Breaking point

Inequality is sending South Africa towards a political crisis
October 17, 2012

Here in South Africa they are making jokes about the late Zairean kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko. At the height of his excess, Mobutu built an airport in his rural hometown so that, the story goes, he could hop to Paris for a quick shop.

The jokes are not coming from “racist” whites afraid of the dawn of democracy, as happened in the 1990s. They are coming instead from young black people who believe the dream of a stable, prosperous and democratic South Africa is slipping away. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is unable to deal decisively with impatience born of the country’s high unemployment, devastating poverty and inequality.

The Mobutu jokes started after revelations that President Jacob Zuma is building a homestead reportedly worth about ZAR203m (£14.5m) in the impoverished area of Nkandla, in rural KwaZulu-Natal, where he grew up. The largely taxpayer-funded project includes underground living quarters with air-conditioned rooms, a helipad, a clinic for the president and his family, houses for security personnel and police units, playgrounds and a visitors’ centre.

News of Zuma’s palace came just three days after the ratings agency Moody’s cut South Africa’s credit rating by a notch to Baa1 from A3, citing worries about the country’s institutional strength, investment climate and future political stability.

“The revision reflects Moody’s view of the South African authorities’ reduced capacity to handle the current political and economic situation and to implement effective strategies that could place the economy on a path to faster and more inclusive growth,” the agency said.

It has been an annus horribilis for Zuma and the ANC, the party he inherited from Nelson Mandela. In August the police killed 34 striking workers at a Lonmin mine in Marikana in the worst incident of police violence here since democracy dawned 18 years ago. A wave of violent strikes has spread across the mining sector, threatening half a million jobs and an industry that contributes six per cent to GDP. Workers in other sectors are following suit, demanding massive increases. Striking workers have attacked union leaders physically for “selling out”—one was killed recently near the Lonmin mine—due to anger that such leaders can earn salaries similar to company CEOs while workers draw a pittance.

In the first seven months of 2012, the country recorded more violent protests over lack of services than in any other year since such protests started in 2004. The government had failed to deliver textbooks in the populous Limpopo province, for example, after more than half the school year had already passed.

South Africa is in political drift. The ANC is mired in corruption and intense leadership battles and its reaction to these crises has been underwhelming, opening the door to populists to capitalise on anger among workers and the poor. South Africa is not falling apart, nor is it another Zimbabwe, but its leadership is floundering and unable to fulfil the promises of the Mandela years. Foreign and domestic investors are raising questions about future policy direction as the ANC has repeatedly debated and failed to reach consensus on nationalisation of mines and land.

The problem is leadership. Zuma came to power on a populist ticket, buttressed by a “coalition of the wounded”—ANC leaders who felt overlooked or targeted by Zuma’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki—which had no coherent agenda or tested leaders.

That was highlighted with devastating clarity when the Marikana massacre occurred on 16th August, and the ANC failed its people dismally. ANC parliamentarians refused to visit the site, with one MP labelling the workers “suicidal.” After facing insults, cabinet members walked out of a memorial service for victims, leaving expelled ANC youth leader and populist Julius Malema to fill the leadership void they left behind. Malema promptly said he would lead a “mining revolution,” prompting many to question who was running the country—Malema or the ANC. Zuma has now euphemistically “authorised the employment” of the army in what many are saying is an undeclared state of emergency.

Things are unlikely to get better soon. ANC leaders are locked in election mode as the party goes to its conference from 16th December. Zuma and his rival, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, have failed to commit themselves on any issue, particularly macroeconomic policy, instead declaring that the conference will decide.

In the meantime, the world’s most unequal country drifts along, mired in policy uncertainty and worker revolt, while its leader feeds at the trough like Sese Seko. Justice Malala is a politics writer in Johannesburg