The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
South Africa: A Vicious Cycle Takes Hold

South Africa has fallen on hard times. Effectively ruled as a one-party state by the ANC and its controversial President Zuma, the most advanced economy in Africa is facing a host of deep-seated social and economic problems, of which the 34 striking miners shot dead by police are only the most striking example. And if this LA Times profile is accurate, we’re unlikely to see change any time soon:

The ANC once held itself above other African freedom fighters who metamorphosed from liberators to exploiters. But Zuma’s critics say the party has begun to resemble them. Dogged by corruption scandals, it has become a web of patronage for powerful insiders who cheat on government contracts and use law enforcement agencies to taint their political enemies, according to analysts.

In another country, President Zuma, who during a 2006 rape trial famously said he showered to prevent AIDS, who compared his ANC party to Jesus, and whose $30 million dollar house was allegedly paid for with government money, would be having trouble getting re-elected. But although he has come under some political pressure, he’s likely to stay in power due to the way the ANC selects its leaders:

“Instinctively the [national conference] delegates will tend to vote for the incumbent, fearing that if they vote for the anti-Zuma candidate, they may not get reelected as local councilor or they may not get local business. If you are an ordinary branch member and you’re unhappy with Zuma, it’s very hard, through this branch system, to change the leader.”

As outsiders sadly contemplate South Africa’s slide, it’s not clear how much of the trouble is due to President Zuma — nor is it clear that replacing him would improve things. Under Zuma, South Africa has reversed the disastrous course of its HIV policy; whatever he said in his rape trial President Zuma has presided over a marked decline in the rate of new infections by HIV and deaths from AIDS. It must also be said in Zuma’s defense that he needs to manage radical opponents whose incoherent programs would make everything in South Africa much worse. Some of his populist rhetoric and some of his policies are rooted in the need to make small concessions to avoid much more costly steps. Too many western critics of South Africa don’t understand the volatile forces with which its political establishment must deal; President Zuma does not have a free hand.

While our sympathy for South Africa’s complex situation makes us less condemnatory than some of the government’s critics, it is still true that too many trend lines are pointing in the wrong direction. South Africa’s education system has failed to meet the (admittedly difficult) challenges of post-apartheid society. Foreign investment is staying away while loyal ANC supporters are awarded government contracts. The real unemployment rate is likely near 40 percent, and inequality has actually increased since the end of apartheid. Yet the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has no short or even medium term chance of gaining power despite rising poll numbers and efforts to shed its image as the party of white privilege.

What we worry about most is that we’ll see a vicious cycle develop: poor governance hurts the economy, which radicalizes and polarizes public opinion, which leads to worse governance and worse economic outcomes… and so on down the line.

South Africa is a land of promise—rich with resources, beautiful in geography, and world-class companies. But unless the political class can overcome the temptation to milk the country’s wealth and unless a more vigorous political system and debate can take shape, South Africa will continue to under perform and disappoint the great hopes that the whole world — not to mention its own citizens — had for the almost miraculous multiracial democracy that emerged so dramatically from the ashes of apartheid.

Published on December 3, 2012 7:00 pm