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On December 13, South Africa’s embattled president, Cyril Ramaphosa, survived a vote in Parliament on whether to impeach him over misconduct allegations. Less than a week later, on December 19, he won a second term as head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). It was a remarkable turn of fortunes for a leader who, a month earlier, in the wake of a lurid scandal involving a cash-stuffed sofa, appeared to be confronting the end of his presidency. But Ramaphosa now faces the challenge of his political career. Although the recent ANC leadership race exposed, once again, the fragility of Ramaphosa’s grip on his party, his ultimate success in that race may finally have given him the mandate he needs to tackle the deep-rooted corruption that is eroding the state and strangling the economy. But it is also possible, as his critics allege, that with or without the authority to tackle the problem, Ramaphosa lacks the will. South Africans are about to find out.
In 2017, Ramaphosa seized the presidency of the ANC and subsequently became president of the country, casting himself as the savior who would rescue South Africa from the catastrophic plunder—or “state capture,” as everyone took to calling it—that occurred under the administration of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who had served in the role since 2009. But five years into a presidency that has yielded insufficient progress on corruption, Ramaphosa finds himself mired in a crisis of his own making. Amid crippling factional battles in the ANC, the government’s popularity has collapsed, and voter surveys suggest that it is likely to lose South Africa’s next general election, in 2024. With a fragmented opposition that has, to date, struggled to produce a credible candidate, the country appears headed for chaos.
It is all so far from the dreamlike optimism of that May morning in 1994 at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration when the former freedom fighter and political prisoner was saluted by the country’s military, a gesture that came to be viewed as the ultimate symbol of a racist regime’s submission to the democratic will. Even if it was largely fiction, South Africans’ image of themselves as a rainbow nation uniting in a new destiny endured through the Zuma presidency. But the notion of Ramaphosa as the good knight who would rescue a troubled country always strained credulity. South Africa’s problems run far deeper than the state capture of the Zuma years, which were just a symptom of the disease.
In September 2020, a Johannesburg-based risk consultancy, Eunomix, created a stir when it produced an econometric model predicting that, on its current course, South Africa would become a failed state by 2030. In July 2021, during three days of unrest that plunged the country into crisis, its CEO was besieged by calls from desperate clients asking him if South Africa’s collapse was at hand. It was not. Despite the failings in the nation’s security apparatus that these events revealed, and although local governments across the country still struggle to deliver basic services, South Africa is far from a failed state, let alone a collapsed one. No one seriously contests the government’s sovereignty. Factional conflict is latent but not endemic; there is no institutionalized insurgency; civil society is vibrant and broadly constructive; the legal system is stable and independent; the legislative branch retains a significant role, and public services, albeit degraded, still function.
Nonetheless, in recent years, South Africa has been going downhill on almost all the conventional indicators of state failure. The fundamental problem is that the demand for access to resources far exceeds the state’s capacity to deliver, a stress aggravated by the country’s anemic economic performance. This tension between rising demand and stagnant supply, in turn, results from a fundamental design flaw in post-apartheid South Africa—namely, the fact that freedom in 1994 created a more inclusive political regime but left the country’s economic structure largely intact. Political apartheid ended, but economic apartheid did not.
South Africa has been going downhill on almost all the conventional indicators of state failure.
South Africa’s new leaders initially tried to adapt the political-economic strategy of the apartheid era to Black majority rule. That strategy had been to capture resource rents from the country’s substantial mineral exports and distribute them to favored clients, building a local business class and buying the support of the white working class via such means as job reservation and favored access to public services. When the ANC took office in 1994, aiming to extend the state’s support base to the Black majority, it adopted the same strategy. It redirected rents to nurture a Black business class, used “Black economic empowerment,” or BEE, policies to prioritize the employment of Black people in the public sector, and pressured businesses to appoint Black board members and recruit Black graduates. Meanwhile, the ANC vastly expanded the state’s distribution networks, building houses in the townships, piping in water and electricity, and widening the country’s welfare rolls from two million to 15 million.
Consequently, although the white minority’s worst late-apartheid nightmares (expropriation, race wars) never came to pass, whites still lost their privileged access to public resources. From the vantage point of South Africa’s former “white suburbs,” public services have eroded steadily since 1994. But to some extent, this reflects not absolute but relative decline, as public services were redistributed. In 1994, for example, even though most of South Africa’s reported crimes occurred in the townships and rural areas, three-quarters of the police stations were in the country’s white suburbs and business districts.
A resource base that had delivered developed-world standards of living to less than a fifth of the population in the apartheid era was bound to be stretched thin once everyone joined the line. Although white communities reported an initial surge in crime and Black communities initially experienced an improvement, the situation of both communities ultimately converged around a still unacceptable level of crime. So it went for economic redistribution. Whites were no longer assured plum jobs, but that did not mean skilled Black people were assured jobs either. The new South African government, eager to prove its bona fides to international investors, did expand the Black middle class, but it steered relatively little public money into nurturing Black business owners in the most dynamic sectors of the economy. In the end, fully democratic elections did far less to alter the material conditions of poor South Africans than they had hoped.
Things might have gone differently had South Africa attained East Asian levels of growth. The state could have mobilized money to develop South African society without blowing its budget. But in 1994, the country’s apartheid-era economic model, which diverted resource rents to develop a local industrial class, was past its sell-by date. Around the turn of the millennium, with China’s industrial boom driving commodity demand, South Africa’s economy enjoyed a brief boom. But even then, it never reached a six percent GDP growth rate, the level that would have been required to shift the country onto a path of long-term transformation. Even though poverty as measured by income improved slightly during these years, the overall distribution of income worsened, and the unemployment rate rose.
By the time of the global financial crisis in 2008, few South Africans of any race felt that they had derived much, if any, economic benefit from the end of apartheid. White middle-class South Africans, unable to get the sort of jobs and promotions they would once have enjoyed, emigrated in increasing numbers. South Africans of South Asian ancestry, as well as those classified under the apartheid system as “Coloured,” had not been “white enough” to have prospered under apartheid but were now told that they were not dark enough to be considered Black. The Black working class felt their employment prospects worsening while the Black middle class, their ranks swollen by the post-apartheid boom in tertiary education but frustrated by a job market that could not absorb all the new graduates or advance them very fast, grew impatient with the pace of change. The latter became the main constituency behind Radical Economic Transformation, an ANC faction that arose with the Zuma presidency but has no clear identity or program other than a shared sense of grievance at the slow pace of Black advancement.
Although notionally committed to Marxist principles, the Radical Economic Transformation group, which remains a powerful force in ANC party politics, merely seeks more aggressive nationalization and fiscal expansion—in short, the full realization of BEE. During the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999, the government retained relatively conservative economic policies, and frustration with the slow pace of change began brewing on the left. It gradually coalesced around the figure of Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s deputy president at the time, and Julius Malema, the leader of the party’s youth league (who later broke with the ANC to create his own party, the Economic Freedom Fighters). Zuma came from KwaZulu-Natal, the country’s second-most populous province, delivering into the ANC fold a region that the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party had long dominated. By loosening Inkatha’s hold on the area and boosting ANC membership there until it became the party’s gravitational center, Zuma built a power base that would help deliver him the presidency in 2009.
Unfortunately for Zuma, and ultimately for South Africa, there could scarcely have been a worse time to assume power. The global financial crisis hit the economy just as the government was about to loosen the purse strings. To make matters worse, the China-driven commodity supercycle, which had increased South African mineral rents and filled the government’s coffers, ran its course. South Africa’s economy imploded, taking tax revenues with it.
The ANC’s plans for economic transformation devolved into a feeding trough that plundered state resources.
By now, all manner of opportunists had entered the ANC tent, eager to jump on the Radical Economic Transformation gravy train. Most notorious of all was a trio of Indian-born brothers, the Guptas, who cemented their ties to the Zuma administration with kickbacks and gifts and then leveraged that access to influence the allocation of resources. The degree of state capture achieved by the Guptas reached such an extreme that the brothers were asked to approve the selection of cabinet ministers. For all its noble intentions, Radical Economic Transformation rapidly devolved into a feeding trough that plundered much-needed state resources. State capture became part of the daily lives of ordinary South Africans in the form of regular power cuts and water shortages, broken street lamps, unfilled potholes, and worsening crime rates.
Inevitably, a centrist ANC faction fought back, isolated Zuma, and replaced him with Cyril Ramaphosa. But as recently as July 2021, Zuma’s allies were able to activate a wave of protests in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. Given the unemployment crisis resulting from the country’s failed economic model exacerbated by the global pandemic, the spark lit by the Zuma faction quickly exploded into looting and anarchic violence as poor and desperate South Africans tried to grab a share of the wealth their government was not providing them.
With the state hollowed out and the security forces ineffective, civic leaders from outside the structures of formal politics struck off on their own. They constituted themselves as parallel state structures, with parallel security forces composed of armed vigilantes. Anecdotal reports throughout the violence repeatedly revealed that the police were either absent or woefully unprepared, turning up in inadequate numbers or without the needed armaments to suppress the violence. There were also reports of police confronting well-organized vigilante gangs and ordering them to stand down, only to be instructed themselves to leave. The impact of this erosion of the state’s monopoly of violence showed up in the casualty figures. Over 300 people died during three days of unrest, mostly from live ammunition or rubber bullets fired at close range; early reports suggested that most of the dead were not killed by police but by criminals or vigilantes.
In effect, South Africa had begun the slide into a form of neo-medieval governance, whereby subordinate actors with their own resource bases take over some functions of the government, relieving pressure on it and thereby assisting it, but at the cost of its authority. Relatively few states collapse outright, and at present, South Africa seems unlikely to be among them. But the risk that it could sink into chronic strife amid economic stagnation looks real. The fundamental challenge remains. South Africa needs to revive its economy, and it needs to do so in a way that expands opportunity for all its citizenry much faster than has been the case since 1994. The post-pandemic boost to commodity prices may give the country a brief window to develop a new fiscal model, but the existing one has to go.
As one of the most outstanding products of the BEE elite-cooptation model—through which the apartheid regime transferred power to the ANC—Ramaphosa was always going to be a complicated bridge builder. After being shunted aside in favor of Mbeki, whom Mandela chose as his successor, Ramaphosa left politics to develop his business interests. Using his considerable organizational skills, Ramaphosa rapidly climbed a corporate ladder that was suddenly eager to welcome Black people, making himself one of the country’s wealthiest men. His political enemies now hold that wealth, as well as the long gap in his political résumé, against him. Yet despite his resulting weak position within the party, he remains more popular than the ANC itself. If he fails to seize the opportunity his newly strengthened mandate has given him to clean South Africa’s Augean stables, it might spell the end of his presidency. Current polling suggests that the ANC is already on track to lose its majority at the next election. But even if it does, Ramaphosa’s own scandal could terminate his presidency before then. While that might herald the rise of a new faction in the party, it would also probably spell the end of the party’s hold on the country. That, in turn, would usher in a period of considerable uncertainty.
If there is one glimmer of hope, it lies in the fact that the two parties which together could supplant the ANC—the business-friendly Democratic Alliance and the populist Economic Freedom Fighters—each address one part of the problem. Although they loathe one another, they may have no choice but to cooperate in a future coalition. It may just be that their forced marriage of convenience could provide the country with the synthesis it needs between these two imperatives, saving South Africa from the grave. But given the uninspiring track record of coalitions in municipal governments, it may be too much to hope for. The South African state now faces its biggest challenge since the end of apartheid. It is far from clear that those governing the country know what to do about it.