The Story of South Africa No Longer Makes Sense

The Story of South Africa No Longer Makes Sense
Carla Liesching

The ceremony went virtually unnoticed. On an overcast April day in South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a lackluster speech commemorating the end of white-minority rule in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first Black president, the skies were sunny with hope. Thirty years later, Mr. Ramaphosa’s enervated display against a gloomy backdrop was symbolic of decline. The African National Congress, Mr. Ramaphosa’s party, has been politically dominant since the country’s first democratic vote in 1994. In the general elections on Wednesday, it may lose its parliamentary majority for the first time.

This is uncharted territory. On several occasions, the former South African president Jacob Zuma proclaimed that the A.N.C. would rule “until Jesus comes back”. Now Mr. Zuma is hoping to unseat the party that enabled his notorious graft. Founded in December last year, uMkhonto weSizwe, or M.K. — named after the A.N.C.’s former military wing — features him as its face. Even though he has been disqualified from running for office by the country’s highest court, the party has mobilized thousands of his supporters behind its populist platform. If it can overcome its internal factional battles and legal troubles, it may pose one of the greatest risks to the A.N.C.’s vote share and force it into coalition.

The party’s emergence is one of the many morbid symptoms in South Africa today. The A.N.C. is shorn of its purpose, a shadow of its former self, and the country it has long stewarded is troubled by collapsing infrastructure, systemic corruption, waning central authority and violent crime. Thirty years on from apartheid’s end, South Africa is in the midst of another complex transformation. What comes next is unclear. But given the country’s fragmentation, it is unlikely to be good.

How did we get here? At his state of the nation address in February, Mr. Ramaphosa allegorized the country’s post-apartheid trajectory through the fictional figure of Tintswalo, a woman born in 1994 who would go on to benefit from the deracialized expansion of social services like education, housing, electricity and health care. As many have pointed out, this democratic dividend persisted for at least the first 15 years of South Africa’s post-apartheid history when economic growth was strong, international market conditions were favorable and state management was competent.

The turning point came in 2009 — the year Mr. Zuma took power and a year after the global financial crisis. What followed was a comprehensive backsliding in life chances, political expectations and economic prospects. The A.N.C.’s hegemony was punctured by a series of consensus-shattering episodes: the Marikana massacre in 2012, in which 34 miners were killed by the police; the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters in 2013 by a former A.N.C. youth leader; the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers from the country’s largest trade union federation, which is formally allied with the A.N.C.; and widespread student protests in 2015 and 2016.

All these developments called into question the conceptual foundations of the post-apartheid settlement, not least rainbowism, the young state’s founding myth of a nonracial, cooperative democracy on a forward march of progress aimed at healing the legacies of apartheid and colonialism. This universalist vision, encapsulated in the assertion in the A.N.C.’s 1955 Freedom Charter that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, was gradually undermined by enduring inequalities and a state overrun by corruption. In its place, a void opened up.

No political force, for all the A.N.C.’s loss of support, has yet emerged to fill it. The Economic Freedom Fighters, led by the militant Julius Malema, was once one of the most exciting entrants in the electoral landscape. But its national profile has stalled, and where it has governed — such as in coalition with the A.N.C. in Johannesburg and Durban — it has a less than inspiring record. The party’s claim to be more authentic executors of the A.N.C.’s politics of national liberation, willing to properly confront what it labels white monopoly capital, makes it harder to stand apart. This may not be a problem, with some speculation that it seeks a place in the government as a junior coalition partner.

The other main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has taken another route. Whereas the Economic Freedom Fighters’ animating grievance is that post-apartheid democracy did little to reclaim political and economic control for Black South Africans, the Democratic Alliance has underscored white hang-ups about Black-majority government. The party has long abandoned the strategy of cultivating Black leadership in its ranks, and its campaign has mostly consisted of alarmist warnings about continued A.N.C. rule — what its allies call Zimbabwefication — while flirting with separatist sentiments in its redoubt of the Western Cape Province.

South African political life once proceeded on assumptions of common citizenship; politicians disagreed on questions of governance and distribution, but there was a shared, if sometimes reluctant, commitment to the democratic process and belief in each South African’s membership in the polity. Now the so-called national question dominates the political spectrum. The question of who we are has superseded more programmatic questions of what kind of society South Africans want to live in.

In this vacuum of political imagination, identity has become the dividing line of society. To the right of the major parties are more overtly chauvinist forces. Parties like ActionSA, headed by a former mayor of Johannesburg, combine law-and-order invectives with anti-migrant policies. This posture is shared by the Patriotic Alliance, a formation run by a former gangster that has consolidated its base — voters who are mostly colored, as multiethnic South Africans are called — through a revived colored nationalism. Rise Mzansi, led by a former business journalist who compares himself to President Emmanuel Macron of France, diverges from this script. But its limited appeal to urbane professionals will do little to assuage a growing sense that the country’s cleavages are insurmountable.

Amid global discontent with liberal democracy, South Africa is not alone in seeing revanchism reshape the political terrain. The public’s response, generally, has been resignation. In 1994, with a turnout of 86 percent, more than 12 million South Africans voted for Mr. Mandela’s government. After centuries of oppression, exploitation and struggle, people were filled with hope that democracy would deliver a better life. By the last national election, in 2019, turnout had dropped by 20 percent, and over two million A.N.C. voters had been lost. Fed up by the government’s failure to improve their lives, many have simply given up on politics.

This process of disengagement — manifest in declining participation in trade unions, civic associations and political parties — is hard to square with the images of the multiracial, multiethnic, cross-class movement against apartheid that led the world to believe South Africans were uniquely endowed with high levels of social consciousness and good will. As that national story loses coherence, the country is reinventing itself. Like Tintswalo, the new South Africa has come of age and is on the verge of becoming something different. Right now, we just don’t know what.

William Shoki is the editor at Africa Is a Country, an independent online publication.

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