The peaceful end of apartheid and transition to democracy in South Africa was one of the 20th century’s greatest achievements. A generation later, this troubled country and its ruling party are now headed toward a turning point. In December, the African National Congress (ANC) will choose a successor to current party leader (and South Africa’s president) Jacob Zuma. As battle-lines are drawn, the party stands on the verge of an irreparable split, and it is increasingly likely to lose the presidency at the next election in 2019. Can South Africa manage another peaceful transition—this time from the ANC to the opposition? Or is this country now headed for real trouble? The signs aren’t promising.
A decade ago, South Africa’s economy was going strong. From 2004-2008, a moment of high growth across the emerging-market world, high prices for the gold, platinum, diamonds, and coal that the country produces in abundance, and the surge in state spending that the commodity boom enabled, allowed South Africa to grow by a robust 4.8 percent. From 2009 to 2013, as both rich and poor countries struggled to recover from a global economic slowdown, growth tumbled to just 1.9 percent.
Then things got worse. From 2014-2016, growth fell to 1.1 percent. Not surprisingly, the average number of violent public protests climbed from 21 per year during the good times (2004-2008) to 164 per year in recent years (2014-2016). There are nearly 20 million South Africans between the ages of 15 and 35, and just 6.2 million of them have jobs. Youth unemployment is double the rate for adults, and it’s nearly four times higher for black youth (40 percent) than for white youth (11 percent).
The current government’s promises to turn things around don’t have much credibility. Zuma has survived nearly 800 separate charges of fraud, money-laundering, and graft, a court ruling that he violated the country’s constitution, multiple votes of no-confidence, and a rape trial. South Africa’s Central Bank governor has now called for a public investigation into ties between Zuma, business leaders, and a family of Indian businessmen known as the Guptas.
To rally his followers, Zuma and his allies have abandoned the sound macroeconomic policymaking of the early years of independence in favor of a fist-shaking, left-wing populism that deflects blame for worsening economic conditions onto domestic rivals and foreign powers. The state uses high tariffs and subsidies to protect state-owned companies and state-dominated sectors from competition. Protections for union workers make it harder for the unemployed to get jobs. The state battles unemployment by spending money it doesn’t have to hire more workers into government jobs. Corruption has triggered violence. There have been dozens of politically motivated murders in Zuma’s home state of Kwazulu-Natal in recent months.
There is a faction within the ANC that wants to return the party to a more sustainable path, and it is preparing for a faceoff at December’s ANC party conference. Zuma will work to ensure that his successor is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife and former head of the African Union Commission, presumably because she can protect him from prosecution when he is no longer president following elections in 2019.
Cyril Ramaphosa, a senior ANC leader who first rose to prominence as the party’s lead negotiator during the transition from apartheid to democracy, poses the strongest challenge to this plan. If Ramaphosa loses in December, he will likely lead a faction out of the ANC and could join a coalition led by the centrist Democratic Alliance, as well as left-wing parties and organizations that want an end to Zuma’s era of corruption.
Tensions are clearly on the rise. An ANC meeting in Eastern Cape province on October 1 was disrupted by brawling, chair-throwing party activists. “We are going through difficult moments as ANC. The December conference stands out as the beacon of hope where we will renew the ANC and unite the ANC," Ramaphosa reportedly told the crowd after order was restored.
Party leaders should remember that there is an entire generation of South Africans who know the ANC not as the party of liberation but as the party of power. It is increasingly likely that, whatever happens at the showdown in December, at the next election, the ANC will lose that power. What happens next will, for better or for worse, set South Africa on a path toward its future.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of “Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World.”