Fixing South Africa is not going to be easy.  But if South Africa is going to satisfy the aspirations of its youthful population, maintain its position as one of Africa’s leading economies (and justify its membership in BRICS), raise living standards, attract desirable foreign investment, and continue to play a guiding role in Africa and the world, its newly elected leaders must uplift a country severely challenged, dispirited, and disturbed.

Because of the African National Congress’ surprisingly strong victory in the recent parliamentary elections, and the policy mandate that it can now justly claim, the ruling party cannot shirk responsibility for rebuilding South Africa, almost from the bottom up. It needs to do so to reduce service protests from disaffected township residents, to slow the growth of antagonistic populist movements like the Economic Freedom Fighters, and to maintain its post-Mandela power as the legitimate legacy party of liberation.

Platinum miners, postal workers and others frequently lay down their tools, striking for higher wages, but also for greater respect, and — like so much of the nation in its winter of discontent — because the social contract between rulers and the ruled has frayed considerably.  Complaints about water shortages in the townships, bad and dangerous policing, appalling safety and security standards, and the government’s abysmal failure to build sufficient roads, houses, and infrastructure can no longer be ignored.

Many of these complaints stem from South Africa’s failure to stimulate its economy. Under President Jacob Zuma, South Africa has been growing far too slowly to generate the kinds of economic returns that reduce unemployment, raise living standards, provide new housing starts, extend medical support, and create more and better educational opportunities. In 2013, South Africa’s GDP rose only 1.9 percent, compared to an average 5.5% for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. This year the IMF predicts that South Africa will grow a mere 2.3 %, well behind Africa’s expected 6.5 percent increase.

Only 43 percent of adults have formal sector jobs, a rate lower than in 1994. Moreover, South Africa remains one of the globe’s most unequal nations (in terms of wealth distribution), with a thin layer of black “empowered” fat cats grabbing most of the new wealth. South Africa’s GINI coefficient is 0.63, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is total inequality. South Africa, in other words, is – astonishingly –a more unequal society than it was under apartheid.

This is not to diminish the reality that although poverty is widespread, its intensity has been reduced nationally since 1994. More households than ever have access to electricity (despite blackouts), potable water, improved sanitation, health clinics, and welfare grants (which now support nearly 16 million South Africans). The government has constructed more than 2 million homes, replacing shacks. South Africa is much more urbanized than it was under apartheid; 62 percent of the nation lives in cities, up from 52 percent. Thanks to successive ANC-led governments, lives for many South Africans are far less mean and brutish than they were. But it is the observed gap between outcomes for the poor and the rich that leads to unrest.

That its leaders ostentatiously flaunt their wealth and employ state funds so openly, as in the case of President Zuma’s expensive new mansion in Nkandla, also eats away at the government’s legitimacy. A scathing editorial in the Financial Times called the ANC “a coalition held together by little more than jobbery.” A South African columnist said the ANC operatives were “useless, they eat only with the rich.” Writing in the New York Times, he called Zuma “a clown.”

With Mandela gone, South Africa lacks a moral compass.  Nor does it seemingly possess a elected leaders concerned with the national rather than the party or the personal interest. Although barely reflected by the recent electoral returns, a disdain for the ANC and its governing elites was noticeable when the party faithful stormed out of Soweto’s Soccer City stadium when Zuma appeared on stage before the election, when former high level ANC cabinet ministers and former militants from the bush campaigned against Zuma, and when the ANC leadership quarreled loudly and publicly among itself.

To assuage the nation’s discontent, the ANC government urgently needs to focus on five major areas in which it and the country are massively underperforming:

Jobs.   South Africa’s unemployment rates are (officially 25 percent, probably much higher) among the highest in the world, where the median rate among ninety industrialized countries is a mere 8 percent. Part of the problem is that powerful trade unions have protected a relatively high wage environment (“decent” wages) against an intensive spreading of opportunity through the extensive creation of low-paid employment for the poorly-skilled.

Moreover, existing labour legislation too cosily protects established jobs in big businesses and thus members of big trade unions. Smaller concerns suffer as a result and the rate at which such kinds of middling enterprises start up is much lower than it is in India, China, Brazil, Kenya, and Rwanda — hence reducing employment creation. Moreover, productivity, overall, is lower than it should be, in part because of South Africa’s glaring shortage of skilled labour.   .

  • The poor performance of South Africa’s educational system is widely recognised, with South African children performing near the bottom of all international measures. According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa ranks 146th (of 148 countries) in educational outcomes. Grades 8 and 9 test results lag other middle income countries and “perform more poorly on these international tests than those of many low-income African countries such as Mozambique, Lesotho, and Tanzania.” The big teacher’s union has fought attempts to tie pay to performance, and to ensure that teachers actually show up in classrooms to teach.

There is a massive exodus of students half-way through the secondary school years. Only half of those who enter grade 10 take the matric exam, only 40 percent who start secondary school pass matric, and only 5 percent pass the maths part of the test with marks above 50 percent.  Worryingly, too, only 12 percent of those who sit matric obtain results high enough to enter universities – a percentage that has hardly budged since 1994. No wonder there is a skilled labour shortage.

Energy. South Africa is woefully energy short, having failed until recently to reinvest in plant and machinery. Until the country, albeit the best-served in sub-Saharan Africa, can generate sufficient electrical power from existing and planned hydro, nuclear, and thermal plants, and marginally from wind and solar experiments, and provide the necessary transmission facilities and lines, foreign and local investors will hesitate to bring in new money, the all-important mining industry will suffer, tourism will remain static, and the ordinary consumer and the student attempting to study will suffer from shortages and load-shedding debilitations. Compared to much of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is modern and technologically advanced. But adequate supplies of energy constitute an industrial and governance Achilles heel that limit how far South Africa can expect to progress.

  • Corruption begets more corruption. If leaders permit corrupt practices to begin, tolerate even episodic personal enrichment, or wink and nod only once in a while, the flood gates open. Breaches of norms, sliding norms, or the development of new permissive norms are easily communicated throughout a party or a political system. Leaders are responsible, and cast large shadows.  What leaders do in this arena matter more than do formal mechanisms of accountability. This is not to deprecate such measures, but they are insufficient, absent strong leadership, to stanch the normal human tendency to put self-aggrandizement ahead of the national interest, conscience, and morality.

Corrupt practices lower the moral tone of a government and rapidly erode its legitimacy and the legitimacy of its leaders. This loss of credibility and stature makes it hard for a government to be believed, to pursue bold or purposeful initiatives, or to be effective in delivering political goods to constituents. Moreover, corrupt practices significantly distort priorities; politicians and officials begin to make plans not to benefit the nation, but to enrich themselves. As a consequence, roads may not be paved as completely as they should be, military units may enter combat with sub-standard equipment, and essential pharmaceutical drugs may not reach the people who need them the most. Projects may not be initiated or continued, trains break down, sewers malfunction, and the quality of essential services, and of life, deteriorate.

Even committed ANC supporters have been disturbed by the seemingly endless and all-encompassing corruption of their party, their leader, politicians in general and the nation at large. No day goes by without reports of one or another ANC luminary’s attempt to benefit financially from his or her position. Whether it is tenders awarded suspiciously and the rumour of large multimillion-rand kickbacks, spouses or relatives of high functionaries being discovered on ministerial or other payrolls, or wild expenditures on automobiles,  travel perks or other lavish shenanigans, state funds are allegedly being allocated and expended improperly at national, provincial, and municipal levels.

Crime.  South Africa’s cities and townships are still appallingly unsafe and insecure. In 2013, there were 16,200 murders nationwide — among the 10 highest rates per capita in the world, after Honduras, El Salvador, and Venezuela. In Honduras, one man in 599 was murdered in 2012. In the same year one man in 1,908 was similarly killed in South Africa. Brazil only lost one person for every 2,473 persons, the United States one for every 13,450. These South African levels of crime are not new, but the fact that successive ANC-led governments have not cracked down on criminals and that the probity of the police is repeatedly suspect, hardly bolster confidence. Nor do high rates of crime encourage incoming investment.

Creating jobs, providing better schooling opportunities, keeping the lights on, curbing corruption, and reducing crime will foster peace, prosperity, and social stability. These are the urgent tasks of President Zuma’s government, and many of the remedies are well known and well-tried elsewhere. They are set out in the chapters of Strengthening African Governance in South Africa, launched today in Cape Town.

Doing nothing, or doing too little, will inevitably propel South Africa further into the abyss of despair and decay. South Africa under President Zuma and the ANC has a last good chance to regain lost economic, social, and moral ground, or to regress further toward the African mean.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.