The Rainbow Nation is no more (Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

November 5, 2021   6 mins

A hinge moment happened this week in South Africa. The country finally transitioned from rainbow utopianism to reality.

The turning point was the municipal elections in which the 110-year-old ruling African National Congress failed to gain a majority of the vote. The party is, despite its manifest failings, still custodian of the liberator’s mantle among many black South Africans — a recent survey showed that although 60% of ANC voters associated their party with corruption, they would nonetheless vote for it; such is the brand loyalty — but the party’s once hegemonic power is in retreat. The decline over the years is neatly in tandem with the nation’s trajectory towards a failed state. At its peak in 2004, the ANC pulled nearly 70% of the national vote. This week, it could barely pull past 46%.

The party has lost majority control of all the major metropolitan areas; across 62 municipalities, desperate, if informal, coalition negotiations on power and patronage are underway. And the collapse is being blamed on the fact that so few ANC supporters bothered to vote.

This is surely the result of catastrophic declines in public trust across all institutions of state — and particularly in the political classes during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s term. According to some under-reported polling in August, two thirds of respondents said they were willing – 46% were “very willing” — to give up elections altogether in favour of a non-elected government that could provide security, houses and jobs.

So after decades of banging on about how it suffered to bring democracy to South Africa, the ANC has succeeded in destroying both the substance and the allure of democracy for two out of three South Africans. No wonder the punters stayed in bed on polling day.

But the truth is, the ANC was never remotely fit to manage the complexity of what was once Africa’s largest and most successful modern economy and State.

President Nelson Mandela’s post-liberation administration winged it for five years on the back of public euphoria about the Rainbow Nation and the administrative sinews left by the departed apartheid state.

Then President Thabo Mbeki, his successor, sought to impose a sere, technocratic and welfarist vision on his realm, drawn directly from his experiences in Left-wing UK universities. Problem was that while he taught the newly enfranchised all about their rights as modern citizens, he somehow did not get around to talking about their duties. As a result, a boundless sense of entitlement has become an irreducible, damaging and informing fact of South African life, killing initiative and personal agency. Meanwhile, the technocrats who could give content to Mbeki’s vision were leaving state service in droves: victims of his racial affirmative policies.

After him came Jacob Zuma, former head of intelligence of the ANC’s military in exile, the army that somehow managed to wage a decades-long war during the apartheid years that few South Africans ever noticed. His cronies came into government trailing the odour of the Angolan military camps; the paranoia, secrecy, expedience, manipulation, fear, brutality, corruption and hopelessness.

It is estimated that during his eight-year term, Zuma benignly presided over the embezzlement of between R400 billion and R1.5 trillion of public money (1 GBP = R21) by a coterie of crooks gathered around his presidency, and by others appointed to the State services under the guise of affirmative action and “cadre deployment” (yes, they still speak like that).

The major public utilities crashed, public services withered, the security and intelligence services were infiltrated, the criminal justice system was eviscerated, the tax authorities captured, local authority areas became cesspools, in some cases literally, and public health and education systems imploded. Under Zuma, the ANC went straight from liberation movement to an organised criminal conspiracy without stopping at go and certainly not at jail. South Africa became trapped somewhere between 19th-century Sicily and late 20th-century Columbia. As always, it was the poor that suffered.

Ramaphosa’s election as party leader and President in December 2017, was widely hailed by modernist forces — and particularly big business — as a turning point: after all, they had paid heavily to fund his bid. Sadly, his promised New Dawn turned out to be in every sense a False Dawn.

During his term, employment has reached the highest levels ever; flight by the high-skilled racial minorities is now proportionately equal only to the great southern European migrations to America in the previous early century; capital flight and insolvencies are at historic highs and inward investment at equivalent lows. Not one of the damaging policies introduced by Zuma and his predecessors has been reversed.

Last month, the World Bank ranked South Africa’s once excellent ports at the bottom of the 351 ports surveyed and the Universal Postal Union conveyed the warming news that the South African postal service is now officially worse than Nigeria’s.

In his nearly four years in office, Ramaphosa has failed to decisively deal with the criminal and pre-modernistic forces in his party. They struck back in the traumatic July Troubles this year where insurrectionary forces allied to the Zuma camp and possibly involving renegade elements of the State Security Agency, unleashed a wave of pillage and arson across the Zulu heartland of KwaZulu Natal.

The State evaporated and has failed to bring a single major instigator to book, even as criminal prosecutions against Indian-descended citizens accused of killing looters proceed apace.

President Ramaphosa now enjoys the distinction of being the only South African President since the Act of Union in 1910 to preside over both a fully-fledged secessionist movement in the opposition-held Western Cape and a first-phase revolution in KwaZulu Natal.

His predecessors — Thabo Mbeki, P W Botha, John Vorster — all had the courage to split their parties to move ahead with what they saw to be reformist policies. Not the incumbent. He lost the one opportunity to save South Africa: to appeal above his party to the country and to unify all the modernist forces against the criminal, pre-modern and racist ones, most of them in his own party.

He is now offered another chance for redemption in the 50 or so undecided municipalities thrown up by the elections. Will his party align itself with the modernist elements on those councils or throw its weight behind the extremist Economic Freedom Fighters? Past form is not promising.

That form shows only excruciating anomalies: three of the most senior ministers implicated in “State Capture” during the Zuma years sat in judgment on the ethics of the party’s nominees for this year’s municipal election.

The man who was head of Zuma’s effectively private State Security Agency has popped up as prison boss and against the advice of the medical parole board, signed Zuma’s release from prison where he was banged up for refusing to answer for his sins before a state commission of inquiry into State Capture.

Zuma, meanwhile, has taken time off from another criminal case in which he is accused of corruption in a 25-year-old arms deal to hit the hustings trail in support of …. the ANC. No wonder so many South Africans believe their politics are beyond either parody or redemption.

Twenty seven years into the ANC’s divisive misrule, the political movements have solidified as never before into their racial components. The ANC is now an entirely black party: the tiny residual support from the racial minorities evaporated when Ramaphosa failed to deliver.

The EFF is unashamedly black and exclusivist: a nativist and racist organisation of provocateurs canvassing for support among the poor while wearing Gucci jeans, literally. Its support sits at an estimated 10% in these elections: a 20% improvement since 2016.

The classically liberal Democratic Alliance has made heroic attempts to break out from its strongholds in the white, Indian and coloured areas. It has failed: black support has been historically negligible and the party has seen a decline in national share in these elections from 24% to 21%.

The Inkatha Freedom Party, rooted in traditional and conservative Zulu areas, has stayed constant at about 5% of the vote, and had the unalloyed pleasure of claiming the ward in which Zuma has his mega-million state-provided home. The Freedom Front Plus, unambiguously representing conservative white, primarily Afrikaner, and Afrikaans-speaking coloured interests, has trebled its support.

Suggested reading
The ANC destroyed South Africa

By Wessie du Toit

A late-comer, Action South Africa, led by a personable black former DA Mayor of Johannesburg and proclaiming its multi-racial profile, has created a stir by winning a significant share of votes in Johannesburg but made little national headway at below 3% of share. In any case, its core constituency is also primarily amongst urban minorities tired of the DA.

Thanks to the long-tail legacy of apartheid’s policy of residential segregation, many of the country’s suburbs are still largely racially defined. These are the citadels into which the minority communities retreat to enjoy their lives, ply their politics, conduct their businesses, pray, shop, school their young and, if necessary, take up arms to protect themselves when Ramaphosa’s State goes AWOL, as it did in the July Troubles.

For decades now these informal cantons have become ever more self-sufficient: they have private police, hospitals, schools and an army of fixers to mediate between them and a truly appalling bureaucracy. So-called Public-Private Partnerships control large public business and tourist spaces, property developers build public roads, private companies manage water reticulation and major road routes are maintained by private enterprise.

Recent Government policy allows for Independent Power Producers: energy self-sufficiency is now within the grasp of these localised and internally expatriated communities.

And thus the contours of a new and informal cantonal South African state is emerging after 27 years of ANC misrule: self-sufficient and defensive pockets of privilege scattered in the interior and in a coastal arc from the Mozambican border on the Indian Ocean to the Namibian border on the Atlantic. All of this new South Africa is set in a sea of rural and urban poverty presided over by a ghostlike State managed by a collapsed and indifferent bureaucracy and a squabbling and corrupt political class. The old feel-good notions of a non-racial South Africa, Archbishop Tutu’s famous Rainbow Nation, were naïve and are now dead. Cold reality rules.

Brian Pottinger is an author and former Editor and Publisher of the South African Sunday Times. He lives on the KwaZulu North Coast.