The root cause of South Africa’s decline that shall not be named
A version of this essay appeared in The Daily Maverick on January 11, 2021.
[I’m working on a forward-looking, solution-oriented book on South African politics. In it I argue that to accelerate inclusive development, we need new vision, new leaders, new ideas and new ways of governing. I try to sketch what this looks like and how it can be brought about. In the coming months I will publish a series of articles previewing major themes from the book. This is the first.]
South Africa cannot work under the ‘leadership’ of the ANC.
Despite all the evidence that ANC misrule is the cause of our continuing decline, it is the thing that most of us dare not say.
No growth for a decade. Sky high unemployment. Daily examples of absent leadership and ineptitude from the government. War on women. A school system that fails most children. An impending debt crisis.
And yet we still won’t say the obvious: The ANC has failed. The ANC is the problem.
Anything we tell ourselves to the contrary is fantasy.
‘The ANC will self-correct.’
‘Benign, virtuous Cyril gets it and will save us if he can prevail over the irredeemable looting faction of the ANC.’
‘The NPA will arrest and convict the worst looters, giving the white hats a clean slate to rebuild anew.’
The ANC has run the country into the ground. It wrote documents – Gear, ASGISA, NDP – calling for 6% growth while not doing the things successful developmental states actually did to achieve that growth: focus on exporting increasingly sophisticated goods, keep the currency (and cost of capital) cheap, invest in human capabilities, let skilled technocrats focus on creating an enabling environment for an entrepreneurial business class while resisting capture by same.
No, not our ANC. In 2008, they invited the world’s best development economists to give them advice they would not heed (Treasury’s Harvard panel on growth). In 2012, they repeated the same exercise this time with homegrown experts (the NDP), with similar results. Government wrote an energy policy in 1999 saying the private sector should participate in energy generation, then spent a decade not allowing them to – and not allowing Eskom to build either – leading to a 13-year and counting power crisis which would limit our economic growth.
While other countries jockey for position in the 4th Industrial Revolution – competing ferociously over 5G, semiconductor supremacy, hyper-efficient robotic-based manufacturing, artificial intelligence and green technology, among other arenas – we’ve been unable to complete two power stations in 14 years (Medupi and Kusile). Imagine talking to global companies to market South Africa as a manufacturing base, competing against the Asian leaders, and you can’t even guarantee the availability of electricity.
No wonder South Africa has been deindustrializing, continuously and uninterrupted, for 30 years.
Almost as if in pique that an export sector – tourism – had escaped the state’s notice and, improbably, actually grew, the government implemented poorly designed immigration regulations in 2014 which threw the plucky, labour-intensive sector into chaos for several years. It’s taken us years to pilot an electronic visa to make it easier for tourists and business travelers to visit. In late 2019 I found out on a Thursday I needed to be in Addis Ababa the following Monday to advise a government client. I got a visa online in about 30 minutes. No leaving my passport at their embassy for a week or more waiting for a visa. Ethiopia, whose GDP is a quarter of ours, somehow managed to launch this service in 2018. We launched a pilot last year, and are scheduled to roll it out to all countries this year, three years behind Ethiopia.
Great Depression-level unemployment rates are standard stuff here eMzansi, home of the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. A heartbreaking 55% of young South Africans are unemployed or have given up looking for work.
As growth has slowed due to our unproductive, uncompetitive economic structure, the ANC-led government has sustained itself through ever-growing numbers of cabinet posts, through contracts for the connected (from government departments and SOEs), and through the public wage bill, which grew unabated over the last decade even as the economy did not. The public wage bill not only sustains the ANC but pays for the unions’ support come election time, and buys the sympathy of a significant share of the black middle class, many if not most of whom are employed by the state. The poor masses who continually vote the ANC into power are bribed, or at the very least restrained from open revolt, through social grants.
Meanwhile the tiny tax base and massive government borrowing – now four trillion rand and growing by a billion rand a day – pays the bills. (The NDP: “We know our leaders as we have elected them and pledged them to office… They are wise in the use of our wealth.”)
And to be clear, it is you and I that will have to repay this massive, growing debt over the next decade through our taxes, even as we pay a second time for higher-quality private services – education, health, security, transport – because of the poor quality of the public ones our taxes were supposed to pay for in the first place.
Note to this point I haven’t even said anything about the massive corruption which has become commonplace in our country: the arms deal, Travelgate, Nkandla, the Mandela funeral, Estina, asbestos removal, Prasa, Transnet locomotives, Eskom-Trillian, VBS (just to name the ones that come immediately to mind). Bosasa. Covid-19 looting.
We stood still for a decade between the last global financial crisis, and pre-Covid 19.
Between 2006 and 2019, national income per South African increased by just 5% (while public sector salaries grew by 45%.) Over the same period, income per person increased by 170% for Chinese, 139% for Ethiopians, 94% for Indians, 93% for Vietnamese, 82% for Rwandans and 69% for Indonesians. The average annual increase for these countries was 5.7%, over 14 times our own growth rate of 0.4%.
Thais, only 8% richer than us in 2006 (earning $927 more per person), are now 48% richer (earning $5,978 more), having increased their income by 44% over the period.
And yet we continue to wait vainly for the ANC to ‘self-correct’. Political parties around the world – in competitive, multi-party democracies where parties actually have to meaningfully improve people’s circumstances to win elections – must marvel at the ANC. What a wonderful racket the party has. Only the ANC can run a country into the ground, and then run for election promising a New Dawn to repair what it has massively screwed up.
President Ramaphosa is many in South Africa’s last hope for the ANC self-correction fantasy. Let’s examine the New Dawn a bit closer.
Lest we forget, it was Cyril Ramaphosa who helped President Zuma secure a second term as President by joining his slate to defeat the challenge from then-Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe at the 2012 Mangaung conference. Mr. Motlanthe tried to prevent the nine wasted years President Ramaphosa campaigned for, was Deputy President for half of, but is somehow not accountable for. [e.g. In December 2014: President Ramaphosa appointed head of SOE war room. Five years later, in December 2019: Ramaphosa was “shocked” at Eskom’s inability to supply sufficient electricity to the country.]
It gets even better. We are meant to believe President Ramaphosa was quietly appalled by Zuma’s leadership, but chose to play the long game to take over and ultimately get the country back on track.
OK, let’s play this out. One might think during this long buildup, he would develop some ideas on what needs changing. That he might develop say, an economic vision. He threatened one during his quasi-campaign – remember the New Deal speech? – but that went nowhere. OK fine, let’s accept that victory was not assured given the vagaries of ANC conferences, so he could not devote much time to developing an actual vision until after he won.
Let’s accept that while spending hundreds of millions of rands on his internal election campaign, he couldn’t possibly have spent some money on a team of policy experts to develop actual ideas on how to govern in the event that he won.
Our would-be savior wins at Nasrec in December 2017, and in the ANC’s customary, assassination-of-Caesar-esque fashion, is elected state President in February 2018.
Imagine. Not only was he virtually guaranteed his own 5-year term, he got a bonus 15 months of President Zuma’s second term to settle into the job.
Surely he would use this boon to develop a bold new vision to change the trajectory of our country? Well, not exactly. No grand vision in the first two years of his now 6.25 year first term. In his first State of the Nation Address, he promised a new economic advisory council packed with top local and international economists to advise him. It took him 18 months to appoint it.
So it took President Ramaphosa two full years until his third SONA to come up with something approximating a grand vision lite – infrastructure investment, promising to solve the 12-year-old electricity crisis – and 10 months into the worst economic downturn in a century to come up with an economic recovery plan based on the now customary public jobs programme, a state-directed localization drive and as almost an afterthought, commitment to finally, ‘no really this time’, implement long-delayed, obvious economic reforms.
In fact, as South Africa’s fortunes have dimmed under the ANC’s watch, so has our level of ambition. In the mid-2000’s, the ANC government explicitly took on the task of becoming a developmental state. This was significant. Few countries had actually taken on this mantle. The Asian miracles (Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan) were described this way by scholars only after the fact. Our developmental state aspirations culminated in the NDP, which aspired to inclusive growth of 5-6% per year from 2012-2030, to “eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030.”
While the NDP was the brainchild of then Minister of Planning, Trevor Manuel, then private citizen and businessman Cyril Ramaphosa was the Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission. Almost a decade later as President, he has almost completely abandoned the ambitious aspirations the NDP he co-chaired set out. His Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan – his biggest opportunity to reshape the economy after the Covid-19 pandemic crisis on top of the pre-existing crisis – hopes to raise growth to a pedestrian 3% on average over the next decade.
No, South Africa cannot work under the ‘leadership’ of the ANC.
The ANC cannot lead South Africa in a new direction because of its adherence to failed ideology, its dysfunctional internal culture, and because its leaders are vested in the status quo.
The ANC does not see the world as it is, but through its ideological lens.
It insists that it lead a big, overbearing state which directs the economy even as, paradoxically, it tacitly acknowledges that after 26 years of rule, it has not built a capable state. It insists on having big state-owned monopolies at the center of its economic strategy, regardless of the fact that they hold back growth (Eskom), depress our export potential by adding a self-inflicted inefficiency tariff to our manufactures (Transnet) and burn through taxpayer money (Eskom again) for little obvious strategic benefit (SAA). It insists on piously denouncing capitalism – while presiding over our declining economic competitiveness – while its leaders enjoy all the trappings of global capitalism: the mansions, the German cars, the European-designed / Asian-made clothes, the Asian-made gadgets, the blessees plied with French champagne and cash.
The biggest ideological failing however, is best pointed out by one of our most incisive political intellectuals, Moeletsi Mbeki. He argued in 2012, “The ANC government is about consumption, it’s not about production. The production in South Africa is totally secondary to them, and where production competes with consumption, consumption wins.” What a devastating indictment. Looking critically at 26 years of ANC rule, and the decade since Mbeki’s prescient words, who can disagree?
The ANC’s culture is irredeemable on the current trajectory. Ideas and capability matter little. Election contests – from branch to national level – are not about contestation over competing visions and ideas from aspirant leaders, but about who can ‘mobilize’ the most delegates and members, very often with cash, t-shirts and food. And promises of positions, jobs, contracts. The ANC’s own leaders acknowledge the cycle of members recruited merely as political currency to contest conferences.
My limited experience in the ANCYL echoed what I’d heard from others a hundred times over: the majority of time was spent plotting for conferences, jockeying for position (and the favor of senior leaders), discussing political intrigue, with frequent lectures on the glories of the Lembede-Mandela generation of young lions in positively disrupting an ineffective ANC leadership in the 1940s. Praising and defending the ANC and parroting ideological dogma are valued; new, critical and independent thinking are not.
Elites within the ANC are not just vested in the status quo, they have evolved in symbiosis with it. The Zondo Commission has shown the toxic relationship between businesses vying for lucrative government contracts, the ANC itself and the ANC politicians who have come to see gifts from businessmen amounting to hundreds of thousands, even millions of rands as their due. Many of these politicians don’t see the economic dysfunction the rest of us do, shrugging off the downgrades and lack of private sector investment as plots by ‘capital’, shadowy reactionary forces or the West.
And then sometimes as the adage goes, the simplest explanation is usually the right one: we’re in this mess because the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing. The leaders of the ANC in government are largely the same leaders who led the country, in cabinet and the ANC NEC, during the ‘nine wasted years’. They are not suddenly going to ‘get it’, and turn into latter day Lee Kwan Yew’s.
Even if President Ramaphosa had a bold vision for South Africa – which we now know he doesn’t – he couldn’t overcome these features of the ANC.
The ANC has so lowered our expectations of public governance that we rejoice when political leaders acknowledge a problem, even if it is not actually solved. We’ve long since given up hope of transformational leadership.
So weary have we become of the decline, that we draw our optimism from news reports of consultations with social partners, behind the scenes processes and task teams.
I ask you simply, in which core aspects of life – economic opportunity, education, healthcare, public safety, basic services – are we on a trajectory of sustained, substantial improvement as a result of focused action by our political leadership? Not isolated factoids of projects completed and ‘efforts underway’. Actual visionary leadership and decisive action for the public good.
Are your economic prospects (and those of the people around you) markedly better than they were five years ago? The quality of education in public schools? The quality of care in the public health system? Violent crime levels? Reliability of basic services? Reliability of public transport?
That’s the job. Improving those things, not attending press conferences talking about improving those things and then not actually doing so.
The ANC is out of ideas, and couldn’t implement them even if it had them.
Curiously, everything I have written here you already know. It’s why the ANC’s share of the vote has declined at every election since 2004. It’s why, despite our population having grown by 24% from 47 million in 2004 to 59 million in 2019, the ANC’s received 8% fewer votes in 2019 (10 million vs 10.9 million in 2004).
We all know that South Africa cannot work under the
leadership misrule of the ANC. We are just afraid to say it out loud. Mostly because most people, most of the time, take the path of least resistance. It is hard enough in this life to stay afloat, let alone to take on big, seemingly intractable problems.
Some of us are afraid because it could be costly to our personal fortunes and prospects to do so. Calling out the ANC risks lucrative state job appointments, board appointments and contracts. This essay is not helping my career prospects.
Some of us who could do something about it are afraid because acknowledging it would mean we would have to do something about it.
And yet having correctly diagnosed our problem, the solution is obvious.
We are thankfully not a country where elections are not free or fair. Where opposition candidates are jailed for campaigning, tortured by security forces, or even disappeared. We can vote failed leaders out if we want to.
South Africa will go nowhere slowly until we have a credible alternative to the ANC. The ANC cannot lead us and none of the existing political parties have convinced the electorate that they offer the new vision, leadership, ideas and ability to implement that South Africa desperately needs.
What features does a credible and compelling political alternative entail?
To be continued.