South Africa after Mandela: beyond the rainbow

South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries, home to a generation of disenchanted ‘born frees’. The ANC’s recent electoral victory stems not from being the party of Liberation but of the Welfare State. Ché Ramsden reports.

Che Ramsden
18 May 2014

Twenty years ago, South Africa made a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, a particularly impressive feat given the contemporary global climate, which included the Rwandan genocide and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. At the time, the ‘Rainbow Nation’ was a symbol of hope across the world, reflecting the new democracy’s aspirations for its future.

To mark South Africa’s 20 years of democracy and its 5th democratic elections in May this year, and to explore the legacy of South African liberation from apartheid, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) held an event in London on 12 May, where Tim Gibbs discussed ‘South Africa after Mandela: beyond the rainbow.’

Beyond the Rainbow

In his 1994 inaugural address, Nelson Mandela affirmed that, following newfound political emancipation, South Africa must focus on liberating all people from ‘the continuing bondage of poverty, depravation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.’ The ‘rainbow nation’ he referred to was not simply one in which people of different ethnicities could live in fellowship as equal citizens with equal suffrage, but an expression of  hope that arched over a progressive struggle for economic, social and cultural rights.

At the IPPR headquarters in London last Monday, Tim Gibbs examined how the unfulfilled expectation of the Rainbow Nation was reflected – or might come to be reflected – in popular expressions of politics in the current political climate in South Africa, notably at the ballot box.

About half the overall population was registered to vote in the most recent elections, with turnout at 73% – down from 77% in 2009 and 2004, 89% in 1999, and 87% in the seminal 1994 elections. This most basic (and, in the South African context, iconic) exercise of political rights is seemingly still one which holds value, despite only a third of the newly-eligible-to-vote ‘born free’ generation (those born after the end of apartheid), registered to vote.

Gibbs conceded that low registration among the ‘born frees’ may be due to their lack of loyalty to the process of liberation (and, therefore, to the ‘liberating party’, the ANC) and their disillusionment by corruption. Weeks before the election, for example, an investigation took place into the misuse of taxpayer’s money in funding part of President Jacob Zuma’s R238m (£16.6m) renovations to his family home.

 Gibbs also pointed to their disenchantment with the political system due to the lack of realisation of economic and social rights which were supposedly their birthright. Despite spending the largest portion of all government expenditure on education (21% in 2012/13), only 20% of school leavers have the grades to go on to tertiary education. The expanded unemployment rate is 35% and a further 30% of the workforce – including the miners at Marikana – have insecure jobs. Its GINI coefficient (around 0.80 before social security grants are taken into account ) makes South Africa one of the most unequal countries in the world; while the black middle class has increased tenfold in the two decades since the end of apartheid, now averaging 3 million, half of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Yet Gibbs also pointed to the fact that, despite these failures, the ANC is not only the Party of Liberation, but in government has been the Party of the Welfare State.

Explaining the ANC election victory

16m (of 51m) South Africans are in receipt of a government grant; the number of children going to bed hungry has halved. South Africa also has the largest housing programme in the world, albeit one in which several new builds have been defective. Gibbs hypothesised that the ANC won such a resounding victory in the latest elections (just over 62% of the vote) not in spite of what it has failed to achieve in the past 20 years, but because of what it has achieved.

The ANC vote was highest in the poorest and most rural provinces, where 40% of South Africans live. One person in attendance at the IPPR event raised the point that middle-class South African commentators seem to patronise poor voters; however, Gibbs insists that the poor have a nuanced understanding of the political system, not least because their livelihood (welfare grants) depend on it. He recounted the story of one woman, who explained why she would be voting ANC: ‘my children go to school for free, they receive a free meal at lunch, I live in a government-built house…the ANC did nothing wrong, it’s the local deployees,’ referring to party cadres deployed by the ANC to local municipalities, with responsibility for service delivery.

Gibbs described a new popular process forming in South Africa, a top-up to the systematic voting which takes place every 5 years. It is one in which angry citizens, disgruntled with the pace of change and with the politics of clientelism from which they are excluded, stage (sometimes violent) service delivery protests. These protests culminate in the sacking of local officials, their replacement with a more agreeable alternative, until the cycle of clientelism and poor service delivery begins again.

In the time between elections, people might feel they have no alternative to the ruling party they had elected, and so stage protests to continue popular political involvement beyond the election cycle, however, when it comes to the ballot box, there is not a significant protest vote against the ANC. In urban centres, the Democratic Alliance (DA, a mixed alliance of Thatcherite liberals and social democrats) has gained ground by starting to focus its attention on the black middle class (its vote went up 7 points to 22% in the latest election). But the DA fails to court grassroots support from the poor, and the fact of the matter is, says Gibbs, ‘the ANC builds houses more quickly [than the opposition].’

On the other hand, the other key players, judging from this election, are the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). They are led by Julius Malema, one-time ANC darling who was subsequently expelled from the party for his divisiveness. They won 6% of the vote, buoyed by support from the platinum belt and radical youth facing a future of poverty and unemployment. These are the people who are not seeing the fruits of redistribution, and so are not tied to the ANC in the same way that pensioners and those in receipt of child welfare grants are. Their proportion of the vote is not big enough to break the ANC stronghold, but do send a message to the ANC about where it is losing support: broadly, the middle class, the platinum belt, and the youth.

Beyond the ANC

If the past 20 years have failed to reach the aspirations of Mandela’s rainbow, what hope is left? Gibbs suggested that South African hopes for the future must be more grounded, and that the aspirations of political parties must also be rooted in their grassroots should they wish to see electoral success.

The ANC will retain its political stronghold over the next two general elections, Gibbs predicts, particularly due to the rural poor who are in receipt of welfare benefits and continue to make up a significant proportion of the country’s population. However, he points to economic growth as a deciding factor in the ANC’s continued success at the ballot box – not least because, without growth in GDP, redistribution of resources will be finite. Since 1992, there has been an average 3.2% growth in GDP per annum, falling short of the 5% needed for effective redistribution to last and to see a maintained rise in economic activity and employment. ‘The underlying story is not about governance,’ Gibbs concldues, ‘but growth.’

He suggests that the National Development Plan – a more centrist proposal from the ANC to tackle unemployment, mining strikes, electricity shortages, and service delivery on housing and sanitation – might give the government the growth it needs to secure successive ANC victories. However, in this context the trade union alliance with the ANC might collapse, leading to another more radical, leftist party on the political landscape, with alternative strategies for economic growth and social development.

When asked about alternatives to the ANC, Gibbs pointed to the existing opposition – notably the DA: it needs to start thinking carefully about where it wants to be in 10 years’ time to be viable opposition to the ANC. Particularly, he said, it needs to build up its grassroots base, focus more on the poor, and court the next generation of voters from this vantage point. It has been a ‘party of alliances’ since 1994 – starting with the New National Party and more recently it had a short-lived coupling with Agang – but it needs to forge its own identity and know its audience.

By contrast, the EFF seems to know its audience and is increasingly gaining support from ‘key ideologues coming out of the black middle class.’ Should the ANC push through with the National Development Plan, the EFF’s radical agenda might become increasingly attractive to the Left. Gibbs is quick to point out, however, that the party-political landscape might be very different in 5 years’ time, with the potential of another leftist split away from the ANC in the form of the trade unions, a new ANC presidential candidate, and potentially five years of successful economic growth behind the Party of Liberation-cum-Welfare.

Changing political landscapes are part and parcel for democracy. This might seem to be happening at a slow pace in South Africa, with the majority of the group at the IPPR event questioning whether there was any real alternative to the ANC. Yet Gibbs reminded us that South Africa (and indeed the ANC) beyond the idealised rainbow is not a country with no hope, but one with very real aspirations, and popular impetus to push forward for progressive change. How exactly that will happen is not yet clear, but, said Gibbs, ‘give it ten years.’

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