Former South African President Nelson Mandela as he celebrates his 94th birthday with family in Qunu, South Africa on July 18 2012
© AP

The world should expect a clear victory for the ruling African National Congress in South Africa’s national elections on May 7. Far less certain, and of greater importance, is what the ANC does with its fifth consecutive term of office – President Jacob Zuma’s last. The robust national discourse reflects political tensions that remain 20 years to the month after Nelson Mandela became president.

The country’s fortunes read like a balance sheet. On the asset side, the economy has tripled in size during two decades of growth. Inflation has been tamed. Support for the poor has been expanded, with cash grants now being made to 16m people. The middle class encompasses more of society than ever before; in the decade to 2010, 1m people joined its ranks every year. There has been a dramatic broadening of the tax base. And the civil service is no longer staffed exclusively by a white elite.

What was in 1994 a divided country and a broken polity is now an unrecognisably modern, investment-grade economy. It is home to the continent’s deepest and most liquid capital markets; and to innovative companies led by modern managers poised to capitalise on the resurgent economies of sub-Saharan Africa. As one of the five Brics – along with Brazil, Russia, India and China, leading emerging economies – South Africa will play a decisive role in global economic development in the coming decades.

But the liabilities inherited from the apartheid era loom large. South Africa’s 7m unemployed people account for 35 per cent of the workforce. Fifteen million people live on less than $2 a day, and 6.4m are infected with HIV. This reflects the country’s two-speed society: one part modern, sophisticated, skilled, dynamic and increasingly affluent and non-racial; the other, marginalised unskilled, poor and young, mostly rural or peri-urban outcasts, increasingly restless and bereft of hope.

It is the latter society that must now command the attention of the ANC. The struggle for greater social equality is causing deep rifts in society, including inside the party itself and between members of the broader Tripartite Alliance, which the ANC leads.

After 1994 Mandela managed to bring temperatures down from boiling point. But they are once again on the rise. Widespread protests by local communities against failures in delivery of social services are an early warning sign of this growing gap. Serious opposition is more likely to emerge from within the ANC than from outside it. Uniting a sometimes fractious alliance will therefore be among the party leadership’s greatest tests.

For Mr Zuma, it is critical in forming his new administration to professionalise and increase capacity and quality across the entire public service. His choice of generals and foot soldiers to implement his National Development Plan, to drive growth and tackle joblessness, will be the first decisive signs of the trajectory for South Africa in the next five years. And the ruling party will need to regenerate the moral leadership and authority seen under Mandela, which of late the party has lost to scandal, infighting and controversies. For it is this team that will need the credibility to lead the effort to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

To achieve the 5 per cent growth- rate target necessary to double gross domestic product per capita, halve unemployment and narrow structural inequalities in the next 20 years, the ANC government will need to focus sharply on better-quality public spending, especially in health, education and infrastructure. The new administration will also need to rein in and punish corruption. It will need to tackle the failing labour environment with its union allies. It will have to tie wage increases to productivity improvements and improve the skills of the workforce. It must revitalise mining. It will need to build trust with business and labour, and be smarter on market regulation.

If all this is achieved it will create the environment to lift annual foreign investment from an average of $2bn to the required $5bn-$10bn.

In five years there will be a new generation of ANC leaders who will succeed Mr Zuma. What they inherit from his leadership over this time will determine whether they are in the driving seat, forced into a coalition or watching from the sidelines.

And it is the skill with which the ruling party prosecutes its plans in the next five years that will either uphold or deflate the miracle that Mandela symbolised on the world stage: the miracle of reconciliation and transformation in overcoming South Africa’s apartheid past.

The ANC’s performance and record is the barometer that the South African electorate will use to decide whether the 2019 election becomes another passing of the baton from one ANC generation to another or the moment of reckoning for the party.


The writer is a managing director at Goldman Sachs and author of ‘Two Decades of Freedom’

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Letter in response to this article:

Repeating the Mandela miracle / From Mr Harvey Cole.

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