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The Rainbow Nation Fades: South Africa’s Political Sclerosis

On February 18, Mamphela Ramphele, renowned activist in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, former managing director of the World Bank, and wealthy businesswoman, announced the formation of a new political party, called Agang, meaning “Let Us Build” in Sesotho. Agang is meant to challenge the political hegemony of the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled with an uninterrupted robust majority since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Agang is neither the first nor the only challenger to the status quo though. The Democratic Alliance, a coalition of liberal whites, “Coloureds” (people of mixed race), Indians and middle-class blacks, has acted as the primary opposition to the ANC for more than a decade. The Congress of the People, an ANC splinter group formed by opponents of current President Jacob Zuma in advance of the 2009 general election, failed to make much headway but has since firmly established itself. Even the ANC has found the need for some level of internal reform, bringing Cyril Ramaphosa, a reformist former union leader, businessman, and Nelson Mandela’s one-time heir-apparent, back into the fold as deputy president. Ramphele, in forming the new party, declared that South Africa was being undermined by a “massive failure of governance.” Corruption, unemployment, slow growth and social strife are making the country’s once-bright future appear cloudier than before.

Following the end of apartheid in 1994 with the nation’s first multiracial elections, the ANC implemented a widely celebrated program of reform set out in their manifesto, the “Freedom Charter”. Development projects were launched to provide housing, clean water, electricity and jobs to everyone. It also engendered a mass hiring of almost wholly unrepresented blacks into state administration and the police force, to replace the pensioned-off white population. Finally, policies of “black economic empowerment” were implemented. More radical policies of land reform and nationalization were promised by the ANC but, being disliked by international investors and feared by the white minority as punishment for apartheid, remained unexecuted. By 1999, when Mandela handed over power to his deputy Thabo Mbeki, the future seemed bright.

Yet, since then, the country has seen a steady decline in its fortunes, both political and economic. Mbeki, despite his positive image in the West based on his smooth manners and British education, proved a disaster. Under Mbeki and now Zuma, corruption, crime and unrest have surged. An epidemic of AIDS went almost wholly unaddressed, with HIV afflicting huge parts of the population. Neo-liberal policies have failed to alleviate the crushing poverty and unemployment of slum townships and rural areas or restructure the economy to be more equitable. Desperation and frustration with these broken promises has often spilled over into horrific levels of crime and racial violence, with thousands of white farmers murdered and over a quarter of a million whites fleeing the country since 1994.

Meanwhile, political hegemony by the ANC has led to corruption and dysfunction. “Black economic empowerment” has led more to crony capitalism than development; as the policies demand a certain ownership quota in private companies for blacks, people with government connections were generally brought in, receiving an ownership stake in exchange for influence with the state. This means that connected ANC members have benefitted far more than the poor. It is both concerning and telling that Jacob Zuma, Mamphela Ramphele, Cyril Ramaphosa, and even populist former ANC youth league leader Julius Mamela are all wealthy “tenderpreneurs”, recipients  of business opportunities gained through political connections. Unions, deeply ingrained in the power structure of the ANC, have become tools to manage labor strife as opposed to representing actual workers. These factors have led to a alienation of the ANC’s leadership from the people, with even new opposition leaders like Ramphele coming from the same political-business elite as the ANC’s bosses. Political corruption even led to the disbanding of the highly effective “Scorpions” anti-corruption police unit, who had gotten too close to powerful people in their investigations.

South Africa needs to refresh its political elite. While new opposition parties and political competition are good, new leaders and public figures from outside the tired, tarnished elite of the anti-apartheid struggle will be necessary to renew the country’s political life. The popularity of Julius Mamela, who managed to shrug off several hate-speech charges before being laid low by a corruption scandal, is a worrying sign of the frustration of the people with the same old policies without a viable alternative. Without major reforms to fight corruption and grow the economy in a way that fulfills the promises of the Freedom Charter, South Africa will continue to struggle, betraying the potential of the Rainbow Nation.

 – Alex Langer


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike coda, Flickr, Creative Commons)

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