South Africa’s governing party knows the principal threat it is facing: opinion polls indicate a substantial drop in voter support. Although the ANC might yet eke its way to a majority in 2024 with the help of the rural vote, a lacklustre opposition and some revised election rules, its days of ruling in comfort are fast expiring.
Support is dropping because multiple longstanding crises are coming to a head. The most pressing of these is the shortage of electricity. The party’s secretary-general, Fikile Mbalula, said last week: “I get shocked that the ANC is polling at 49.5%. I am expecting the ANC to be polling at 30%. […] In the townships it’s dark.”
He was exaggerating for dramatic effect, but it is clear that he’s worried.
That is without even mentioning the crises in economic growth, water supply, crime and security, education, employment, investment, health, municipalities, international relations, public finances, state-owned enterprises, defence, the judiciary, the ports and railways, and almost every other aspect of the polity.
But yet more dangers lurk beneath the surface, and these the party ignores at its peril.
Traditionally, and with some justification, the ANC saw itself not just as the leader of South Africa’s society, but as its very embodiment — it and “the people” were as one. This notion was not entirely fanciful: the party secured almost 70% support in the 2004 national election. Even most opposition parties were descended from it. Most of civil society, the media, and big business were broadly sympathetic towards it.
That configuration has been changing slowly over time and now it is changing quickly.
Organised business no longer sends the ANC Christmas cards. In meetings, the atmosphere has turned frosty. The media, which could once be trusted to talk up the ANC, have turned on it. Civil society organisations, even the ones that should be its allies, are becoming increasingly critical, and a proliferation of new movements and initiatives is sprouting in explicit opposition to the ANC.
Service delivery in decline
Ordinary South Africans are also falling out of love as the sweetness of the early service delivery successes turns sour. Perhaps your house was connected to the grid post-1994, but nowadays when you flip a switch the light doesn’t come on.
You got access to running water, but drinking it could give you cholera and kill you. You were provided with a house, but it is too small and the roof is leaking. You get a grant each month, but it’s only R350 and what you actually need is a job. (Unemployment has routinely topped the list of South Africans’ concerns in opinion polls, while “creating jobs” has been the prime electoral promise since 1994 – something not adequately delivered on.)
None of these things are being fixed. As a matter of fact, they’re getting worse.
South Africa is desperate for investment, but lax law enforcement means it has been greylisted and is seen as a dodgy jurisdiction. Its creditworthiness is junk. It is playing battleships with Russia — a dalliance that could end up sinking South Africa’s privileged access to the US export market and could even result in sanctions, as the South African Reserve Bank warned in its latest bulletin.
That’s not the only thing triggering flashbacks to apartheid.
Under President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership, the ANC is doubling down on race-based policy. The Institute of Race Relations’ (IRR) Race Law project shows that there are currently no fewer than 132 racially indexed laws active in South Africa.
It gets worse: the Department of Water and Sanitation wants to allocate water rights based on race. And the amended Employment Equity Act signed into law by the president in mid-April provides for race quotas to be imposed across 80% of the private sector workforce, to be enforced on pain of penalties sufficiently harsh to put companies out of business.
This in a country with the world’s highest unemployment rate, where the need for jobs is top of mind for most South Africans, as revealed in IRR polling going back over a decade.
Most South Africans do not share the ANC’s race fixation: in the IRR’s 2022 poll, 76.8% of respondents said that appointments should be made on the basis of merit, while 91.6% of respondents agreed sports teams should be appointed on merit and ability, not based on racial quotas.
This reveals that the ANC is increasingly out of touch and out of step with the South African electorate. It is blithely marching on to the drumbeat of its ideological design, the National Democratic Revolution, believing it is at the vanguard of South African society.
The reality is that South Africans are turning away and heading off in a different direction. This represents a far more profound threat to the party’s electoral support than its service delivery failures, which are in essence technical problems that can be fixed with technical solutions.
It is fanciful to think that the ANC might experience a change of heart and change tack. It will persist in pursuing its destructive ideological aims and it will fail to address its service delivery failures. What does this mean for ordinary South Africans?
It means that you should not look to the government to improve matters for you. Look to yourself, your community, your businesses. Get involved, as thousands of South Africans are doing right now, in securing your suburb, maintaining your infrastructure, cleaning your surroundings, helping your neighbours.
Place pressure on your political representatives and parties to respect your priorities and deliver on their mandates. And support organisations like the IRR and many others that are working every day to push back against harmful policies and develop and promote better ones.
South Africa continues to be a land of great resources, ingenuity, and people — strengths that we must leverage to get off the destructive path we now find ourselves on. DM