More like four hundred and fifty thousand ATSI people can claim that heritage - north of the Tropic of Capricorn.

      Its also estimated there are now ONE MILLION who identify as ATSI people, living in NSW - whether people of distinct ATSI heritage or people who have one or more parents or one or more grandparents or great grandparents 'identifying' or undeniably obviously legally, of Aboriginal descent.

      Big Brother currently has two popular 'housemates' who are Aboriginal Australian models with…

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    9. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Its about a sovereign 'form'...recognising the 'matter of bijnitch' and tis language and thanks but I don't buy your view of 'activists' and 'wannabes' because history tells us you are wrong there.....when the impetus comes from the deep north and its 'performative' language based governance.

      Dr Yunupingu's widow Yalmay spoke at a state memorial thus
      Our elders taught us that our language is 'sacred'.

      Surely to see ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN PEOPLES SPEAKING ABORIGINAL LANGUAGES IN THE NEW PARLIAMENT…

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    10. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      There are many many more whose families have been here so long they can no longer possibly identify with anyone or anywhere else, except Indigenous peoples, and are like them bound to this land regardless of what country it's called, or who happens to be sitting in Canberra or some other place.

      I recall an introductory Anthropology tutorial once, where students who had arrived in Australia were asked to put their hand up. 2-3, OK.

      Next those whose parents arrived. 2-3-4 more, OK.

      So it went…

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    11. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      Decortes, in fact, just about every single of those "ATSI" people are Eurasian immigrants by heritage.

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    12. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      Simply because, Fleur, take out the fat pay cheque and I might tend to agree with you.

      It's the pay cheque that's the issue here, nothing else.

      Everything else is already in place; already being done.

      Just because we don't sit around farting in some fancy big house in CANBRA . . .

      And quite as much because it is we who did as much work as anybody to recover languages, to rebuild culture and tradition, to put things back together in ways the younger generation could follow in today's world…

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    13. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      I'll have someone get me the books you'v mentioned...outbound, inheritor etc.

      When Tanya Plibersek made her maiden speech I note it was her vie what Australia had been 'stolen'.
      I don't agree: it was settled and while 'blacks' were murdered, massacred, beheaded and enslaved - we've need resolved what happened after that and where we are going .
      Tony Abbott's new Indigenous Council is a ground breaking way forward - so far.

      An Aboriginal Parliament 2015-2017 would
      a) live broadcast on NITV
      b) generate debate in new ways
      c) make up for the convention on recognition planned but never held
      regards thanx

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    14. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      If you mean the one million ATSI descent people in NSW you should get out more Michael....its such a diverse 'demographic' there's no general 'tag' for it.

      Yesterday I saw a new Aboriginal Model Agency whose proprietor is of Russian and Aboriginal Australian heritage.
      They post [product reviews, 'get circulating in business' and have a talent list with distinct look which is 'Aboriginal' Australian..

      So if a new Aboriginal Australian passport got introduced.....it would be a proof of lineage…

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    15. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Kinship systems accept many who speak languages in a very comprehensive system of recognition

      When it comes to the fat pay cheque - i do not exclude you or any like you from prosperity.

      I would make the point that if PARLIAMENTARY TRAVEL WERE CUT BY HALF - limited to just $22 MILLION AUD per annum instead of what LAST YEAR AMOUNTED TO $54 Million in PARLIAMENTARY TRAVEL EXPENSES ...that would pay for an Aboriginal parliament without cutting into existing budgets other 'spend' from treasury…

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    16. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      When it gets to that point, mate, might as well sign off. It's all just a fashion statement, like all the rest implying that what someone looks like is what's important.

      When people descended from Scottish, Irish, Malay, German, Russian, Japanese, over here in the WA southwest absconding Jamaican whalers, God knows who else, but have the one Aboriginal great great grandmother, time to get over it.

      So, in your scheme, two sisters one looks 'Aboriginal' so she gets the modelling job while the other looks 'Russian' trains as a dentist or something, that's how life goes on?

      The one gets the fat government pay check and the other works for a living?

      And "Decortes Fleur", I mean, that's really creative, hell artisitic. For a while I thought you were from Côte d'Ivoire, or French Guiana, or Angola or somewhere, coming on here to defend the Africans.

      You certainly don't know crap about Australia.

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    17. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      You telling me about Australian kinship systems now?

      Whatever . . .

      The rest of your crap is nothing but a rort, angling for payouts on the pretext of a new type of parliament and a new policy regime.

      Sorry mate, out of here . . .

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    18. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Mort?
      Is this a racist explosion from your hand, brewed and steeped with poison over time?
      The big wide forum for debate opens up and a new Aboriginal parliament - a third 'house' of Parliament in Canberra -gives a voice to real life big picture issues in a 'cross cultural' prism with far reaching consequence and PERSPECTIVE.

      SOme thing are important in BIG ways ......and those who've made a decision at local or 'vast'tribal level when clamouring for a voice - have only politicians to turn…

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  7. Stephanus Cecil Barnard

    Town planner and freelance writer at Kalahariozzie

    Well, I guess, as a born South African, the first son of a 6th generation Dutch/Scottish migrant, who proudly waved the new flag in 1994 and them unceremoniously emigrated in 2006, I might make some comments.

    I have been back there three times, twice in 2011 and in June this year, so:

    Descortes Fleur, please do not mistake the Gautrain, a fantastic but single first-world service in the Gauteng Province (running between OR Tambo International, Sandton/Johannesburg and Pretoria) with the rail…

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  8. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. Debra W

      Project Manager

      In reply to Jing lang

      As a South African currently living in Australia and having visited South Africa this year, I find Jing lang's comments to be ignorant of the facts and racist. Race and intelligence testing is culturally-biased and based on academic factors and was used specifically as an argument in favour of immigration restriction and racial segregation in the past. A quote from Wikipedia to back up my assertion:

      "The connection between race and intelligence has been a subject of debate in both popular science…

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