The mood in SA is one of disappointment — but a rebound is possible, future scenarios reveal
Futurists have released their barometer of South Africa’s current status and a new set of scenarios on where the country could be by 2035 when it will mark 40 years of democracy.
“In 2016, some individuals decided they were sick and tired of being sick and tired. They decided to start a platform for strategic conversation about the future,” says Professor Somadoda Fikeni, the chairperson of Indlulamithi Scenarios.
The futurists have released their barometer of South Africa’s current status and a new set of scenarios on where the country could be by 2035 when it will mark 40 years of democracy.
“South Africa has used scenarios as a way of thinking our way out of the belly of crises,” says Fikeni, recalling how Clem Sunter’s scenarios helped negotiators of the political transition to decide on their positions and set a national path.
Fikeni says 2024 will be a politically volatile year with a national election. Scenarios can help the country pull itself from the brink of disaster like it did in the 1990s and again when commentators predicted a disastrous World Cup in 2010. (In fact, it was delightful and a success.)
The Indlulamithi team tracks performance on its 2030 scenarios. Here’s the bad news.
“Our insight in 2023 was that the scenarios were no longer telling us what is happening in the country — we were beyond the worst-case scenario,” they said.
This “Gwara-Gwara” scenario describes a demoralised, decaying and disorderly society, deeply divided, often involved in protest action, with wealthy areas surrounded by seas of poverty.
Its favourable scenario is called “Nayi le Walk”, describing (a nation in step with itself). Its median scenario is “iSbhujwa”, epitomising a loose-limbed, jumpy (nervous) and enclave society of some bourgeois, but more lumpenproletariat, the Marxist term for an underclass. The three titles are the names of edgy urban dance forms.
Higher inequality, staggering unemployment, plummeting business confidence and Covid-19 led to everyday life in South Africa that is almost dysfunctional.
Here’s the counterfactual aspect of the Indlulamithi barometer: “At the same time, at an institutional level and [in how] people feel about themselves, South Africans have much more hope.”
Young people (under 30) are more hopeful than older South Africans. People who live in smaller, rural provinces (Free State, Mpumalanga) have a brighter perspective on the future. This finding is counter to the narrative, but Indlulamithi measures across 54 data sets, making its scenarios deep and accurate.
Besides mining data, the futurists also do representative sample surveys of South Africans, asking them to describe their mood, define their biggest problem and share what gives them hope.
The word clouds from the findings show that the word defining the South African mood is “disappointed”.
“You will see that [words like] ‘disappointed’, ‘sad’, ‘worried’ are much bigger [more prominent] than words like ‘angry’. [People are saying], we had a different vision and expectation, but it tells you that the vision and expectation are still there somewhere. It’s an interesting place to be in an election year because it means people are asking, ‘Do I vote? And if so, who do I vote for?’” says Indlulamithi’s Dr Tara Polzer Ngwato.
When asked what was going wrong in SA, respondents said “load shedding”.
“If load shedding can be improved in the next six to 12 months, it will address something that hurts people emotionally and physically,” she found.
When researchers asked respondents what was going right, they said there were more job opportunities — despite the quarterly employment statistics showing declining employment.
The Presidential Employment Stimulus has given work opportunities to almost 1 million people since its launch in 2020. It’s vast and undertracked but showing up in the Indlulamithi Scenarios. Respondents also chalked up the R350 monthly Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant as something going right.
“It’s a challenge because the two stand to be discontinued,” Polzer Ngwato said. Public employment and the SRD may face the scythe as Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana looks to make savings ahead of next year’s budget.
“Most respondents said some things are going right, and some are going wrong. In 2023, there is a slight decrease in the Gwara-Gwara category, which suggests there is some hope,” Polzer Ngwato said.
The next set of scenarios
Indlulamithi released its next set of scenarios, which look at South Africa in 2035, only 12 years away. This time, the team has changed the scenarios’ names to those of birds because they are symbols of universal appeal, Fikeni said.
“The value of scenarios in highly uncertain times is not about predicting the future but having conversations to enable plans today,” Polzer Ngwato said.
Below is an edited version of the Indlulamithi Scenarios 2035.
Life in 2035
The world is far hotter, and sea levels are rising faster than expected. Many nations at least try to reduce their carbon emissions, but climate change has made food security in poorer countries more precarious than ever. Pandemics have become more routine.
The global economy has shifted sharply eastwards: China is the world’s largest economy, and India is ranked third.
AI-driven technology has democratised access to education and spurred global productivity; it has also disrupted entire industries and eliminated millions of jobs globally.
What is South Africa like in 2035? How prosperous are its people? How cohesive is its society? How far has it come in the 40 years since the dawn of democracy? Below are three scenarios.
1. Hadeda Nation
A squawking and shrill nation.
A centrist social democratic coalition governs South Africa. But party leaders exert control; everything is negotiated. Decision-making and policy implementation are slow. In some areas, local and provincial coalition governments restore semblances of good governance, but alliances are unprincipled and self-interested elsewhere.
Rooftop solar and hydrogen energy have yet to scale up quickly enough to prevent further economic downturns. AI and automation have transformed the world of work but have eliminated more jobs than they have created. The national unemployment rate is 37%, and youth unemployment hovers around 55%. Income and wealth inequality measures have hardly shifted and remain among the highest in the world.
Crime has evolved from disorganised and contingent to systemic and structured, as South Africa becomes a magnet for global criminality. South Africans are sicker.
The national mood
Walls are high, and essential goods are commonly stockpiled. Despite the well-run 2034 election, grumpy South Africans share few common goals beyond occasional sporting successes and survival. People are on edge everywhere: the blame game is the national sport.
2. Vulture Culture
Scavengers hold the upper hand, ripping the skin from the body politics.
The liberal right-of-centre coalition that took power in 2024 alienated citizens with its austerity and repressive crime-fighting tactics, giving way in 2029 to a fragile populist coalition. The new coalition government embraced an authoritarian populism at odds with the Constitution, lashing out at critics and journalists, denigrating migrants and seemingly working with criminal syndicates.
Social media-driven voter suppression tactics confused and demoralised potential oppositions, as did widescale arrests for “subversion”. Despite its poor governing record, the coalition was re-elected in 2034, gaining from the lowest-ever voter turnout in a national election.
Official unemployment rates exceed 43%; youth unemployment soars above 60%. Fiscal catastrophe looms as South Africa borrows from anyone willing to extend credit. One-third of South Africans go to bed hungry more than one day a week.
The national mood
Life is hard for ordinary South Africans. Expansive gas and oil discoveries and revenue ignite some hope, but the vultures are rapacious in diverting these windfalls into their own pockets.
3. Weaver Work
A country marked by industrious collaboration like that of the Kalahari social weaver.
In the mid-2020s, “gatvol” South Africans, civil society and community groups launched a protest movement against inequality, poverty, and lack of services. People forged alliances across social divides of race and class. Artists, too, got involved, giving new life to the creative industries. All this put massive pressure on the government and businesses to respond to people’s demands. There is a fresh sense of active citizenship and constitutionalism.
For the 2029 elections, parties were forced to consider serious grassroots demands. A shaky coalition took power based on “listening to the people”. By building cooperative structures between government, civil society, and the private sector, the “Concord Compromise” government (of the three largest parties) relentlessly focused on service delivery, dealing with poverty and inequality, driving down crime, improving education and shoring up South Africa’s core infrastructure.
Restructuring state-owned enterprises helped attract foreign direct investment. South Africa’s green energy transition began to show results in the mid-2020s and is faster and fairer than expected, promoting a broader regional prosperity.
Shrewd interventions in agriculture and tourism have slowed previous rapid urbanisation rates. The construction boom extends beyond infrastructure and commercial property to a more comprehensive social, affordable housing provision. As the population nears 70 million, immigration increases; many South Africans “reverse migrate”. South Africa has become a wise investment. Substantial financing for the just transition and strong economic growth from 2030 to 2035 reduces unemployment to 18% in 2035. Youth unemployment drops to 33%, and measures of income inequality improve
The national mood
South Africans are working together more closely and emerging as a proud, hard-working, socially conscious nation. DM