The new South Africa’s first fifteen years

It is almost 15 years since the African National Congress took power in South Africa – a good time to assess what has been accomplished, what has not been accomplished and what just might be accomplished. Here I follow these paths through several territories: political reform; economic policy; health, especially the HIV-AIDS pandemic; housing; crime and corruption; and foreign policy. Though hardly definitive, these fields together provide an overview of a remarkable story.

In a sense, it is a blend of two stories. On the one hand there is the ANC inspirational version: the transformation of a society historically based on systemic race-driven discrimination that made South Africa a pariah among nations, a democratic revolution that brought the excluded majority to power within the framework of a progressive constitution. And indeed, many positive changes have taken place for which South Africans can rightly be very proud. But the second story is one of disappointments. Many South Africans are angry and feel betrayed by the failures of the new government. Overall, we get a picture of a democracy that is still fragile, sometimes messy, yet all in all a potential vehicle for peaceful social change for citizens willing to exercise their prerogatives.

The political transformation

On April 27, 1994, all South Africans were able to vote for the first time. Overwhelmingly, they endorsed the multiracial Government of National Unity led by Nelson Mandela. The new nation of South Africa was born. Years of apartheid and brutal social and economic injustice were behind it. Under the new interim constitution, the country was embarking, full of hope, on an era of political, social and economic development.

Election day in South Africa ended a tragic history of colonial rule stretching back to 1652. It happened because both Nelson Mandela, his ANC having consolidated mass support, and outgoing President Frederik de Klerk knew that neither side could impose its will by force. Beyond seeking to avert a terrible bloodbath, they could see that international sanctions were draining the economy and the business community was losing confidence.

During the negotiations leading up to the elections, Mandela was able to prevail on the principles of elections based on one person one vote, decisions in cabinet to be taken with a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one, and a Bill of Rights entrenching civil liberties in a permanent constitution still to be drafted. To allay fears in the White community, the Bill of Rights entrenched property rights, established a power-sharing arrangement for five years and guaranteed employment or retirement compensation to the police, military and civil servants. Although there would be no general amnesty, there would also be no “Nuremburg-style” trials. Instead, there would be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission: those who told the truth about their crimes, so that victims’ families could come to terms with the loss of their loved ones, could apply for amnesty.

Mandela’s cabinet included Blacks, Indians, Coloureds, Muslims, Christians and Jews – in marked departure from the Afrikaner apartheid governments that had ruled South Africa since 1948. De Klerk’s National Party held five cabinet positions, including his own as one of two Deputy Presidents. Chief Mongosuthu Buthelezi’s Inthaka Freedom Party (IFP) had been put on the ballot at the last minute and he was made Minister of Home Affairs. Thabo Mbeki, ANC Deputy President (and eventually Mandela’s successor), assumed the de facto position of prime minister with a key role in running the day-to-day business of government.

ANC cadres shared the cabinet table with people who would have had – indeed did have – them arrested for their political activities. Mandela at age 71 had walked out to freedom on February 11, 1990, after spending 27 years in prison. On that day he addressed a jubilant gathering in Cape Town: “I stand before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you the people. Your timeless and heroic struggles have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.” Four years later they made him their president.

Managing the economy

Nelson Mandela knew that there would be scepticism about the ANC’s capacity to assume the task of managing the economy, and its readiness to do so was a major concern for him. The scepticism was driven by sometimes racist anxieties in the domestic and international business communities that the ANC would seek to redress the injustices of apartheid with state-imposed quick fixes that would undermine financial stability.

The fundamental issue then, as it still is today, was White domination of the South African economy, the enduring legacy of colonialism and apartheid. Blacks could not own real estate throughout most of the 20th century, and were thus denied access to a key generator of assets that middle-class families pass on from one generation to another. It was difficult to own businesses, let alone trade in the White areas, which made up 87 per cent of the country. Pass laws and designated areas had been devised to provide cheap labour for the mines and farms; laws restricted access to skilled jobs and professions; the education system deliberately prepared Blacks for low-skilled jobs. Poor transportation and access to housing, water and electricity made daily life a struggle for survival.

The ANC knew that overcoming this legacy would take time and effort. From exile, ANC President Oliver Tambo had engaged directly with the nongovernmental White South African business community since the mid-eighties. The ANC assembled an expert team of economists, not all of whom were South Africans. Among them were Thabo Mbeki, who had a master’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex, and Tito Mboweni, named in 1999 as the first Black Governor of the South African Reserve Bank, who had received his master’s in development economics at the University of East Anglia. Several, including Mbeki, had also spent time in eastern Europe studying and experiencing the Soviet system.

A conscious decision was made to reject the state-socialist model in favour of a market-oriented approach guided by the objectives of social democracy. The aim was to gradually reduce the inequality that gave South Africa one of the highest Gini coefficient scores in the world. Lessons on social policy were drawn from Sweden, northern Europe and Canada, while east Asia was looked to for economic policies.

Three key programs have steered ANC economic policy: the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) and the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA). The RDP came out of a consensus-building process beginning with regional workshops throughout the country organized by the ANC with its partners in the governing Alliance – the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) – as well as other civil society groups. The RDP formed the core of the 1994 ANC election manifesto, with specific commitments to the building of one million houses for the poor and access to water, electricity, education and health.

The RDP combined state interventionism with fiscal conservatism, linking growth, development and redistribution. The economy was to grow from increased domestic demand including that of the poor, and export expansion based on product competitiveness. A commitment was made to sound fiscal management by financing redistribution not through new unsustainable taxes but through increasing government revenues resulting from economic growth, as well the cutting of other expenditures, most notably the defence budget – thus preempting the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The ANC government broke with important SACP and COSATU elements when it introduced the GEAR program in 1996 to replace the RDP. This time, there were no “bottom-up” consultations, but only limited “top-down” consultations by Deputy President Mbeki with senior leaders of the Alliance. GEAR set targets on government expenditures, with a 3 per cent ceiling on the budget deficit and limited wage increases. It aimed at privatization and liberalized trade. The years that followed saw much development based on public-private partnerships and free trade agreements negotiated with the EU and other countries. An agreement was signed with the United States to encourage African imports. The rand started to stabilize in the early 2000s.

These policies coincided with an affirmative action policy known as Black Economic Empowerment. (“Black” is defined as including Africans, Coloureds and Indians, i.e. all non-Whites). Targets were set in terms of ownership of companies, management positions and access to services, although the approach was a very gradual one. The result is visible in the form of a Black middle class, known as the Black Diamonds. They have jobs, drive nice cars (a third of all the cars sold in the country in 2007 were to Blacks), wear fine clothes and jewellery, carry the latest cell phones and iPods and fill the restaurants and nightclubs. As they move into middle-class suburbs, GDP grows – as does consumer debt.

But the Gini hasn’t budged noticeably: there is still a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. Only now there are starting to be Blacks on the have side. Unemployment remains stuck at 25 per cent, not including people who have given up looking for work. An underclass is trapped in the “second economy” of subsistence agriculture, hawking, begging and crime, though it has generated some striking examples of entrepreneurship: for less than a dollar, young men watch your car while you eat in a restaurant, or people with large garbage bags in intersections help you clean out your car. Every person with means thus expects to continually contribute to the informal economy, not to mention employing maids and gardeners who support whole families on what they are paid.

It is one thing to talk of statistics and the second economy. There are also facts on the ground. It sometimes takes a visitor to bring it into focus, like a Canadian architect friend who couldn’t find the words to describe the miserable conditions of men, women and children living in the squalor of a squatter settlement in Johannesburg.

Health and HIV-AIDS

In 1994 South Africa’s health system had two parallel sectors: a public sector financed through general taxation for the majority and a private sector funded mainly through user premiums for a minority able to pay. The system continues to this day, even though health care was enshrined as a right in the 1996 constitution and completely reorganized. Spending on health care has increased, but the patient pool has increased much faster and the supply of qualified doctors and nurses has gone down.

The HIV-AIDS pandemic completely overwhelmed the system and its response capacity. Initially, programming was limited to voluntary preventive programs – educational campaigns, condom distribution, control of sexually transmitted diseases and counselling and testing. However, in the face of growing international and national pressure and a Constitutional Court ruling provoked by a South African nongovernmental organization, the Treatment Action Committee, the government was compelled to implement antiretroviral (ARV) treatment in 2002 for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission. UNAIDS reports that ARV therapy is now accessible through a network of clinics, but in 2005 only 23 per cent of HIV-infected men and women received the therapy. Moreover, about 5.5 million South Africans are living with HIV (worldwide the number is 33.2 million). This includes 18.8 per cent of adults aged 15 to 49. With 1,000 deaths a day, South Africa is home to the largest number of infected people on the whole planet. Among 15- to 24-year-old pregnant women, figures from antenatal clinics show rates around 30 per cent. A whole generation of orphans is being raised by grandparents, their parents dead of AIDS.

The devastating HIV-AIDS pandemic is the great failure of these first years of democracy. When the World Health Organization assessed the performance of its health system in 2000, South Africa was ranked 175th out of 191 countries. It was ranked 121st out of 177 countries on the 2007–8 UN Human Development Index, which measures well-being in terms of income, life expectancy and adult literacy.

It’s more than numbers – the plague is omnipresent. A colleague whispers to you that his sister died of the dreaded disease without mentioning its name. Another tells you she lost a relative and you do not ask from what. You go a funeral of a colleague, who did not die of AIDS; there are six open graves next to hers and you are told they will be all filled by the weekend.

There is no excuse for the political leaders who have failed abjectly to protect the people’s health – from the Minister of Health’s well publicized suggestion that the cure lies in beetroot and garlic to President Mbeki’s suggestion that this is a plot to demean Blacks. But the reality on the ground is another matter. An important breakthrough in removing the stigma came when Nelson Mandela joined the international public campaign, openly sharing his grief when his son died of AIDS. Now condoms are distributed at the workplace and commemorative candles are on display at the reception area. Every week there are new photos of recently deceased staff or relatives, their emaciated faces telling the story. The minister of the Provincial Housing Department exhorts her staff to use condoms. A vigorous education campaign includes graphic billboards, signs in public washrooms and even comic books.


The ANC put housing at the centre of its election platform in 1994, with its promise to build one million houses in five years. Although it took eight years, under the circumstances it is a major achievement. To date more than two million houses have been built and given free to the people. Yet the backlog is even greater, resulting largely from an unanticipated decrease in household size in response to the small size of the houses given away, higher disposable income and the promise of new homes.

Housing expansion has been facilitated by a parallel record of accomplishment in infrastructure. The number of households with access to clean water rose from 60 per cent in 1996 to 92 per cent in 2005, and electrification from 32 to 80 per cent, though the pace has been much slower in rural areas.

The South African constitution enshrines the right to housing, to be realized progressively as resources become available. The Constitutional Court has gone on record that it will hold the state accountable for providing plans and programs to house the poor and vulnerable, and engaging with them meaningfully in their implementation.

Housing policy is framed by national legislation and guidelines. The provinces receive an “equitable share” of national budget transfers to implement their social responsibilities such as housing, although they can set their spending priorities among a range of national policies and programs. Local governments have an independent tax base to fund housing, which complements their constitutional responsibility for development planning; zoning; providing water, roads and electricity; and leveraging public land for development purposes.

For three levels of government in South Africa to work closely together, even with the same party in power, can be challenging administratively, something I have experienced on a daily basis. Overall, that experience reveals that housing and social policies are well developed for delivering programs to improve people’s lives, especially those of the poor. Getting the houses actually built has proven much more difficult. Government has been significantly transformed since 1994, both politically and administratively. It is now multiracial at all levels and mirrors the society it serves, a radical departure from the pre-1994 years. There is a new buzz in government. Ordinary citizens now meet officials who talk to them in their own language, are generally sensitive to their diverse cultures, and treat them with dignity as they explain to them how government works, what their rights are and what process to follow.

This transformation has brought many new people into the public service and it will take time to achieve administrative maturity. Decisions are often too centralized, delays are frustrating and reporting requirements take precedence over results. Nevertheless, expertise and capability are increasing among public officials, and they can count on some strong delivery agencies and professionals outside government.

Crime and corruption

South Africa has become notorious for its crime: 18,545 murders in 2005, 20,553 attempted murders and nearly 55,000 reported rapes. Although the rates were down from 2001, the rate of reduction was less than the annual 7–10 per cent target set by the government. The “hot spots” for crime are in the poorest townships. For middle-class Black and White South Africans, fear of crime is contributing to an exodus of skilled professionals. They live behind high walls with 24/7 alarm protection. They do not walk the streets after dark. Women driving alone at night do not stop at red lights. You start to take for granted that much of the city you live in is closed to you – just too dangerous.

Part of the problem lies in law enforcement. It does not help that the head of the South African Police Service, Jackie Selebi, was recently charged with corruption and undermining the ends of justice. A special unit called the “Scorpions” was established to fight corruption and organized crime. The Scorpions conduct their own investigations and have led major prosecutions of politically sensitive matters. These include the use of false travel vouchers by members of Parliament as well as the multibillion-rand arms deal in the nineties involving French, British and German suppliers, which implicated then–Deputy President Jacob Zuma and led to the conviction of Schabir Shaik who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for fraud and corruption regarding payments he made to Zuma. The head of the Scorpions, Vusi Pikoli, was suspended in September 2007, reportedly for not being aggressive enough in the corruption charges levelled against Jacob Zuma and for obtaining a search warrant against Jackie Selebi. These are very sensitive cases that are testing the political and judicial system, and the net may widen to others in high places as trials proceed and investigations continue in South Africa and in the countries where the arms originated.

Foreign policy

The new government signalled major potential changes in the way South Africa would relate to the rest of the world. It would support democratization as the cornerstone of building stability and economic opportunity. As Nelson Mandela noted when he addressed the U.S. Congress soon after taking office, democracies do not go to war with each other.

Historically, White South Africa was closer to Europe than to Africa. Relations with other countries in Africa under the apartheid government were often hostile and led to wars in Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere. The new South African government quickly took an approach centred on the peaceful development of the continent. Early experiences revealed to the new leadership that there was very little to gain and much to lose by acting unilaterally.

In the first of these experiences, during the Commonwealth Conference in November 1995, Mandela intervened to try to prevent the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others in Nigeria. But the hanging went ahead, and when Mandela publicly asked for oil sanctions against Nigeria and its expulsion from the Commonwealth, economic interests of other Commonwealth members prevailed, and Mandela felt betrayed. Interestingly, Thabo Mbeki counselled against this strategy, foreshadowing his much more gradualist, behind-the-scenes approach after he succeeded Mandela as president.

South Africa has since become very careful not to take sides in internal disputes, instead trying to set an example of resolving conflict through national unity government, reconciliation, democratization and coordinated social and economic development. These efforts were deployed for Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan, with uneven success. The behind-the-scenes approach has been much tested in Zimbabwe, a failed state that sits on South Africa’s northern border, where Mbeki was named by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to mediate between the government and the opposition.

Overall, South Africa has positioned itself as a solid middle power, with Mbeki playing a leading role in the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Mandela was a world-revered statesman, and Mbeki has moved very comfortably on the world stage from Davos to the G-7 summits. World sports are an important symbol. Mandela donned the green jersey when South Africa won the World Cup of rugby in 1995, a feat subsequently repeated in 2007. Once a pariah excluded from international sports, in 2010 South Africa will proudly host the World Cup of soccer. Everyone knows how important it will be to stage the World Cup successfully and, in particular, to ensure the safety of millions of visitors.

Where is South Africa headed?

The president is elected for five years and, according to the constitution, holds office for a maximum of two terms. Nelson Mandela stepped down in 1999 after one term. Thabo Mbeki’s second term will end in April 2009. The succession process began publicly almost from the moment that his second term started.

Mbeki was embarrassed in December 2007 when Jacob Zuma defeated him in his bid for a third term as party president. This confirmed the schism that has split the ANC for many years, starting with the debate over management of the economy. The succession battle has been an acrimonious one ever since Mbeki fired Zuma as Deputy President of the country in 2005. Zuma has since been acquitted of a rape charge, but he is scheduled to go on trial for corruption in August. If convicted he would be barred from running for president of South Africa.

Zuma is a Zulu chieftain who is credited with having played an important role in mediating the tribal warfare between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in the transitional period leading up to the 1994 election. A Zulu traditionalist on social issues, he appeals to South Africans on the basis of his intuitiveness, openness to consultation and inclusiveness on public policy issues. He has a sense of theatre and his supporters enjoy watching him sing and dance in the public arena. His style is in stark contrast to Mbeki’s cerebral mastery of government policy and management and seeming indifference to what people think of him.

Zuma’s support is rooted in a deep-seated sense that the ANC has lost its way and is not responding quickly enough to people’s needs. He has attracted the support of the leadership of COSATU, the SACP, the ANC Women’s League and the ANC Youth League. Others who are harshly critical of Mbeki – for his policies on HIV-AIDS, Zimbabwe and corruption; for his failure to address poverty more aggressively; and for a style which can appeal to nativist racial instincts by treating criticism as disloyalty – do not necessarily endorse Zuma, but welcome a peaceful and democratic change in the ANC leadership.

In the event that Zuma cannot stand, or chooses not to, the frontrunner for the presidency is Kgalema Motlanthe, party Deputy President and a former leader in the Union of Mineworkers, who has supported Zuma through the difficult times.

The current ANC government is moving to increase efforts to alleviate poverty. There was a marked departure from conservative fiscal policies after the 2004 election in which the ANC ran on a platform of “a people’s contract to create jobs and fight poverty,” promising to create a million six-month jobs through public works. In 2005, this took the form of the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA). Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, disappointed that sound fiscal policy had failed to attract the anticipated foreign and domestic investments, became deliberately more interventionist under AsgiSA, increasing income security grants and investing in labour-intensive programs for roads, water, sanitation, electricity, housing, schools, clinics, sports facilities, early childhood development and home-based care. Government procurement policies require successful tenders to incorporate opportunities for women, youth, cooperatives and small and medium Black enterprises, while financial institutions are providing credit opportunities for previously marginalized people.

The government and its successor in 2009 face tight economic times. Looking forward to rising prices for food and gasoline, and a probable doubling of electricity rates in the next two or three years as South Africa belatedly recognizes its failure to plan power installations, economists are now predicting 11 per cent inflation, double the target set by the Reserve Bank. The Bank could decide it will have to tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates and thus slow down the economy and adversely affect job creation.

But there is room to manoeuvre. The Mbeki-Manuel stewardship leaves a legacy of budget surpluses since 2006, with net public debt projected at a very respectable 16 per cent of GDP in 2011. The new government should thus be in a position to increase government expenditures so as to live up to South Africa’s commitments to the UN Millennium Development Goals of halving the number of households living on less than $1 per day by 2014. Whether this will also meaningfully redistribute wealth, adequately widen access to services and redress past injustices is a more difficult question.

The road is that much steeper because of the impact of the AIDS pandemic. The five and a half million currently HIV-positive people who are expected to die in the next 15 years will leave a generation of orphans and a country reeling from its lost teachers, policemen and skilled professionals.

Meanwhile, as this is being written, the crisis following upon the Zimbabwe election shows no sign of abating. Zimbabwe has 80 per cent unemployment, inflation at 100,000 per cent a year and violence-prone state security, and is no longer self sufficient in food after the expropriation of large White-owned farms. It is estimated that more than two million people have fled to South Africa; there will be more if Zimbabwe deteriorates into a brutal conflagration. The world is looking to South Africa to resolve the situation, but there is no sign that Thabo Mbeki will intervene meaningfully. Though much criticized abroad – and increasingly at home, even by key elements in his own party – he defends quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy to the point of lending public support to Robert Mugabe. He seems committed to this policy as part of a wider strategy of working with other African heads of state for regional and continental cooperation.

In this as in many areas we see a new nation that is promising yet vulnerable, always inspirational but at times outrageous and almost maddening, impressive in the solidarity in its efforts to improve the lot of the people yet driven by the demons of its history. The challenges it will face are many and daunting. Yet on balance, as a work in progress, South Africa remains a beacon to the world. It has proven equal if not superior to comparable countries in its ability to resolve conflicts and manage its economy. The ANC has been able to renew itself. As it continues to do so, it will be watched, second-guessed and constrained by the constitution and the courts, civil society, the unions, business interests, the media and, ultimately, the people.