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Three paradigm shifts that will redefine South African politics and the way we do business


Dr Marius Oosthuizen is a scenario planner and writes in his own capacity.

Three important shifts might take place in South Africa in the next two decades that will upend the political landscape and create new opportunities for political competition and collaboration.

Events on South Africa’s political landscape over the past two decades have been rather boring. Apart from squabbles within the ANC and its alliance partner Cosatu, very little has changed since 1994. The ANC has dominated elections, the EFF has dominated news headlines and the DA has dominated the Western Cape.

This meant that political battles were fought inside the factionalist trenches in the ANC, and little else has been up for grabs for political entrepreneurs. Even the sensationalist Julius Malema could only build a loud brand while failing to build a robust movement.

One of the reasons our politics have been fairly boring and predictable is the lack of change in the economic and power relations that continue to define South Africa. What the ANC has done, with some success, is to fight over control of the levers of power and wealth accumulation, within the state and in business, without changing the status quo.

The Zuma years, for a brief moment, threatened to collapse the entire system, by leeching off it rather than trying to change it.

Our analysis indicates that three important shifts might take place in South Africa in the next two decades that will upend the political landscape and create new opportunities for political competition and collaboration.

Cape Town-Stellenbosch corridor replaces Johannesburg as the services hub

A business cluster has emerged in the Cape Town-Stellenbosch corridor that might be characterised as a digitally enabled services hub. Following the rise of Capitec in Stellenbosch, areas such as Durbanville and surrounds are emerging as important nodes for new businesses. A thriving ecosystem of digital services will be the result and will attract skills and investment.

While this cluster expands in the Western Cape, Johannesburg has continued to lose talent and prestige as a centre for business services. Even the JSE is being challenged by new entrants.

Covid-19, as a shock to the business system, has accelerated the adoption of technologies that allow professionals to work remotely, making Joburg’s Sandton and northern suburbs even less attractive to the individual and business ratepayers who have kept the city afloat up to now.

Taken together, we see a profound shift from a Joburg-centred business services orientation in the economy, to an increasingly Western Cape-centred one. Naturally, with the DA holding on to the political terrain in that part of the country, this will have implications as the question of who controls the economic engine of South Africa becomes an important issue.

As businesses trek south, so will their rates and taxes and so too their propensity to support the political process at national and provincial level.

Black elites replace Afrikaner and English elites at the helm of business

While broad-based black economic empowerment has made little difference to the majority of black South Africans, it has created a new black business elite. The likes of the Black Business Council and an increasingly transformed leadership landscape in companies and their management, means that the business sector will no longer be led or mostly populated by Afrikaans- and English-speaking whites.

While it has been politically expedient for politicians to play the race card to keep transformation at the forefront of their arguments for change, the changing face of business leadership will necessitate a new approach.

As black leaders take the reins in business, they will be pressed to demonstrate higher levels of social responsibility. Issues are unlikely to be framed in terms of race but rather in terms of privilege and access to resources. Inclusiveness and social responsibility aimed at uplifting South Africa’s disadvantaged youth will dominate the discourse.

At a policy level, the implication is that “youth representation” will become a political hot potato and it is likely that the hegemony of organised labour, formerly dominated by the mines, heavy industry and the public sector, will become increasingly irrelevant as young people press the new black elites for change in the economy.

Townships become new towns as regional towns die

It has been widely reported that South Africa’s small towns are dying. But the real story is not only that money and commerce are leaving these towns as the infrastructure collapses, but that South Africans are migrating to the cities in droves. Consequently, the peri-urban townships are exploding in all provinces.

When one visits African cities such as Lagos and Kigali, one sees a sprawling metropolis of low-end housing and informal economic activity that resulted from this trend in unplanned, poorly managed urbanisation. South Africa will be no different.

The implication is that as the townships grow, their governance requirements will be magnified. As water, energy and other services are extended into these spaces, they will require management and maintenance. This will result in heightened political battles over the governance of local spaces.

Even as our politicians come to terms with their current failures to manage South Africa’s towns, they will be faced with a whole new set of nodes that require special attention. The battle between councillors, increasingly over legitimacy in terms of local mandates on the basis of governance performance rather than party affiliation, will send a tremor through the political system.

If it is the case that the Western Cape eclipses Gauteng as the heart of the economy, and black elites face off with the poor over access and privilege, South Africa’s burgeoning townships will become a newly important political terrain.

It is unlikely that the ANC’s Tripartite Alliance in its current form will adapt to this challenge. It could be that new parties emerge that capture the imagination of the aspiring middle class, and perhaps more competition between the Mother City and Egoli will be good for the ANC.

It remains to be seen how the incumbents respond to these shifts and if they relegate the old parties to the dustbin of history. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    I was looking out for this type of reasoned future scenarios for some time now after Clem Sunter played this role previously.
    It gives a vital base for long-term decision-making if one plans to hang around in SA. Government, political parties, business and individuals can equally benefit from such well- founded reasoning. More insights like this is necessary. Tks Marius.

  • Henry Montgomery says:

    I like the simple manner this article deals with what is, and will happen. As a Zimbabwean, we have, and continue to witness urbanisation and the chaos we saw previously in Nigerian and Ghanaian cities now is emulated in our own, particularly Harare. Whilst there is a smattering of what on the face, appears to be some semblance of ‘order’, the chaos, lawlessness, corruption and greed has spiralled. Marius, throw in further deterioration of the rule of Law into your scenario and it goes even further pear-shaped. Just back from the fairest Cape – hold onto it as long as you can, all of you!

  • John Weinkove says:

    There are 54 countries in Africa. To quote Mbheki “I am an African” South Africa can expect to be the same as any other African country.

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