Apr 30

Thirty Years Into South African Democracy – Time For Another Government of National Unity?

An article by Ian Kilbride, published on 29 April 2024.

It is exactly thirty years since the world held its collective breath while witnessing the remarkable birth of democracy in South Africa in April 1994. The phalanx of newly enfranchised citizens patiently winding around polling stations was the most visual confirmation that we were on the brink of something quite remarkable in a country that had pulled back from the brink of internecine racial civil war.

Celebratory images of Mandela, Tutu and De Klerk casting their ballots bore testament to the relief and anticipation shared with 40 million South African citizens as the rainbow nation emerged from the darkest days of apartheid.

All three Nobel Laureates are now dead and so too is the vision of a rainbow nation that ultimately flattered to deceive. The intoxicating rush felt by the previously disadvantaged majority has now morphed for many into a toxic mixture of frustration, disappointment and disillusionment. The evidence is to be found in the current polling statistics forecasting that the governing African National Congress is set to lose its electoral majority in the May 29 general election. Moreover, the same polls point to a growth in support for the socialist Economic Freedom Fighters party led by firebrand Julius Malema, with a further challenge emerging from former President Jacob Zuma’s Umkhonto we Sizwe party.

The latter is particularly galling for the ANC, not only as the new party is led by its former leader and (who recently won a court case allowing him to stand for office despite having a criminal record), but as the party is named after the ANCs military wing led in its earlies days by Nelson Mandela.

But why has rainbowism been replaced by storms of protest at one extreme and diffidence at the other in just three decades?

Without crudely apportioning blame to decades of apartheid alone, while the repeal of racial legislation was a relatively easy task under a democratic legislature, the structural pathologies of inequality, economic exclusion, Bantu education and skewed national infrastructure favouring the white majority have proven far more difficult to ameliorate. With the benefit of hindsight, those who point a finger at Mandela for postponing radical transformation policies in favour of keeping the peace and forging national unity have a point.

The second source of relative failure has been the wrong policy choices executed badly. The most notable of these has been the failure to anticipate and invest in basic infrastructure, most notably electricity generation. Caught between the statist pull to retain state ownership of public enterprises, versus the pull of neo-liberal privatisation advice, neither has been achieved successfully, leaving the country bereft of functioning energy, water, road, rail and port services. One example is that of South African Airways. Having sucked billions of taxpayers rands to prop up the national airline for decades, it has now been placed under administration, despite eschewing earlier offers to partner with some of the world’s leading airlines.

The third self-inflicted failure has been the proliferation of a culture of corruption that has fed on ‘cadre deployment’ and state capture. While the roots of this toxic weed are deep and wide, the greatest harm was done during the nine wasted years of the Jacob Zuma Presidency. Positively, the Commission of Inquiry into state capture led by the now Chief Justice, Raymond Zondo, has begun the process of national cleansing and recovery.

Disappointingly, while the 2019 election of former trade union leader, Cyril Ramaphosa – favoured not only by Nelson Mandela as a future ANC leader, but by the business community too – promised a new dawn, the mammoth task of national recovery and reconstruction has proved too much even for his immense personal talents.

Like Madiba, Ramaphosa possesses charisma and exudes considerable personal charm. He is the first non-exiled ANC leaser to be elected President and was propelled into office with an unrivaled CV of labour, political and business achievement. Yet at the end of his first full term in office, the national sentiment has turned and speculation abounds that a bad election result for the ANC will hasten Ramaphosa’s early departure.

What then of the future? Ironically, Ramaphosa’s political future and that of the ANC could lie in the forging of a new government of national unity redolent of Mandela’s 1994 administration. But there are simply too many variables at play to forecast the election outcome with any degree of accuracy. Irrespective of the outcome, it promises to be a watershed year for South Africa’s young democracy.