Protesters call for the removal of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma as the country commemorates the anniversary of the country's first democratic elections in Cape Town, April 2016.
Protesters call for the removal of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma as the country commemorates the anniversary of the country's first democratic elections in Cape Town, April 2016.
Mike Hutchings / Reuters

South Africa is in the middle of a period of political and economic unrest unlike anything the country has experienced since the end of apartheid in 1994. In March 2015, students at the University of Cape Town launched the #Rhodesmustfall campaign, aimed at bringing down a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Since then, students have regularly stormed the nation’s universities, labor unions have held strikes, and populist social movements have taken to the streets. The protesters have called for wholesale reform of the country’s economy and directly challenged the ruling African National Congress. And the ANC itself is in crisis, divided between supporters and detractors of South African President Jacob Zuma. On March 31, the country’s highest court ruled that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution when he ignored a state order to repay government funds used in a $23 million upgrade to his private residence at Nkandla in KwaZulu Natal. And on April 29, the High Court in Pretoria ruled that the former head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Mokotedi Mpshe, had acted irrationally when he had dropped corruption charges against Zuma in 2009. Although the opposition failed in its bid to impeach Zuma, the National Assembly remains fractious and divided. The Nkandla revelations and growing dissatisfaction with Zuma have sparked broader protests about poor living standards, low economic growth, high unemployment, and political stagnation.

The roots of the current crisis lie in the country’s tortured past. Since the end of apartheid, the number of people who live in absolute poverty has fallen, and access to and quality of services has improved, but unemployment, crime, and housing remain the top three concerns of South Africans, as they have been since the mid-1990s. In fact, the gap between rich and poor has widened: South Africa’s Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality ranging from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality), increased from 0.62 in 2008 to 0.70 in 2013; by contrast, Brazil’s has fallen from 0.55 in 2009 to 0.53 in 2013. For all of those who expected great progress since 1994, the slow pace of change has been bitterly disappointing.

After the political stalemate of the late 1980s, the ANC made a bargain with the then ruling National Party: it would take power and focus on postapartheid reconciliation, while committing to economic policies that would disavow the appropriation of land and economic assets from the country’s white elite. In short, the ANC chose political power and social reconciliation over economic restitution and the redistribution of wealth.

A general view of the Nkandla home (behind the huts) of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, August 2012.
A general view of the Nkandla homestead of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, August 2012.
Rogan Ward / Files / Reuters

The concessions hobbled the party during the critical years immediately following the end of apartheid, when economic restructuring could have had great impact. Apartheid policies had stripped the country of its natural wealth and impoverished its people, and the state had developed the capacity to provide services to only a small portion of the population. The government had pushed responsibility for the black majority to the Bantustans, self-governing territories that the architects of apartheid had established to house the country’s “African” populations. After the transition, the state had to expand its scope to include the millions it had previously excluded. 

Yet political freedom did not lead to economic prosperity for the vast majority of South Africans. The ANC had not anticipated how much globalization had constrained the ability of the state to foster economic redistribution. What’s more, the ANC discovered that the state it had inherited lacked the resources to deliver on its 1994 campaign promise, “A Better Life for All.” The dual costs of maintaining the security apparatus and unequal welfare system necessary to sustain the apartheid state had drained the state’s coffers. The ANC had initially adopted a moderately redistributive economic program (the Reconstruction and Development Programme), but in mid-1996 it replaced this with Growth, Employment and Redistribution, which was modeled on the structural adjustment programs that the World Bank promoted in the 1980s. Many South Africans who had been deprived of basic services under apartheid continue to lack housing, electricity, water, and sanitation.


For over two decades, these tensions have remained unresolved, and the weight of South Africa’s economic troubles is now beginning to crush ordinary people. Rising costs of living have stressed the majority to the breaking point. The price of petrol has been steadily increasing since 2010, when inflation was just over three percent; by 2013, petrol inflation had reached 5.5 percent. Combined with slow economic growth and the steady depreciation of the rand, the prices of all other domestic consumables have increased sharply. For example, although food prices dropped 18.5 percent worldwide in 2015, in South Africa they increased five percent; the South African Reserve Bank projects that the food inflation rate will grow to 11 percent by the end of 2016. A severe drought has exacerbated these trends. Excessive debt, unemployment, and grinding poverty have pushed many to a point where they are prepared to risk political action on a scale unseen since the struggle era.

Political freedom did not lead to economic prosperity for the vast majority of South Africans.

Workers and youth have formed the vanguard of the protests. Their joint awakening is especially important. Since 1994, the labor unions have been politically passive. Under the Tripartite Alliance between the ANC, the South African Communist Party, and the largest of the labor union federations, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the labor unions accepted compromised progress on workers’ issues in exchange for a seat at the political table. For the last 20 years, this calmed their leftist politics and their criticism of the ANC’s largely centrist policies. After South African security forces massacred 34 protesting workers at the Marikana platinum mine in August 2012, however, many unionists are no longer content with the compromise. COSATU has begun to fracture, the formation of a new labor federation is in the cards, elements of the ANC are breaking ranks, and the breakaway Economic Freedom Fighters, led by the charismatic former ANC member Julius Malema, has provided a focal point for the passions of the masses.

But the most recent wave of protests has come from young people. The “born free” generation has finally awoken, driven out of their political quiescence by the continuing contradictions of political power without economic change and by anger at the high costs of education and the lack of reform in the nation’s universities. In March 2015, college students began widespread, increasingly violent demonstrations that reached their height when they disrupted exam periods on multiple campuses in December. Although the student protests were sparked by opposition to the apartheid-era iconography prominent in the nation’s institutions of higher education, they had their roots in the same deeper issues that drove the workers’ protests. The apartheid-era memorials crystallized the students’ feelings of marginalization and exclusion, but the protests rapidly broadened—soon, the students were angrily criticizing the ANC. On many college campuses, the students allied with the unions.

Under Zuma’s leadership, a culture of impunity has taken root at the highest levels of the ANC.

The ANC faces a crisis of legitimacy as it attempts to manage the protests. First, the ANC’s own policies and compromises are largely responsible for the deeper anger that motivates the protesters, and many young South Africans think that the ANC betrayed them during the transition. Second, under Zuma’s leadership, a culture of impunity has taken root at the highest levels. Zuma became head of state while already mired in controversy over rape and corruption charges. Under his leadership, the ANC has come to mimic the excesses of similar political parties across the continent: lavish salaries for public officials, political appointees that sap the credibility and effectiveness of state institutions, and ongoing corruption scandals. Many South Africans believe that a corrupt alliance of business and political elites has captured the state. They accuse elements of this elite—and especially the Gupta family, Indian immigrants to South Africa who have built a vast business empire—of exerting undue influence over political decisions. In December, Zuma provoked widespread criticism when he fired the widely trusted Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, who had attempted to rein in government spending. The markets reacted negatively: 500 billion rand (more than $33 billion) disappeared from South Africa’s equity markets overnight.

South African President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters of his ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Port Elizabeth, April 2016.
South African President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Port Elizabeth, April 2016.
Mike Hutchings / Reuters

There is still a way out of this morass. Although some state institutions have been hollowed out, others remain robust. For one, the Office of the Public Protector, led by Thuli Madonsela, has consistently sought to rein in the ANC’s excesses. It was Madonsela who commissioned the report on the upgrade to Zuma’s private home at Nkandla, which prompted the court case launched by the country’s largest opposition parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance. What happens next will set the tone. Zuma issued a public apology for the “frustration and confusion” around Nkandla, while sidestepping the court’s finding that in violating the constitution, he has proven himself unfit for office. Not only have many senior ANC officials and past party leaders publicly criticized Zuma, they have also supported calls by civil society and the opposition for his resignation. And public opinion has turned against the party: in November 2015, Afrobarometer polling revealed that public distrust of the president, disapproval of the president’s performance, and perceived corruption in the president’s office had reached the highest levels since 2000 (66 percent, 62 percent, and 46 percent, respectively).

South Africa is now at a crossroads. It remains to be seen whether recent developments offer the promise of improvement or the threat of worsening state corruption, economic malaise, and violent protest. Municipal elections later this year and the general election in 2019 will test whether popular pressure and dissatisfaction among the elites can open the ANC. Regeneration may come from within the ANC itself, because many members would prefer to transform their party rather than reject it outright. They want the party to reconnect with its members, restore its tradition of internal democracy, and take more seriously the concerns of all its constituents. And they call for a return to the selfless leadership of the ANC’s founding members. If the protests can move beyond violence to sustained mobilization and the internal renewal of the ANC, South Africa may finally see lasting positive change.

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  • JESSICA PIOMBO is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. All opinions are the author’s own and do not reflect official positions or statements of the U.S. government. CHERREL AFRICA is an Associate Professor and Deputy Dean of Teaching and Learning in the Economic and Management Sciences Faculty at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.
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