2024: A Decisive Year for South Africa’s Future Trajectory

By Published On: 5th April 2024

2024 is a milestone election year for South Africa. Not only does it mark three decades since the country’s democratic transition, it also could also herald in a new era of political contestation. With the majority of polls thus far conducted pointing to the ruling party losing its overall majority in parliament, President Cyril Ramaphosa was at pains to underscore the gains that the country has made under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC).

By using the example of Tintswalo, a fictional avatar of young black South Africans born at the dawn of democracy, Ramaphosa sought to juxtapose the improvements that his party brought to the lives of her generation, in comparison to the prospects that black South Africans had under apartheid. While no-one can contend the veracity of his claim, Ramaphosa’s narrative, did not convey the full picture of his party’s track record in government.

Only able to draw on 2015 statistics Ramaphosa pointed out that a lower percentage of South Africans fell under the country’s upper-bound poverty line than in 2006. He omitted to say that this was an increase from the 2011 figure, and with a greater percentage of working-age adults currently unemployed, those under the poverty line would have further increased. Over the past 15 years we have witnessed economic stagnation, a decline in per capita income, and an entrenchment of the pyramid society that was inherited from the apartheid years. Tintswalo’s quality of life may very well be better than that of her parents, but there are many Ntombi’s and Joshua’s who are still trapped in poverty, and available evidence suggest that there is no guarantee that Tintswalo’s daughter, Zindsi, will have will have a better quality of life than her mother. In the absence of a compelling economic strategy, anaemic growth, high unemployment, rising living costs, crumbling infrastructure, and will continue to impede the future prospects of Zindsi and her peers.

This dim outlook was echoed in the February budget speech by Finance Enoch Godongwana. Allthough lauded for his cautious approach in acceding to populist impulses, the figures presented by Godongwana spoke for itself. The country finds itself in an unhealthy and progressively deteriorating fiscal position. Government debt currently stands at 75,3%. This could have been higher, were it not for government’s intention to draw on its Gold and Foreign Exchange Contingency Reserve Account (GFECRA), managed by the National Treasury, to alleviate our sovereign debt burden and, by extension, the country’s ballooning debt service costs. The latter is estimated to constitute around 16,2% of all government expenditure, which is higher than the amounts allocated to key portfolio’s such as health and basic education. Very little therefore remains for the expansion and upkeep of the country’s frail infrastructure, particularly its power grid and transport network that is hampering any prospect of rapid growth.

Although many countries are struggling amidst a hostile global climate underpinned by geopolitical fragmentation, South Africa’s social and economic woes, for the larger part, is the result of its own making. For more than a decade and a half, rampant corruption, poor governance, and a hollowing out of state institutions eviscerated state capacity to push back on its major structural challenges of poverty, inequality, and unemployment. In spite of his promise of a “New Dawn”, the Ramaphosa government proved to be incapable of shifting the country towards a more prosperous path.

This has resulted in a massive decline of confidence in the party, as well as the state. Findings from Afrobarometer and the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB), both conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), conclusively show that South Africans have lost faith in public entities to execute their respective mandates over the past decade and a half. Many, moreover, feel that elected leaders can’t care less about their plight. A vast majority of the population therefore  distrust the leadership and the government institutions, including the IEC. This does not bode well for democracy.

The damage runs deep. It is doubtful whether a mere change of the guard, through elections, is sufficient to course-correct.  A retort to blaming and populism may in the short term garner votes, but will not address the inherent governance crisis which, in turn, underpins a fiscal crisis that weakens the state’s ability to respond to its economic challenges amid a global polycrisis.

As such, the road to recovery will not be an easy one. It will require of citizens to become more involved in shaping the future of their children. We need to create spaces for the hard talk on our political culture and the values, policies and practices that should inform the behaviour of state and non-state actors. We require a new vision of how we want to co-exist and prosper in South Africa and what we need to put in place to enable us to acquire the good life for this and future generations. The answers are not located in any political party manifesto. We can only gain clarity on a way forward through courageous national conversations that revisit our past, detail our current situation and provide the necessary collective thought leadership for our future.  There are better alternatives.

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