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.
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.
The ANC remains a liberation movement more than a ruling political party. Ordinary South Africans want jobs, schools, and safe neighborhoods. The ANC wants party loyalty among its ranks and supporters. Unnerved by a restive public, the party has turned to manipulating populist causes and silencing dissent. The people aren't buying it, but there's nowhere for them to turn.
To the ANC's embarrassment, the Western Cape, the one province ruled by an opposition party, outperforms the rest of the country in nearly every social index. The Democratic Alliance is predominantly white, however, with all the baggage that implies for national electoral appeal in a country still scarred by a history of violent minority rule.
For now, a change in leadership appears unlikely. No serious competitor emerged during the party's nominating process to challenge President Jacob Zuma. He's a wily politician who harnessed a populist backlash against his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, to deflect charges of rape and corruption and assume his party's mantle five years ago.
But South Africa is not without safeguards and the promise of a brighter future. Whereas similar conditions in other states led to military coups d'état and civil wars, South Africa has a strong Constitution, a vibrant civil society, and a rich protest tradition. It is unimaginable that the ANC could ever preserve its power through strong-arm tactics and constitutional violations and get away with it in the medium- to-long term, as President Robert Mugabe has done in neighboring Zimbabwe for decades.
Ironically, the best buffer may be the ANC itself. It is an article of faith among political observers that South Africa will remain a de facto one-party state until the ANC splits. That view holds – and the split looks increasingly inevitable.
The ANC governs in a coalition with its liberation-era partners the Communist Party and congress of trade unions. While that grouping served the cause of overthrowing apartheid, it has become steadily more strained in governing. If the alliance survives one more election cycle, it seems poised to fragment afterward.
Political jockeying has become the new norm in a 100-year-old party built on internal discipline, suggesting both an erosion of the hierarchical culture and a clamoring for change within the ANC. By embracing vibrant debate within its ranks and clearly rejecting the impulses toward economic nationalism at its upcoming conference, the party can send a strong signal that it has not lost sight of the democratic principles it forged during the long struggle for freedom.
A weary nation and eager continent would welcome such reassurance.
Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He covered Africa for The Boston Globe.