South Africa: Between recovery and decline

South Africa: Between recovery and decline

Forty-eight years ago, on June 16, 1976, the Soweto Uprising broke out. Thousands of schoolchildren poured onto the streets of the Black township outside Johannesburg, protesting against the apartheid regime’s demand that they be taught in Afrikaans – the “language of the oppressor,” as they put it – instead of English. Hundreds of children were killed by security forces, with estimates ranging from 176 to 700. Those of us who were living there at the time realized that the regime of racial segregation would cause more and more pain and fear, that it would not back down, that this would all end in a bloodbath. And yet, in April 1994, national elections were held in which all the country’s people voted – blacks, whites, people of mixed and Asian descent, and others.

The first president of the liberated country was Nelson Mandela. The African National Congress (ANC) gained an absolute majority in Parliament, something which it repeated through the years, until last month. Founded in 1912, the ANC fought for a South Africa that would belong to all its people. On Friday, June 14, 2024, 30 years after those historic elections, the country has opened a new chapter. 

Having lost its absolute majority for the first time in the May 29 election, on Friday the ANC reached an agreement with the Democratic Alliance to form a coalition government. The two have a comfortable majority, as the ANC won 40.2 percent of the vote (from 57.5 percent in 2019), and the DA was second with 21.8 percent. The DA, whose leadership is white, supported President Cyril Ramaphosa’s reelection for a second term and will take part in the government. The details will be clarified in coming days. It is likely that two smaller parties may join – the Inkatha Freedom Party, which represents members of the Zulu tribe, and the Patriotic Alliance. The MK party founded by former President Jacob Zuma, which was third with 14.6 percent, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with 9.5 percent, will be in opposition. Both parties split off from the ANC, both preach radical policies for the distribution of wealth, and the leaders of both have been implicated in serious corruption scandals. They accuse the market-friendly DA of “neo-colonialism” (which the party denies).

They will attack Ramaphosa continually for ostensibly serving white interests. The ANC-DA coalition will ease the concerns of markets and the country’s business interests, as it rules out the possibility of an ANC deal with the MK and EFF, whose demands include Ramaphosa’s vacating the presidency, changing the country’s (exemplary, democratic) constitution, and confiscating farmland owned by whites, without compensation. The new government will not be the first to include whites, as the ANC has included white ministers in the past (among them, the last leader of the National Party, which had instituted apartheid and disbanded in 2005).

The transition from apartheid was achieved without the bloodbath which had seemed inevitable in the violence of the previous years. This was thanks to the wise leadership of Mandela and the country’s last white president, F.W. de Klerk, and their aides. Since then, though, the problems have multiplied. Corruption, violent crime, the collapse of infrastructure and services, and the ever-greater inequality can only be tackled with hard work, sacrifice, luck and perseverance. South Africa has a chance to return to the growth and optimism of the Mandela years. But if progress is not immediate, real and sustainable, the possibility of further decline will be ever present. 

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