The May 7th Vote in the New South Africa

To understand the new South Africa, look no further than the red-robed female jurist presiding at the televised trial of blade runner Oscar Pistorius. “My lady,” as she is addressed in court, is Thokozile Masipa, a 67-year-old lawyer from Soweto. In 1998 she became only the second black woman appointed to a South African high court.

Judge Thokozile Masipa (photo: SABC) 

Here is a judge who in apartheid days in Pretoria could have aspired to being no more than a “tea lady,” or at best a secretary. Now, 20 years after South Africa’s first free elections, it is she who will decide the fate of an Afrikaner Olympian who 18 months ago was a national and even global hero. As an effusive Archbishop Desmond Tutu likes to say, “what a country!”

On May 7th South Africans vote in the fifth parliamentary election since the end of minority rule in 1994. It is the first test of voter sentiment in the land of 51 million since the death last December of Nelson Mandela, the iconic father of South African democracy.

This is likely to be the last election in which Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) wins a landslide victory. Polling data suggests that the ANC, which has ruled for 20 years, will again receive over 60% of the vote. In 2009 it got 65%, and the IPSOS polling organization predicts that with a high turnout the ANC majority this time could reach 67%.

But polling data doesn’t tell the whole story. The current ANC leader, President Jacob Zuma, is unpopular and has been booed at public events. His sexual indiscretions and lengthening corruption trail embarrass many. The ANC’s alliance with the communist party and trade union federation is unraveling. To its right, the pro-business Democratic Alliance is making gains and its tally could reach 23%, while on the left the new Economic Freedom Fighters of firebrand Julius Malema is projected to get 5%.

The ANC campaigned on the theme “we have a good story to tell.” In many respects this is true. The South African Institute of Race Relations says ANC support rests on its success in improving living conditions of the poor. Since 1994 three million housing units have been constructed, electricity and water connections have been extended into rural areas, and welfare grants have increased from three million to 17 million poor people. The number of blacks in the middle class has doubled to 10%.

But arrayed against this are huge negatives. Corruption is widespread at the top, swirling in particular around the president. A report from the public protector says Zuma personally benefited from $20 million of public money spent on “security upgrades” at his rural Nkandla residence. There are multiple cases of theft in state enterprises and no bid contracts have gone to unqualified ANC cronies under the country’s flawed black economic empowerment program.

Public primary and secondary education has deteriorated with opposition leader Mamphele Ramphele saying, “it is worse now than it was under apartheid.” Crime is endemic, particularly in Johannesburg, although statistics indicate an improvement over the past two years. The biggest deficit for the ANC is the economy. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 24%, with several economists saying the real rate is closer to 35%.

South Africa’s economy grew by only 2% last year while 5% growth is required to reduce joblessness. There is persistent labor unrest and strikes are typically settled with wage hikes well in excess of inflation or productivity gains.

For me, having spent considerable time in both the old and the new South Africa, the country’s long-term future is bright. Its institutions are proving to be surprisingly robust. All major groups in the rainbow nation of 11 official languages affirm allegiance to the 1996 constitution that US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg extols as “a great piece of work,” embracing “fundamental human rights and independent judiciary.”

South Africa’s media is vibrantly free as evidenced by daily accounts of official corruption and wrongdoing. Despite the ruling party holding 2/3’s of parliamentary seats, debate is far ranging and contentious. South Africa has its version of C-SPAN where viewers last month could watch an opposition leader speak directly to the president, accusing him of having failed and “ hideously transforming” the party of Nelson Mandela.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is identified by Time magazine as among the 100 most influential people of 2014. In March she released a scathing 400 page report of upgrades to the president’s home that was broadcast live even on state television. Constitutional lawyer Izak Smuts calls the report “an outstanding example of the strength of our democracy.”

Property prices, always a good barometer of confidence, are rising in urban centers, particularly Cape Town and the adjoining Western Cape, the only South African province not governed by the ANC. White flight is negligible, an important factor as five million whites disproportionally possess skills needed to efficiently operate Africa’s biggest industrial economy.

Two decades ago South Africa was blessed with visionary leaders who built a foundation for future progress. The essential deal between Afrikaner president FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela was majority rule—full democracy and an end of white rule—in return for constitutional protection of individual freedoms and property. The civil war that had long been predicted was avoided. Immense problems remain, not least income inequality. But as countries as disparate as the US and China are finding, there are no quick fixes, although education and equal opportunity are essential.

Should the ANC vote fall below 60% or if it loses its majority in Gauteng where Johannesburg is situated, Jacob Zuma will likely be recalled by the party, just as his predecessor Thabo Mbeki was unceremoniously ousted by a leadership group headed by Zuma.

I think of South Africa as a land where two mirrors are visible to all who care to look. One is Zimbabwe, the rich country to the north that under Robert Mugabe 30 years ago made a strong start and then descended into despotism and collapse. The other is the Western Cape, whose bright image the ANC would extinguish because since 2009—unlike the rest of South Africa– a multi-racial coalition has succeeded in providing quality services while minimizing corruption.

Barry D. Wood was a reporter in South Africa in the 1970s and has returned regularly since 2010. Follow him on twitter @econbarry.

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