By Norah Hashim Msuya
After almost three decades of democracy, South Africa faces multiple crises. The government has largely gone from crisis to crisis without fundamentally dealing with the political and economic root causes of the crises themselves. South Africans are demanding accountability and justice. Many feel let down by weak governance, political dysfunction, and economic inequality, mainly at the expense of the country’s poverty-stricken black majority. The country has a world-leading level of inequality, with a Gini coefficient for income distribution of 0.7. Wealth is even more unequally distributed, with the wealthiest 1 per cent of the population owning half of all wealth, while the top 10 per cent own at least 90–95 per cent.
The consequence of a lack of structural transformation in South Africa meant that the country was in a precarious economic position even before the pandemic. Stubbornly high levels of unemployment were already at 29.1 per cent at the end of 2019. Poverty remains unconscionably high. In 2015, over half of the population, 30.4 million people, lived below the official poverty line, higher for female-headed households than male-headed households (49.9 per cent versus 33.0 per cent). A quarter of 13.8 million people lived in extreme poverty, unable to afford enough food to meet their basic physical needs.
According to Eunomix Business and Economics Ltd, The country faces a precipitous economic and political collapse by 2030 unless it changes its economic model and implements growth-friendly policies. Blames have been directed to a structure created during the White-minority apartheid era that was designed to exclude the Black majority, creating one of the world’s most unequal societies. Since the advent of democracy in 1994, the ruling African National Congress perpetuated that situation by rejecting job-intensive growth policies and instead raising wages and subsidizing the poor through welfare, Eunomix said.
The Covid-19 crisis came at a time when South Africa was already in a recession. The country’s growth has trended downwards since 2010, averaging just 1.7 per cent between 2011 and 2018. In 2019, South Africa plunged into its third recession since 1994. Precipitating factors included: the global downswing following the global financial crisis, declining commodity prices, deindustrialization, ‘state capture (that is, systemic corruption), budgetary cuts, restrictive macroeconomic policies, slowed investment as a result of economic stagnation, and insufficient electricity supply and resultant blackouts, amongst others.
The Economic crises have enabled and fuelled political crises. Growing numbers of people perceive the state as a vehicle for predatory accumulation, aided by corrupt actors in the private and public sectors. This reality underlies the acute crisis of governance and state capture in South Africa, marked by looting and the undermining of public institutions. Taken together, these economic and political crises are eroding confidence in the constitutional dispensation.
The public is disinclined to believe that government can act decisively on critical problem areas. When asked how well or badly the government had handled unemployment, crime and corruption, a 2021 survey by Afrobarometer, the independent pan-African surveys network, recorded the worst ratings for the government in these three areas. The government’s handling of the economy was regarded as “very or fairly bad” by 68% of South Africans – up from 61% in 2018. Similarly, 86% thought the government’s handling of job creation was weak. This was up from 76% in 2018. Public perceptions of the government’s ability to fight crime were no better. The negative rating rose from 74% in 2018 to 79% in 2021. Lastly, the government’s corruption-fighting capabilities received a resoundingly pessimistic response by 76% of respondents (from 70% in 2018). In a nutshell, the public’s perception is that government is at its weakest when faced with tackling the most critical problems facing the country.
The public has come to realize that, to a large extent, the failings of government can be attributed to an executive arm that is beholden to its governing party, the ANC. The ANC is preoccupied with its internal deployment processes and its own existential interests. The two recently released reports from the commission of inquiry into state capture starkly illustrate the corrosive effect that corrupt party-state relations have had on the state’s capacity to perform. A captured and deeply politicized state cannot act in the public’s best interest. In the eyes of citizens, the larger political culture that oversees the administration of government action has become a corrupt and debilitating political culture. It devastates the state’s ability to deliver on its mandate.
What needs to be done?
The public has come to realize that, to a large extent, the failings of government can be attributed to an executive arm that is beholden to its governing party, the ANC. The ANC is preoccupied with its internal deployment processes and its own existential interests. The government has offered an impassioned and detailed account of prospective policy interventions that promise to address these challenges, but what the public really wants to hear is how the government plans to create a conducive political environment for successful policy implementation. Much of South Africa’s progressive legislative and policy framework has unravelled at the door of an executive that is unable to realize the final phase of implementation needed to affect broader economic and social change.
The political party factionalism within the ruling African National Congress needs to be resolved decisively. Factionalism is a liability to the nation. This must be coupled with a recommitment to the 1955 Freedom Charter and the Constitution of South Africa, which foresee a fairer economic dispensation as a critical component of political liberation. In the immediate term, the South African government needs to protect livelihoods and sustain the economy. Previously terminated relief measures to support businesses, workers and households must be renewed and adapted to respond to the Covid-19 crisis as well as the current crisis the country faces. Such measures are not possible with the current austerity agenda that has been adopted. The austerity course must be abandoned and socio-economic rights prioritized. This approach must be coupled with a meaningful economic transformation that serves the majority. All we have now is not even a shadow of political liberation.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 6th state of the nation address outlined plans to remove political obstacles to effective governance and rebuild a “capable state”. He spoke of deepening the professionalization of the public service, strengthening anti-corruption measures, fast-tracking corruption-related prosecutions, and leadership changes in the security services. Political analytics establish that without sweeping leadership changes within the executive, the president faces the limitations of cadre deployment, and the ANC’s policy of appointing its supporters and leaders to key government institutions, sometimes at the expense of ability and a culture of mediocrity.
If the government truly wishes to begin a radical restructuring process based on principles of fairness, social cohesion, and inclusive growth, They will have to deal squarely with the persistence of the culture of corruption, as well as with broader concerns about government openness and public accountability. The president’s stirring speeches have so far not included much information on how his administration intends to tackle these crucial issues.
One essential element of a comprehensive strategy to rebuild the executive’s integrity and gain citizen trust would be for President Ramaphosa to personally back the robust implementation of South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). The PAIA, like other freedom of information (FOI) laws, helps promote transparency and public accountability and serves as a vital solution to entrenched corruption by providing investigative journalists and civil society groups with the raw material they need to expose wrongdoing that might otherwise go undetected.
Effective enforcement of the PAIA can reduce corruption and increase the government’s credibility with its citizens. This credibility would also help the government’s reputation with outside actors, such as the IMF or international credit rating agencies, which are powerful stakeholders in South Africa’s public life. These organizations’ assessments of the government’s openness and honesty are crucial to the ratings they award and the financial relationships they maintain with South Africa.
Reviving the capacity of the state is also crucial to shoring up support for democracy in the long term. Democracies cannot exist without popular trust in their institutions and political actors. Citizen confidence and trust in key democratic institutions have plummeted in recent years. When political trust starts to wane, and citizens stop respecting the norms and principles of the democratic process, transitions to democracy can stall or even revert to authoritarianism, leading to a rejection of the democratic regime. Put bluntly, a decline in trust in political actors and institutions will have a detrimental effect on deep-seated support for the democratic regime in the long term.
No doubt, the president is aware of these constraints. But, in the absence of sweeping leadership changes across key portfolios, he will need to continue to centralize his authority and overrule obstructionist colleagues. He must also be willing to work closely with supportive elements in the private sector and elsewhere to force policy implementation. He must be equally ready to trade his party interests occasionally to avoid further losses. Demonstrating improved compliance with the PAIA would be a tangible and productive way to begin the process of restoring confidence.
Dr. Norah Hashim Msuya is an academician and researcher. She writes in her personal capacity.