Strikes and protests show that South Africa is going in the right direction

In the autumn of 2013, on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of ANC rule in South Africa, the South African government received support from an unexpected ally. It was just after President Zuma had held a speech for the Association of Local Authorities in which he counted the blessings of his party’s government. “No country in the world developed so many services in such a short time”, he had said, and he had been jeered loudly by the opposition for it. But then the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) declared that statement 'quite correct’.

Zuma’s statement about the blessings of his government was quite correct

Pesky liberals

The SAIRR is an institute that never molly-cuddled South African rulers. Publishing voluminous annual surveys about demographic trends and the state of human rights in South Africa, the SAIRR refuted apartheid propaganda for decades. When, almost twenty years ago, the first democratically elected government took office in the country, the institute was equally as ready to point out the unfeasibility of countless promises by politicians to the black electorate, and to criticize the adverse effects of a too-rigorous black empowerment policy. At least on this one thing the leaders of both the old National Party and the ANC agreed: the SAIRR was a bunch of pesky ‘liberals’.

And now SAIRR deputy director Frans Cronje called the accusation that the ANC government had failed in service delivery 'a myth'. He substantiated this statement with an impressive set of statistics. The number of families inhabiting a 'formal' house (as opposed to those residing in squatter camps) had grown by ninety percent to eleven million. The number of households with access to electricity increased by nearly one-hundred-and-thirty percent to about twelve million. Tap water now reaches almost thirteen million households, nearly eighty percent more than in 1994.

There are, according to Cronje, another twelve indicators showing that Zuma was, well, right. Furthermore, a heretofore non-existent social safety net now benefits more than fifteen million people. The result of all this is that the number of South Africans living below the poverty line of two dollars a day has decreased from twelve to five percent between 1994 and now.

White consultants

In an interview following the press release Cronje provided insights into the position of whites in the new South Africa. Two percent of them lived on less than two dollars a day in 1994. In 2012, partly due to the multiracial safety net, that number had halved to one percent. The number of white kids that go to college after high school had increased from ten to sixty percent of the total number of white youth (college enrolment by black youth was up by fourteen per cent and now exceeds the number of white students ). Though three quarters of the Caucasian population in 1994 were employed by the government or a parastatal company and this is no longer the case, they are not unemployed: the same percentage was found running their own businesses, or operating as an independent consultant or agent, in 2009.

So whilst it is true that ‘black empowerment’ did cost the white population a lot of state jobs and the state did lose out on important experience and expertise as a result (exactly as the SAIRR had warned in the first years of the Mandela government), it also gave a great boost to entrepreneurship among whites . As a result of all the above, conditions for whites have generally improved, and not deteriorated, in the new South Africa.

Add to that a world without travel restrictions, a reasonably stable currency and international sports arenas that are also accessible to white rugby players and even ‘Blade Runners’, and a picture emerges of a competition where the people who lost their racial privileges run off with all the medals. But the black majority can thankfully also boast an impressive trophy cabinet. Nearly five million black South Africans, about fifteen percent of the total, are counted among the middle class today.

The people who lost their racial privileges still ran off with all the medals

And then there are the blessings that cross all colour boundaries. After six years of negotiations, in 1996, the country established one of the most exemplary constitutions in the world, complete with equal rights for women and sexual minorities. An independent court oversees compliance with the constitution and has reprimanded ANC governments repeatedly, for example on the issue of AIDS . After the ousting, by the ANC, of President Mbeki in 2008 - a first in post-colonial Africa where quite a few leaders grow rather attached to their government seats – the way his successor Zuma approached the pandemic was praised by the UN in July this year as 'one of the most successful in the world’. About half of all the people living with HIV in South Africa now access ARVs, and anyone who needs the medicine can get it. While international donations to fight the disease have shrunk dramatically, the South African government still invests half a billion Euros per year in treatment and prevention programmes.

An agile tax service

These funds are provided by an extremely agile tax service, which has consistently, from 1994, managed to assemble billions of Rands more than budgeted every year. International support provides less than one percent of the total South African budget. The country has a free media , an active civil society and a vibrant cultural life which has in recent years increasingly attracted the attention of international artistic scenes, such as the Dutch IDFA documentary festival and the Biennale in Venice.

Finally, a violent conflict between the Inkatha movement and the ANC that raged during the late eighties and was stoked by a force of (former) apartheid army and police units, that resulted in an estimated twenty thousand deaths, has come to rest.

Yet, many reviews of post- apartheid South Africa are decidedly negative. Renowned BBC correspondent John Simpson recently wrote and spoke of a 'white exodus’ that, he said, resulted from increasing unemployment among that part of the population, extensive crime and corruption. Unemployment among whites has indeed slightly increased, from three to five-point-seven percent. But if you count the numbers of white South Africans who have left for elsewhere in Africa or in the rest of the world, you discover that the ‘exodus’ is not that massive. Many white South Africans living abroad are there only on temporary assignments. And the economic crisis in the western world has caused many white South Africans who might have considered leaving to stay put, or even to return from self-imposed exile.

Crime decreases though experts disagree on the extent of it

Crime decreases even though the experts disagree on the extent of it. It is difficult to rig homicide rates though: compare 15,000 murders last year to 35,000 in 1994 (15,000 is still, of course, a very significant number). The centre of Johannesburg, -which during the nineties had become a bit of a no-go area for middle class whites-, has recovered with a vengeance and now boasts an increasing range of coveted lofts to buy or rent for business people, and the return of upscale hotels and businesses. Rape statistics are still alarming, and one cannot make light of the country’s traumatic legacy that is apparent in the violence meted out to women and children. On the other hand, the quasi-scientific bandying about of ‘indicators’ like 40, or 56, or 31 rapes-per-minute, is in poor taste and unhelpful. What is certain is that the number of rapes that are reported to the police has increased significantly after the introduction of special hotlines staffed by policewomen.

A growing gap

All is of course not well in South Africa. Corruption is rampant. Numerous educational institutions have been in crisis for years; many teachers are unmotivated and poorly qualified. Substantial parts of the judicial system are malfunctioning. Though the rollout of ARVs is a great success, health care in general is in a sorry state and there is a tragic difference in quality between state and expensive private hospitals. Rapid urbanization has eroded infrastructure in major cities. There are regular power cuts. Garbage collection and disposal are insufficient or, in some parts of the country, non-existent. Violence against women and children, and, in a particular niche, ‘hate’ murders of lesbian women, is saddening and scary. In some slums, the misery of unemployment translates into violence against ‘amakwerekwere’, foreigners from other parts of Africa. Land redistribution is tragically slow and inefficient and, all in all, the gap between rich and poor has grown.

The latter is of course not a typical South African phenomenon, but it is worrying that the country now heads the list of most unequal countries in the world. The Sudanese mobile phone tycoon and philanthropist Mo Ebrahim, in a speech hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in mid-August, called for research into the reasons for this disparity. Ebrahim said he suspected that the lack of decisiveness in the redistribution of land and an excess of vigour in the implementation of 'black economic empowerment’ could be among the causes.

Finally, the twenty-year-old black government still needs to develop its capability to implement policy, manage the state and translate plans and promises to action. It is not surprising that people who, from a position of disenfranchisement and underground, spent eight decades fighting a sophisticated and inhumane system, battle to get on top of the machinery. Complex management capacity takes time to develop; talent, intelligence and good intentions alone aren’t enough to steer a ship of state (one only has to watch the British series ‘Yes Minister’ to know how true this is).

Talent and intelligence alone are not enough to steer the ship of state

Corruption is often a function of systems that don’t work; hence the corrupting effect of a bad system on new civil servants. It is, incidentally, a misconception that badly (or non-) executed plans and programmes are generally a result of theft of the money that was supposed to underpin these. On the contrary, non-execution in the majority of cases means that the relevant department did not spend the money at all, simply because it is actually difficult to spend money properly –as many NGO’s can attest.

Arrogance and obliviousness

What is disturbing, however, is the arrogance with which South Africa’s leaders often dismiss criticism of malfunctions and corruption, attributing these to ' white-dominated media' or ' counter- revolutionary forces.’ Equally disturbing is the apparent obliviousness to this problem of South Africa’s President Zuma, who seems to care more about his weddings, to regular new wives, and his new palace in Nkandla, the village of his birth.

There is much good and there is much wrong in South Africa today. Two steps forward, one step backward, is how it goes. Sometimes the President dons a leopard skin and dances at yet another wedding; sometimes he belts out a love song to his ‘Zulu traditions’ of polygamy, extended family solidarity and traditional warfare; sometimes he speaks passionately of the Constitution, non-racialism, the strict separation of church and state and democracy overruling even the authority of traditional elders and chiefs. It as to be noted that, in the twenty years of ANC rule, the party hasn’t made even one attempt to change the Constitution, even though it has had the two-thirds majority to do so for most of these years.

So – where does all this discontent in the well-filled Johannesburg restaurants, meeting place of a new beau monde, come from? What drives hopeless young people into the arms of ‘Economic Freedom Fighter’ Julius Malema after his recent expulsion from the ANC? Why was there a week-long miners’ strike and why did seasonal workers on wine farms around Cape Town march in protest every day for several weeks? Why are there dozens of marches every day, in every nook and cranny of the country? What explains the highly critical tone in the commentaries and reports in almost all newspapers, in blogs, on social media, and in the work of new generations of artists and writers?

To point at one cause for the nation-wide, broad dissatisfaction with ANC rule would be a mistake. It would also be a mistake to believe that this dissatisfaction will drive large parts of the electorate to vote for opposition parties. There is a labyrinth of different, sometimes contradictory, moods and trends at play. Old black-and-white paradigms have become insufficient to explain the new South Africa.

Old black-and-white paradigms have become insufficient to explain the new South Africa

Politicians must earn their keep

Take the new black middle class. This group is often portrayed as greedy, consumerist and averse to solidarity with the rest of the black community. Many of those portrayals include shock at this perceived abandonment of what was –romantically- believed to be neighbour-loving ‘African culture’. But the majority of people in this new middle class work hard to ensure the best education for their children, and in fact do contribute to the costs of living and education in their extended families. They apply high standards to government performance and demand better delivery in exchange for the tax they pay. The higher the tax burden becomes, the higher the expectations of the government become. This significant group increasingly adopts the view that politicians either earn their keep or go.

The poor, either in rural areas or inside the cities, note -thanks to the new reality of information technology penetrating everywhere-, possibilities and opportunities that were not visible before. While the apparent dissatisfaction of township residents, farm- and mineworkers is often seen as a result of ‘continued feudalism ' or ‘nineteenth century’ industrial relations , it is precisely the demise of these systems that feeds the desire for improvement. The slogan ‘A better life for all’, the force of which delivered a number of successive election victories to the ANC, refers to this. The dissatisfaction is therefore not a function of deterioration but of progress: of general increase in income and of changed conditions. There is space and there are opportunities, and there is a government that regularly actually cedes to reasonable demands. Because there will be elections again. What has happened is that, in all its uniqueness, South Africa has become a normal country.

Activism and opposition

Although, maybe not quite that normal. Remarkably, and perhaps uniquely in the world, significant changes and improvements in ANC rule have been fought for, and obtained by, ANC members themselves. Mbeki's fatal denial of AIDS was punished by a broad movement of ANC activists and allies within the trade union movement and the Communist Party. Plans –reminiscent of apartheid times- to place restrictions on the media were largely stripped by a similar coalition of activists.

Though, according to polls, several opposition parties are gaining some influence, the probability of an opposition takeover in the short term are extremely small. Unlike ZANU-PF in neighbouring Zimbabwe, the ANC doesn’t have the means to manipulate elections or limit the playing field for the opposition. The Democratic Alliance, which emerged from the former Liberal Party of Helen Suzman and merged with the remnants of the old National Party, is still seen as a promoter of white interests by the majority black electorate. The new ‘Economic Freedom Fighters’ led by former ANC youth leader Malema possibly speaks to the imagination of disaffected youth, but the shameless self-enrichment that Malema is guilty of undermines his credibility.

Malema’s shameless self-enrichment undermines his credibility

And then there is Agang ('build'), a political party formation recently founded by Professor Mamphela Ramphele , former girlfriend of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who was murdered in 1977. Ramphele, who became an employee of the World Bank and is now a rich businesswoman, is still unknown to a large part of the electorate but seems to appeal to a part of the urban middle class. But to really make a difference as a politician one must mobilise also those who are still poor. And their interests are not always easy to combine with those of the middle class. The ability to bridge that divide is still the preserve of the 101-year-old ANC.


It is that ANC with which many in the world felt strong sympathy in the years of the anti-apartheid struggle. Due to the many problems in the new South Africa, that sympathy has eroded worldwide. At an exchange between former anti-apartheid activists at the African Studies Centre in Leiden last June, the disgruntlement was palpable. The ASC’s Dr Ineke van Kessel, however, countered the mood by asking to what extent the disappointment could have come about as a result of exaggerated expectations. Did the world really believe the ANC would establish paradise on earth?

Cynics will argue that the new rulers have the right to make a mess of it. But, actually, it isn't such a mess.

Bart Luirink (1954 ) is a journalist. Between 1990 and 2010 he was stationed as a correspondent for Dutch media in Johannesburg. He is now editor in chief The ZAM Chronicle.

Picture: Kabelo Kungwane and Wande Lephoto, Alexandra, South Africa