South Africa’s critical turning point

Corruption and lack of national direction of a post-Mbeki ANC have become the features of the liberation party.

South African President Nelson Mandela (
Nelson Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki were centrepieces for an African National Congress based on integrity - but now "malfeasance, clouded judgements, and muddy vision has become the hallmark of ANC leadership" [AFP]

Pretoria, South Africa – South Africa’s liberation struggle has been very long and its human cost enormous. Those who had borne the brunt of the cruelties of liberation had hoped that once the shackles of settler colonialism and apartheid were cast aside, the preoccupation of the new order will be an ethical pursuit of a political economic programme that would enable the people to regain their dignity. Stalwarts of liberation who imagined the country’s future had no illusion about the difficulty of translating those hopes into reality. It is 18 years since that glorious day in 1994 when the oppressor and oppressed became equal citizen and Mandela was elected president of the rainbow nation. Eighteen years is not long enough to undo the damage that was centuries in the making, but it is a sufficient time in which to assess whether the course that has been taken is the appropriate route or a bridge to nowhere.

This essay is from a concerned African who recognises the depth of the deficits which the African National Congress government inherited but whose worry is that mistakes made elsewhere in the continent are being repeated here.   

I offer three critical benchmarks to gauge whether or not the country is heading in a direction that embodies the hopes of the liberators: the quality of leadership, the transformation of education, and the reforms of the economic structure.


Africans are among the easiest people to lead, but unfortunately the continent’s political leaders, with very few exceptions, have utilised the population’s readiness to follow as an opportunity to abuse that trust and pillage the commons. Consequently, in many countries the promise of independence has turned into catastrophe in the form of unending civil wars, incompetent and long lasting dictatorship, economies on the skids, systemic corruption, and enduring and deepening poverty. Pioneering Ghanaian writer Ayi Kewi Armah’s prognosis in 1968 was on target when he noted that politicians “were senile before they were born”.

 South Africans lose patience with ANC promises

South Africa had the benefit of these negative lessons before embracing liberation and one wonders whether those in position of leadership have learned them well. The question is whether the ANC – which has consistently garnered the African people’s support – and its leadership have the ethical fortitude and the competence to transform liberation into a vibrant democracy, and a growing and just economy.    

The liberation movement failed to deliver the knockout punch to apartheid and had to negotiate the terms of its “surrender”. Consequently, the dispensation that spawned in 1994 was half beast half human since much of economic apartheid was left intact in private hands. But what Mandela and Mbeki had was an iron clad trust from the population earned through their unwavering commitment to justice in the face of the horrors of apartheid. It appears that Mandela’s task was to safely steer the ship of state away from the real possibility of nightmarish civil war, and lay the basis for common citizenship. Meanwhile Mbeki’s mission was to deepen the democratic form of government and modernise the economy while providing services for the millions of people devastated by apartheid.  

Having been in and out of South Africa since 1993, it is clear to me that Mandela’s team exceeded the limits of what was possible under such constrained national and international circumstances. The horrific political violence which the last apartheid regime stoked was masterfully extinguished. In addition, the political alienation of the white population that was frightened by the prospect of an African government was well managed and Mandela’s team snuffed out any chance for racially motivated civil war through diligence and fair play.

While Mandela was attending to these pressing political issues, Vice President Mbeki was busy directing not only the transformation of the state but relentlessly pursued timely delivery of housing and service delivery for the indigent. With Mandela’s retirement, the ANC under the leadership of Mbeki continued to march forward. On the eve of Mbeki’s second presidential term the ANC was able to garner a higher proportion of votes than it did in the 1994 plebiscite, marking sustained confidence from the public. In addition to these, President Mbeki initiated a new agenda for Africa of which he is still involved. His gratuitous forced departure from the presidency, just seven months before the end of his second term expired, showed his maturity and at the same time exposed very troubling forces at work within the ANC’s leadership circle. Since then malfeasance, clouded judgements, and muddy vision has become the hallmark of ANC leadership.


Apartheid’s strategic objective was to ensure that Africans never gained access to quality education. Key to this evil project was the so-called Bantu Education, whose aim was to enfeeble African children early on and saddle them with insurmountable and lifelong intellectual handicaps. For those Africans who miraculously escaped this destiny, the bush colleges lay in waiting to finish them off. Bush colleges were mostly staffed by third rate white staff whose objective was not to empower their students but to guide them into intellectual dead ends.

The consequence of apartheid’s education strategy was the creation of a fragmented and unequal education system whose legacy haunts the rainbow nation even after these systems were amalgamated and to some degree reformed.

Among the chief reforms of the system has been the opening up of former white universities to all South African students. One can easily see the quick impact this had on the diversity of the student population in the bastions of apartheid, such as the University of Pretoria and the University of Cape Town. Although significant progress has been made in this regard, it will take at least another five decades for the professorate of the country to reflect the nation’s rainbow colours unless a major effort is invested in this area. In addition, rural and poor schools where most African children are educated lag well behind the expected educational standard and require urgent action. Meanwhile, many in the new black middle class are opting out for private schools thus deepening the gap between the rich and the poor.

Economic structure

The ANC leadership which guided the liberation encountered a hostile Western World whose ideological fixation was to maintain economic hegemony and insure that alternative economic development practices did not emerge in Africa. It was because of such Western commitments that Mandela’s government was forced to: a) repay the debts which the apartheid state accrued; and b) maintain the economic culture that pre-existed liberation. Repaying the debt amounted to the evacuation of tens of billions of dollars from the economy which could have been used to rebuild education and induce employment generation. If the Western world had any conscience they would not have demanded Mandela to repay the very resources the racist regime used to brutalise the African people. It is imperative to recall that two key Western countries central to this project were led by none other than liberals Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Western demands did not stop at the repayment of the debt, but engaged in intimidation before and after liberation. For instance, the ANC leaders were told that they dare not introduce any systemic economic reforms that could shake market confidence.

Mindful of these challenges Mandela/Mbeki steered the ship of state in ways that provided tangible relief for the population in the form of jobs, service delivery, and most fundamentally freedom from the terror of apartheid.

“Black empowerment has become black embarrassment and the translation of political power to economic power for a few is exactly what has impoverished Africa.

The aforementioned reforms notwithstanding, the major structures of the economy remained in the grip of the old guard, and the new policy of black empowerment has allowed the old guard to cherry pick a very small fraction of Africans joining their ranks. The latter group have thoroughly internalised the new ideology of “it is glorious to get rich quickly” and care little about the fortunes of the indigent. In the apt words of the Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, “the gravy train stopped just long enough for a few well positioned blacks to get on it.” Ironically, many of the African fat cats behave as if there is nothing wrong with economic apartheid now that they have joined the well to do, and are scornful towards those who continue to demand economic justice.  

Conquering apartheid’s bequest

Historically class and race were coterminous in South Africa, but class is decisively the key watershed that segregates the well healed from the indigent. The increased concentration of the country’s wealth in few hands and the mild reforms of the last eighteen years is not a credible strategy for conquering apartheid’s legacy. Despite these problems Mandela and Mbeki retain the population’s reverence because their integrity was never doubted. Their reputation as incorruptible leaders remains in tack to this day. Mandela is in a league of his own as a global icon, and Mbeki’s stature has grown.

Unfortunately, the post-Mbeki ANC cannot make the same claims. Corruption and lack of national direction have become the features of the liberation party, and the Marikana massacre in 2012 where the police shot dozens of striking platinum workers signal that something is seriously wrong in the rainbow nation. In spite of all this the majority of the population will vote for the ANC in the 2014 election, in part due to the absence of a viable alternative. However, it will be imprudent for the leadership to assume the vote is an endorsement of its policies or behaviours.

We proffer that the proud tradition of the ANC and the wellbeing of the population are at stake. Maintaining recent political economic trends is not sustainable if democracy and social justice are the core values of the struggle. Black empowerment has become black embarrassment and the translation of political power to economic power for a few is exactly what has impoverished Africa.

What is needed is leadership and a political organisation whose ethical principles and political judgment can inspire the population. Currently, the ANC leadership lacks these vital qualities and ought to realise this urgently. The ANC’s recent conference reshuffled some of the senior leadership posts to give President Zuma and his supporters a new image. Unfortunately, image management is not what is required. Instead, the country and the ANC need men and women whose integrity, vision, and competence the public can trust. Without such leadership the country will survive but it will not flourish.

South African education demands thorough reform to create the kind of skilled workforce that can compete in the global economy. Much progress has been made since 1994, however what is needed in the next two decades will dwarf what has been accomplished. South Africa requires specialised schools whose students are adept and this will require enormous investment, but the returns will be many fold. Such an ambitious educational agenda is what South Africa’s new economy calls for and without it the bifurcation of society into haves and have-nots shall be reinforced.    

What the country needs is not the maintenance of concentrated economic power or the establishment of similar structures, but productive enterprises that cater to the vast majority of the population. In particular, the country needs a serious programme of re-industrialisation that can effectively absorb the urban unemployed. Similarly, a major agricultural reform programme is required to cheapen the cost of the wage basket in order to enhance the country’s competitive advantage. The place to begin for all of this to happen is at the top of the heap: the leaders!

Abdi Ismail Samatar is a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota & research fellow at the University of Pretoria. He is the President of the African Studies Association.