South Africa's moment of truth

The peaceful end of apartheid and transition to democracy in South Africa was one of the 20th century's greatest achievements. A generation later, this troubled country and its ruling party are now headed towards a turning point.

In December, the African National Congress (ANC) will choose a successor to current party leader (and South Africa's President) Jacob Zuma. As battle lines are drawn, the party stands on the verge of an irreparable split, and it is increasingly likely to lose the presidency at the next election in 2019.

Can South Africa manage another peaceful transition - this time from the ANC to the opposition? Or is this country now headed for real trouble? The signs aren't promising.

A decade ago, South Africa's economy was going strong.

From 2004 to 2008, a moment of high growth across the emerging-market world, high prices for the gold, platinum, diamonds and coal that the country produces in abundance, and the surge in state spending that the commodity boom enabled, allowed South Africa to grow by a robust 4.8 per cent. From 2009 to 2013, as both rich and poor countries struggled to recover from a global economic slowdown, growth tumbled to just 1.9 per cent.

Then things got worse. From 2014 to last year, growth fell to 1.1 per cent.

Not surprisingly, the average number of violent public protests climbed from 21 per year during the good times (2004 to 2008) to 164 per year in recent years.

There are nearly 20 million South Africans between the ages of 15 and 35, and just 6.2 million of them have jobs. Youth unemployment is double the rate for adults, and it's nearly four times higher for black youth (40 per cent) than for white youth (11 per cent).

The current government's promises to turn things around don't have much credibility.

Mr Zuma has survived nearly 800 separate charges of fraud, money laundering and graft; a court ruling that he violated the country's Constitution; multiple votes of no confidence; and a rape trial. South Africa's Central Bank governor has now called for a public investigation into ties between Mr Zuma, business leaders, and a family of Indian businessmen known as the Guptas.

President Jacob Zuma's policies are threatening to split the ruling party, which will likely cost it the next election.

To rally his followers, Mr Zuma and his allies have abandoned the sound macroeconomic policymaking of the early years of independence in favour of a fist-shaking, left-wing populism that deflects blame for worsening economic conditions on to domestic rivals and foreign powers.

The state uses high tariffs and subsidies to protect state-owned companies and state-dominated sectors from competition.

Protections for union workers make it harder for the unemployed to get jobs. The state battles unemployment by spending money it doesn't have to hire more workers into government jobs.

Corruption has triggered violence. There have been dozens of politically motivated murders in Mr Zuma's home state of KwaZulu-Natal in recent months.

There is a faction within the ANC that wants to return the party to a more sustainable path, and it is preparing for a face-off at December's ANC party conference. Mr Zuma will work to ensure that his successor is Ms Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his former wife and former head of the African Union Commission, presumably because she can protect him from prosecution when he is no longer president following elections in 2019.

Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, a senior ANC leader who first rose to prominence as the party's lead negotiator during the transition from apartheid to democracy, poses the strongest challenge to this plan. If Mr Ramaphosa loses in December, he will likely lead a faction out of the ANC and could join a coalition led by the centrist Democratic Alliance, as well as left-wing parties and organisations that want an end to Mr Zuma's era of corruption.

Tensions are clearly on the rise. An ANC meeting in Eastern Cape province on Oct 1 was disrupted by brawling, chair-throwing party activists.

"We are going through difficult moments as ANC. The December conference stands out as the beacon of hope where we will renew the ANC and unite the ANC," Mr Ramaphosa reportedly told the crowd after order was restored.

Party leaders should remember that there is an entire generation of South Africans who know the ANC not as the party of liberation but as the party of power. It is increasingly likely that, whatever happens at the showdown in December, at the next election, the ANC will lose that power. What happens next will, for better or for worse, set South Africa on a path towards its future.

  • The writer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices For America's Role In The World.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'South Africa's moment of truth'. Print Edition | Subscribe