I was sitting next to two presumably ANC stalwarts, lunch-time Saturday, at a restaurant in Melrose Arch and could not help overhearing their anguish over the outcome of the municipal elections. Although most of their conversation was in their mother-tongue, words such as “arrogance” cropped up frequently. They were drinking red wine with their meal and when a third man joined the table he asked rather mockingly what they had found so good to celebrate.
I think there was a lot to toast. For the first time since 1994 the people of South Africa were voting with their heads and not their hearts. No amount of sorcery, black magic or even threats of summonsing ancestral spirits could stop the electorate from registering their displeasure at a ruling party that had ditched its proud heritage. The country is far from the paradise envisioned when the party was first elected to govern in 1994, the illusion crushed by years of incompetence, self-interest and overconfidence. The economy is barely growing, and is certainly not strong enough to feed the forlorn and safeguard a prosperous future. State-run businesses are shambolic; crime rates are soaring while educational standards keep plunging. Health is a hazard, service levels appalling and our infrastructure is crumbling.
But it took Nkandla, the Guptas and the SABC’s boards’ extraordinary behaviour to drive away a chunky portion of the ANC’s traditional support in the recent municipal elections. Some disenchanted who never had the courage to join the opposition chose instead not to vote. Therein lies the party’s vulnerability. The success of both the EFF and especially the DA have added renewed dynamism to the nation’s political course, a shift that could enhance their appeal to those who had dithered on the sideline. Consequently, it would be a grave misfortune for the electorate if the ANC managed to wangle alliances that would maintain its control in the municipalities that buttress the heartbeat of South Africa’s economy.
The economy faces a tough road ahead. Projections are that GDP will remain flat this year and not much higher next year or the year thereafter. Inflation in the meantime is expected to remain above 5% per annum for at least the next three years. Not all of this is the government’s making. Falling commodity prices and slowing global growth have hurt the mining and manufacturing sectors, but the administration’s delay confronting these changed circumstances, on fears of a possible political backlash, has left the country handling the prospect of stagflation while at the same time having to tackle a probable debt downgrade. At the heart of our woes, too, is explosively-high youth unemployment, a bloated bureaucracy and an unaffordable social-grant programme.
In 22 years the ANC government, among other things, has failed to create sufficient jobs necessary to alleviate poverty, yet during their rule, the party’s elite have still managed to amass large personal fortunes. Confidence in the executive is failing and promises of introspection is not going to change that. There is a yearning for the country to reset its economic and moral compass and pleasingly the election result is the first step in that direction.