Twenty-two years ago, in December 1993, representatives of the vast majority of South Africa’s people and communities reached a historic agreement to establish a nonracial constitutional democracy. The new democracy would be dedicated to human dignity, the achievement of equality, and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.
It was the nation’s proudest moment. People were able to overcome centuries of conflict, fear and injustice through rational negotiation and compromise. What South Africans did was regarded by the world as a miracle—and as an example for the resolution of conflict everywhere.
Under the exemplary leadership of Nelson Mandela we started to lay the foundations of a rainbow nation. South Africa assumed a position of respect and influence in the international community. Mandela’s successor in 1999, President Thabo Mbeki,implemented policies that achieved growth levels of more than 5% in 2005-07; that reduced the country’s national debt to only 23% of GDP from 46% in 1994.
Yet these policies were unacceptable to the ruling partners of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party and the Cosatu trade union federation. Together with other factions, they captured control of the ANC at its national conference in the northeastern city of Polokwane in December 2007. They ousted Mr. Mbeki from party leadership and ensured that Jacob Zuma—with his powerful Zulu base—would be elected as president of the ANC, and ultimately as president of the country.
This Polokwane coup has had very negative consequences for South Africa:
With the abandonment of Mr. Mbeki’s economic policies, we have failed to achieve the high growth levels that we need to combat unemployment and inequality. The government has repeatedly interfered with the National Prosecuting Authority in attempts to protect President Zuma against prosecution for 783 outstanding fraud charges, which Mr. Zuma has denied. The Scorpions, a successful anticorruption investigative unit, was disbanded in 2008. This opened the way to rampant corruption at all levels of government.
The government has continued to appoint unqualified ANC cadres to key positions in state-run enterprises, municipalities and the public service. This has led to a serious erosion of essential services, resulting in recurrent electricity blackouts, among other problems.
Meanwhile, the South African Communist Party has pursued its 2007 vision to establish “worker hegemony in all the centers of state power.” Without winning a single vote in any election, it now controls the secretary-generalship of the ANC and 12 key cabinet posts, with dominant influence within the presidency and ministries dealing with economic policy.
At its 2012 national conference, the ANC adopted an agenda for “the radical implementation of the second phase of the National Democratic Revolution.” The intention is to dispense with some of the constitutional compromises on which the pre-2007 government was based—and to move ahead with radical economic transformation.
This includes greater state intervention in the economy, the cancellation of bilateral investment treaties with European countries, and what the ANC calls a fundamental change in the ownership and control of land.
The proclaimed goal is to promote equality. However, the ANC’s policies have benefited only the top 15% of the black population. South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies, with half the population earning less than 10% of total income.
The government’s increasingly anti-free-market and anti-property policies do not take into account the immense damage that will be done to the economy, to South Africa’s international image, and to its ability to improve the lives of millions of ordinary South Africans of all races. Unchecked, this agenda will seriously threaten racial harmony and the great experiment that the nation began with so much hope and goodwill 25 years ago.
South Africa still has enormous potential for growth and success. It has the largest mineral resources in the world. Its citizens are protected by one of the world’s best constitutions and by independent courts. It has a vibrant civil society and outspoken independent media. It has world-class companies and one of the world’s soundest and most-advanced financial sectors. And many senior members of the ANC are deeply unhappy with the direction that the country is taking.
Much will depend on the outcome of municipal elections scheduled for 2016. If the ANC fares badly, pressure will mount against President Zuma at the ANC’s next national conference, in December 2017.
As so often in its past, South Africa is once again wrestling with historic challenges. We need to return to the vision of reconciliation, negotiation and nonracial constitutional democracy that inspired us—and the world—in 1994.