Business Maverick


After 30 years, South Africa is no longer the lodestar of global democracy — here’s why

After 30 years, South Africa is no longer the lodestar of global democracy — here’s why
South African National Memorial, Union Buildings, Pretoria. (Photo: Wikimedia / Bernard Gagnon) | President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images) | Former South African President Thabo Mbeki. (Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart) | Former President Nelson Mandela at a public event in Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images/Rodger Bosch) | Former President Jacob Zuma dancing. (Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart) | ANC flag. (Photo: Gallo Images).

The post-apartheid ANC failed to grasp the key mechanics needed to advance the country economically. The need to attract capital investment to grow the economy, and to build a highly competent technocratic class.

Much has been written about democratic South Africa’s first 30 years, most of it focusing on the unfulfilled promise of a post-apartheid dawn and the more recent failure of the sun to rise on a “new dawn” under President Ramaphosa.

What is missing from the debate is the answer to the question: Why has post-apartheid South Africa foundered? 

When Nelson Mandela took office on 10 May 1994, the world was at the country’s fingertips. Who else could have played host at a state banquet to Hillary Clinton and Fidel Castro, each equally starry-eyed at the country’s prospects?

Thirty years ago, South Africa embodied the hope that a way could be found to move the world forward, out of its old Cold War dichotomies and into a new era of deep democracy, where the improvement of the lives of the people — not political power-plays — would take centre-stage.

Thirty years later, we remain a free society, but we’re no longer the lodestar of global democracy. We are evidence of how the best intentions can be fatally undermined by those who place power and patronage ahead of accountability.

While most South Africans were elated at democracy’s potential, there were hyenas, to borrow the description of former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who saw a myriad of opportunities to enrich themselves and remain above the law.

Former South African Minister of Health Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. (Photo: Gallo Images / Business Day / Tyrone Arthur)

The roots of this malaise can, sadly, be traced back to Mandela’s presidency. Let’s revive some forgotten history. When the Sarafina scandal erupted, then Minister of Health, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was hauled before Parliament’s health committee, chaired by none other than Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. She was horrified. She made her way to Nelson Mandela’s office across the cobbles in Tuynhuys where, it is reliably told, she tearfully asked the great man to make it stop.

This was probably the first big turning point in post-apartheid history. Instead of telling her to face the music, which was being meted out by MPs doing their duty — he took her side in a role less about the lives of people than the health of the party, and the inquiry was extinguished.

President Nelson Mandela at his inauguration on 10 May, 1994 in Pretoria. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / David Sandison)

Protection from on high

The message was clear and immediate — there was protection from on high for the ANC’s royal game. Unsurprisingly, the floodgates opened and by 1999, when President Thabo Mbeki was in office, the country was in the throes of a full-blown corruption scandal related to the arms deal.

This, too, would be swept under the carpet by blunted inquiries, and the likes of ANC MP Andrew Feinstein, who sat on the public accounts committee, would quit in disgust. When prosecutions eventually came, it was the bag-man Schabir Shaik and not the principal, Jacob Zuma, who would take the fall.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Thirty years after democracy, fed-up Northern Cape residents thirst for more

By the 2000s, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, “greed was good” and Mbeki’s right-hand man, Smuts Ngonyama went so far as to state: “I did not struggle to be poor.” 

This corruption malaise, which persists in its mutated forms to this day, has played a large role in undermining the advancement of South African democracy and in weakening economic performance.

The Zondo Commission’s report remains startling reading, thousands of pages meticulously documenting the bloody-minded ingenuity of the corrupt and the failure, by omission, of the state to take action against it. 

Zwelinzima Vavi, the South African Federation of Trade Unions General Secretary. (Photo: Gallo Images / Daily Sun / Jabu Kumalo).

ANC hubris

But is it the whole story? There are other less dramatic but equally substantive reasons why South Africa has not fulfilled its promise.

Foremost among these is hubris. The post-apartheid ANC failed to grasp the key mechanics needed to advance the country economically. Primary among these were two factors: The need to attract capital investment and with it the necessary skills, technology and market knowledge to grow the economy. And the need to build a highly competent technocratic class capable of managing a sophisticated country.

If there was an exception to the rule on the need to attract capital investment, it was to be found in the presidency of Mbeki. Mbeki and his team, including then Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, clearly understood this priority and shifted footing from the Reconstruction and Development Programme to an altogether “next level” economic programme — The Growth, Employment and Redistribution macroeconomic programme, known by its acronym Gear.

By today’s lazy analytical standards, Gear is viewed as a “neo-liberal” programme that failed the poor in the interests of a rich cabal. The facts tell a very different story.

Source: Trading Economics.

As the above graphic clearly illustrates, Mbeki’s presidency oversaw the best economic growth of the post-apartheid era. Gear was introduced in the teeth of the 1998 global financial crisis, but once it had found its feet, it produced the goods. The economy grew by more than 5% for three consecutive years. There was even a budget surplus for two years as tax collection under then SARS boss Pravin Gordhan improved dramatically.

The private sector flourished and employment improved and, with the government’s finances in a healthy position, one of the world’s largest social welfare programmes was expanded.

The Mbeki era was not, however without its demons. There were some deep flaws that would come back to bite South Africa. The aforementioned arms deal scandal. And Mbeki appeared unwilling to use his leverage to halt Zimbabwe’s slide into brutal autocracy as he relied on the internet to peddle a deeply flawed HIV/Aids policy.

He also planted the seeds of future load shedding, passing a white paper on energy reform which would introduce private power generation. When this was stymied by the party’s left, he failed to adopt a plan B and Eskom went for years without adding new generation capacity, something for which he has since publicly apologised. Ironically, his success at driving economic growth would mean the lights would go off in 2008 as Eskom literally ran out of fuel.

The party was happy to overlook all these failings, but Mbeki finally crossed a red line.

He sought to attack the corruption hydra, firing Zuma as his deputy president after the latter’s financial advisor was jailed for bribes related to the arms deal. Zuma was named as the recipient of those bribes, although this is yet to be proven in court, some 25 years later.

Populist politics

It turned out, the Mbeki era was a temporary aberration and soon it was back to business as abnormal. The thought that there might be consequences for corruption was too much for many in the party to bear. A coalition of forces mobilised around a populist agenda, which wrongly caricatured Gear as an elite enrichment scheme in direct contradiction to any economic fact you care to examine, and removed Mbeki.

In alliance with the trade unions and the ANC’s Youth League, some of whose members had recently mooned the cameras at a national conference, Zuma defeated the Mbeki faction at the ANC’s Polokwane conference. 

This represented a watershed moment, ushering in an era of populist politics and destabilising the country’s capacity to achieve the twin goals of raising capital investment and building a functional technocracy in the civil service.

Instead, the cadre-deployment machinery swung into full gear and the civil service was expanded with battalions of underskilled cadres being put in charge throughout the state, as skills fled for the private sector or left the country.

Source: National Treasury.

As the above graph shows, Mbeki’s successful containment of debt was quickly undone under Zuma, who spent like there was no tomorrow, a trend which Ramaphosa appears to be powerless to reverse.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Thirty years on, South Africans again need to appeal to their better angels

The economic consequences have been devastating, with SOEs failing to produce the power or the rail and port logistics needed for a modern economy. Growth has languished around the 1% mark in a good quarter, and the portion of the budget going to paying off debt has grown alarmingly.

The challenge of reversing these trends and returning the economy to properly managed spending and delivery are enormous, and at least as political as they are technical. 

It will require a leadership willing to be unpopular with deployed cadres and willing to see off populist criticism that it is implementing conservative economic management. No such leadership exists within the ANC, which shortly faces a coalition choice between the centre or Zuma and the EFF.

But, as Mbeki demonstrated in the 2000s, it is well within the country’s grasp to turn the tide should the right reforms and leadership be in place. We can only vote in hope. DM

Ray Hartley and Greg Mills are with The Brenthurst Foundation.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    As huge as the damage may seem we have to come to reality that the solution is not in the rethoric we hear from parties who still blame the past for the present, the answer lies with turning the present into a lesson for the future.
    A lot of effort has been spent by potential parties in house keeping around the feet where they stand, the broom must go national aggressively, playing the game using the same strategy used by the crooks but in a meaningful way, give the free lunch and devise a strategy of turning the free lunch into a way of producing breakfast lunch and supper by recipients.
    Coalitions are going to be a headache until the corrupt fall on their sword, I hope the party I trust to do the job will spend the next 5 years winning the hearts and minds of the voters so they can get to work.
    The fact that the leaders visit us here on this platform gives hope.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Part of the solution must be dissolving the alliance. The hand of the SACP wields enormous power although no one explicitly voted for them. Read Soviet history and spot the parallels: loyalty being more important than skill being one of the most consequential.

  • Richard Bryant says:

    It is clear that the ANC is unable and unwilling to turn around the obvious problem that growth and employment have been seriously compromised by corruption and cadre deployment. Now we have a situation where those left relying on a pathetic social grant in place of decent employment are turning to the EFF and MK for any type of better future. And putin is lurking in the background to take full advantage of the inevitable breakdown in democracy.

    If we look back over the last 120 years, I don’t think we have had as weak a leader as Ramaphosa. Perhaps even weaker than the alcoholic John Voster. We’ve produced profound world leaders in the form of Mandela, Mbeki and Smuts. And notorious leaders like Verwoerd. And brave leaders like Louis Botha and De Klerk who were willing to move forward despite internal political dissent. Even Zuma knew what he wanted to do and did it at the behest of the corrupt. But an amorphous leader like Ramaphosa says one thing, does another, makes pathetically boring speeches clearly written by someone else and hides away from the media. His whole promise to turn around corruption has been so weak, that the corrupt are running riot knowing there are absolutely no consequences. Our Constitution gives the President enormous powers to lead and responsibilities to uphold and defend the Constitution. He does neither. And he is the best the ANC has to offer. Which is why Zuma and Malema are running rings around him.

    Leadership clearly matters.

    • Running Man says:

      I’m not disagreeing with your analysis of Cyril. Five years later he still doesn’t have full control of the ANC, and what control he does have likely hangs by a thread. In the absence of political power within his own party he will remain limited in what he can do.

      He did manage to get rid of Ace, but there is a wagon train of individuals who, although less power hungry, are equally as corrupt and still hanging around the upper echelons of the party machinery.


  • td _a says:

    reading Mbeki’s + Manuel’s own reflection on the task they faced in the 2000s one really has to give credit where its due – they were doing well.
    however, Mbeki – perhaps foolishly or due to party pressure – swung the doors wide open for the corrupt cadres. And the rest, as they say, is history

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Tribal mentality and the rich who think they deserve power, and the powerful who think they deserve the riches will break any attempt fix ZA.
    This plus the Hawks mentality that as soon as someone dies during investigation that money is gone. It is not, it is still the proceeds of a crime, still belongs to the taxpayers. If the taxpayers can see the money disappeared with the Hawks doing nothing to reclaim it, why should anybody worry about it? Criminal regularly sit at home, adding millions to the money they already stole.
    Someone make it make sense, because it is idiotic.

  • Noel Soyizwaphi says:

    I think, while, Mbeki had his many blind spots, among them HIV/AIDS, and the perceived mishanding of sovereign Zimbabwe’s political problems, his tenure could serve as point of reference in the country’s attempts to rebuild. As a leader, Mbeki had courage and could not scare easily. In time Mbeki ANC had a reformist impetus. Economic polocies resulted to actual growth average of above 4 percent, employment figures were going up and certainly race relations were not as terrible. Mbeki was the most eloquent voice in Africa with continental reform initiatives that led the world to begin to trust Africa in handing its own affairs, like conflicts. African market opened doors to hundreds of SA companies. MTN & other big companies went into big markets up north. SA was seen as entry point to the African market. However, I think we failed ourselves in three areas (a) should have pushed more for electoral reforms at that time, (b) as mentioned by Johan Rupert, local industry captains let Mbeki down by not investing at home, a move that Rupert believes could have led external investors to follow suit, (c) civil society’s voice was absent to dilute ANC alliance partners’ fierce opposition to Mbeki’s economic policies, resulting to perceptions of instability in the country.
    All that said, the country has remarkable institutions that have already proven to very be strong and are there to guide our economic actions moving forward.

  • David Roux says:

    Excellent article. Good to see Brenthurst writing about relevant stuff rather than endlessly banging on about SA Foreign Policy and Naledi Pandor (arguably one of the least worst of our current crop of Cabinet Ministers). (Also good to see that the DA has finally produced an Economic Policy.)

    • dexter m says:

      I agree , this is what i expect from Brenthurst , leave the Israeli lobbying to others . A follow up article on what 3 major policy changes should the parties champion that would have the most effect on turning around the economy and ensure long term growth

  • Noel Soyizwaphi says:

    Mills & Hartly of Brenthurst, for your attempt at analyzing the country’s political and economic events since 1994 is holistic. I know there will be some among us who would be looking forward to your next offering. However, I doubt there is any unbiased contribution that could be forthcoming. We need a thorough analysis, the one that is not one sided. Good luck in whatever agenda you are peddling.

    • dexter m says:

      As with all op-eds one only needs to accept the facts ,and ignore the conclusions . that is mainly the spin of the author.

  • Agf Agf says:

    Thank you for a well balanced and rational article. Miles better than some of the drek churned out by other pro ANC journalists.

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