Colonial exploitation and dispossession of our continent lasted centuries while the rest of the world marched on. Africans rejoiced in 1994 as the curtain closed on that humiliating history, with the expectation that a liberated and democratic South Africa would breathe new life into African development and political recovery.
The towering figures of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo and others inspired continental confidence that a new dawn was in the offing.
Twenty-nine years later, the glow has faded, and people and governments on the rest of the continent are genuinely heartbroken by the turn of events in the land of ubuntu.
The dream or illusion
On the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere warned the newly elected Zimbabwean leader, Robert Mugabe, to avoid the strategic blunders of other postcolonial African leaders. He urged him to build on the strength of the inherited economy while addressing the evil legacy of white minority rule and settler colonialism.
For the first decade of independence, Zimbabwe did exceptionally well on the economic front. However, the prosecution of Joshua Nkomo, one of the key leaders of the liberation movement, and the mass killing of people in his province of Matabeleland in 1987, ushered in tyranny and economic mismanagement as Nyerere’s prophetic warning fell on deaf ears – with calamitous consequences.
South Africa’s independence occurred just as signs of political decay in Zimbabwe appeared. What most people missed was that Zimbabwe’s decline was in part due to the adoption of the neoliberal IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programme.
In contrast, the ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme was widely hailed as the appropriate strategy to progressively dismantle the country’s deep inequalities and usher in a new era of equitable economic growth and social justice.
Africans beyond the Limpopo thought that a dynamic and growing South African economy and democratic polity would act as a regional growth pole for southern Africa and beyond.
People assumed that as South Africa’s government ramped up its industrialisation and productive employment, regional systems would be recalibrated, leading to a synergistic dynamic involving several industrial sectors such as construction, energy, manufacturing, transport, education, environmental protection, tourism, etc.
Japan played a similar role in east Asia’s rise, but hopeful Africans failed to realise that four factors present in east Asia were missing in southern Africa.
First, Japan already had a dynamic and integrated economy, which acted as a regional engine. Second, Japan and some of its neighbours were not divided internally and had cohesive elites determined to rebuild each country.
Third, the Cold War made southeast Asia a strategic location for America’s struggle against the USSR and China. This geopolitical environment created great economic opportunities in the region.
Fourth, and perhaps the most important factor, was that leaders in those societies were deeply worried about their survival and that of their countries in the hotly contested Cold War. For such leaders, growth and development, rather than liberal democracy, became the lynchpin of their legitimacy and the region’s transformation.
As these countries transformed their economies, the educated youth and working people undid the authoritarian regimes. However, such democratisation of politics did not unravel the formidable state institutions that have guided the market, despite neoliberalism’s global hegemony.
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The ANC government inherited relatively strong and interventionist state institutions and a public that had tremendous trust in the new leadership. But five factors undid the possibility of deploying that state to enact a transformative economic agenda.
First, most of the white establishment in the public and private sectors were not in a hurry to support the new regime lest they lose their racially based privileges.
Second, most of the newly recruited public servants lacked the necessary experience to take on the country’s new challenges.
Third, although many of the leaders of the ANC were committed to productive and just transformation, significant elements of the party were mainly interested in their personal gain.
Fourth, despite the presence of major progressive intellectuals in the party, the ANC veered to the right in its economic policy once Gear was adopted. The radical about-turn was due to the leadership’s false confidence that South Africa was not a banana republic and could successfully swim in the shark-infested neoliberal ocean.
Finally, the power struggle within the ANC was won by the most corrupt wing of the party, which ousted President Thabo Mbeki and his team, thoroughly looted all strategic public institutions, created a political climate that gutted the moral fabric of the party, and sowed the seeds of deep mistrust in the country.
The decay of South Africa’s state institutions and enterprises, and the neoliberal policy U-turn, produced an anaemic economic growth rate.
Meanwhile, Africa’s enduring economic crisis generated few jobs and opportunities for the population. The effect of these processes was to attract more African refugees and economic migrants into the country.
New refugees and economic migrants, as well as marginalised South African communities, began to compete for the same meagre opportunities, leading to struggles among the poor.
The liberal and progressive press in South Africa and on the rest of the continent have mischaracterised the struggle among the poor as “xenophobia”.
Elsewhere on the continent, I have often been asked why Africans in South Africa are killing and looting the property of African refugees when the continent paid an extraordinary price for the country’s liberation.
Such views of ordinary Africans beyond the Limpopo River have seriously tarnished the country’s image on the continent. Progressive and educated Africans are aware of South Africa’s declining fortunes.
One Nigerian colleague who visited South Africa at the height of load shedding noted that the “Nigeriasation” of the country was in high gear. When I asked him what he meant by this remark, he narrated how a corrupt elite ruined Nigerian Airways, looted his country’s rich natural resources, and turned the country into a criminal haven.
Elsewhere in east Africa, similar views have replaced what was once a beacon of continental hope.
I was recently in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his new Cabinet. We had a gathering of people from four East African countries, and they were underwhelmed by the president’s uninspiring change of guard.
Many of those present were dismayed by the appointment of the electricity minister, as that indicated the president’s lack of strategic understanding of the problem and how successful public enterprises work. Some noted that this was possibly the last opportunity to change the fortunes of the South African state and the country.
The thrill is gone
The great African American jazz musician BB King’s riveting song, The Thrill Is Gone, captures the beauty and the pain of the postcolonial African journey. The promise of a continental renaissance was as beautiful and inspiring as the voice and texture of King’s music, but the track record of African elite politics, particularly the last chapter of the ANC in government, has been as heartbreaking as King’s blues.
A young, educated and underemployed South African captured the nightmare when he expressed his despair to me regarding the 2024 national election. His apt remarks still echo in my mind: “We have a bleak menu to select from.”
The view from beyond the Limpopo is that the hope of a vibrant South Africa inspiring and leading the continent is gone. DM