Is South Africa following the path of 'the strongman'?
South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, was once a post-apartheid hero. Now it is the latest caricature of African bad governance, and it no longer resonates with the people. At its upcoming meeting, the party must embrace internal debate and reject economic nationalism.
Nearly every African nation in the postcolonial era has had to confront the consequences of a strongman or political party that would not be easily tossed from power. Now it is South Africa's turn.Skip to next paragraph
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Next week, Dec. 16-20, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will gather for its five-yearly conference to elect (or reelect) its leadership and set its governing platform ahead of general elections in 2014. But the party that once enjoyed unprecedented international goodwill for its doctrine of post-apartheid reconciliation in 1994 has become the latest caricature of African bad governance.
Africa as a whole is enjoying a decade-long run of 6 percent average economic growth. A budding class of democratically elected reformists in countries such as Malawi and Senegal is striving to harness the goods of globalization. Meanwhile, the continent's largest economy is faltering under mismanagement, corruption, and policy uncertainty, with no viable political alternative.
Could the party meeting provide an opportunity to reassure wary global investors and the masses of frustrated and impoverished South Africans?
The regional cost of South Africa's backward drift is significant. The country's gross domestic product, $408 billion in 2011, accounted for roughly one-third of the combined economic output of all sub-Saharan Africa, yet the country's economy is growing at less than half the pace of the continent's economy.
During the ANC's two decades in power, health-care services have declined sharply. And although the government spends 20 percent of state funds on education, quality in the classroom is now among the lowest in Africa – and fewer than half of students finish the equivalent of high school.
Despite the rapid growth of a black middle class aligned to the ANC, the gap between rich and poor has widened. Low productivity and a failure to diversify the economy away from its dependence on mining have resulted in a perpetual trade deficit.
Both Moody's and Standard & Poor's downgraded the country's sovereign credit rating this fall in the wake of rolling wildcat strikes in South Africa's mining sector. That disturbance was punctuated by the massacre of 34 protesting miners by police in August – the worst incident of state violence since the end of apartheid. There are almost weekly local protests over poor delivery of basic necessities such as water and electricity.
ANC leaders have further hobbled the economy with uncertainty by refusing to end their flirtation with nationalizing at least parts of the mining sector, despite party studies concluding such a move would be disastrous to the country's fiscal prospects. Equally troubling are the party's repeated attempts to erode the independence of the judiciary and national prosecutor and to curb the media.
In a sure sign that the party is out of ideas, it has begun couching its economic strategy in terms of a "second transition," much the way the old Soviet Union floated successive five-year plans.
The great fear among pessimists of South Africa's move from white rule to democracy has always been that the country would go the way of the rest of postcolonial Africa. Like Zimbabwe, Kenya, and others before it, South Africa has reached the fragile point when the ruling party's claim to power no longer resonates with the people.