Whither South Africa? - 3 July 2017

Will the South African state fail or can the country thrive in the next 15 years? Author and columnist Brent Meersman reviews A Time Traveller's Guide to South Africa in 2030 and says "four scenarios give us a glimpse of the rainbow nation’s potential fate".

Frans Cronjé has mined the decades’ worth of extensive data produced by the South African policy think tank that he heads to come up with four intriguing scenarios for where the country might find itself in 2030.

Addressing the Cape Town Press Club on his book A Time Traveller’s Guide to South Africa in 2030, Cronjé said all four prospects needed to be taken equally seriously and that the future ‘almost definitely’ fell within one of these outcomes.

His scenarios hang on two axes: whether popular expectations are met or not, and whether the state is dominant or weak. Underpinning the first is the observation that, on paper, South Africa has been spectacularly successful at service delivery, but the perception is quite the opposite. The state has fallen far short of the ramped-up expectations it has created, especially among the youth.

The first axis: pure figures

The first axis is where we look purely at the figures. Since the advent of democracy, when only a fraction of the South African population had basic services, to where the country is today, government’s achievement is remarkable. But there is a sting in the tail. A few examples will suffice:*

More than 70% of the population was without electricity in 1996. This figure is now less than 15%. Nevertheless, the whole country has experienced rolling blackouts and the price of electricity has rocketed. Electricity protests and illegal connections abound, sometimes setting communities at war with one another.

Another example is university enrolment, which has risen from 575 000 to 970 000. But students want free education and tertiary institutions have been in turmoil for the past two years.

The third example is water: Households with piped water have doubled to over 14 million. However, the country is facing water protests; there are severe water restrictions, water outages and systems that are collapsing or have never got off the ground.

The social grant system tells a story

Perhaps the most telling story is South Africa’s massive social grant system, which supports 17 million people – something that is extraordinary for a developing country. However, in 2001, there were 310 people with jobs for every 100 persons receiving a social grant. By 2014, there were only 90 people with jobs for every 100 persons receiving grants. With so many people dependent on social grants, inflation becomes the country’s Achilles’ heel, given that the government will never be able to increase grants to keep pace with the cost of living if it rose too fast and the economy failed to grow rapidly.

The second axis: the strength of the state

The second axis, the strength of the state, will have the biggest impact on the future. It depends on politics and the ideological direction that government chooses. The ANC policy conference, which starts on Friday, 30 June 2017, should be watched closely. Will it be a strong or ineffectual state? Will this be by design or as a result of bad choices? Regarding this axis, Cronjé offers a few possible scenarios.

In his first scenario, which he titled “the rise of the right”, Cronjé sees the ANC unite behind a reformist leadership and shift towards an economic policy platform that is closer to the Democratic Alliance (DA) – investor friendly, secure property rights, deregulated labour, privatisation, a professional civil service, zero tolerance for corruption – while clamping down with jackboots on popular dissent. It is a model that echoes Rwanda and Ethiopia. Cronjé thinks it will be an oppressive, anti-democratic, sinister regime, but people will tolerate it because of its economic success.

In his second scenario, “the tyranny of the left”, the ANC closes ranks behind a corrupt leadership, plays the race card, roles out patronage and becomes increasingly repressive and anti-democratic. It is the Zimbabwean road to tyranny. He envisages land seizures and draconian laws. As the economy implodes, the political fallout is contained by a coalition of the EFF and the ANC. The country is a basket case by 2030.

Cronjé believes (in my opinion, correctly) that a rapacious, determined leadership, such as South Africa currently has, could demolish the country’s democratic institutions inside of a year. South Africa’s Constitutional protections are far more fragile than most people would like to believe. As he mentioned in his presentation to the Cape Town Press Club, there are not many countries in the world where the authorities can mow down 34 mineworkers in broad daylight on TV and not a single person is held accountable. This is what happened in the mining town of Marikana, in the North West province, in 2012.

Cronje, "There are not many countries in the world where the authorities can mow down 34 mineworkers in broad daylight on TV and not a single person is held accountable".

The third scenario: the break-up

In Cronjé’s third scenario, “the break-up”, the ANC, mired by internal squabbles, becomes an indecisive state with contradictory policies and inept governance. Cronjé thinks this is the most likely scenario; a South Africa that is just muddling along, failing to meet anybody’s expectations. The rich move into enclaves; the poor take matters into their own hands; the economy languishes. As the ANC falters at the polls, unstable coalitions form and there is a generalised policy paralysis. It is not the worst of worlds, but nothing works well – unless you are wealthy and insulated. The populace increasingly has to fend for itself.

What are the alternatives?

An alternative is what Cronjé sees as “the rise of the rainbow”: As ANC election support dips below 50%, it starts to work with the DA. Reformists in both parties are in control. Government takes a few steps back and private enterprise is given freer reign. An aggressive entrepreneurial culture is fostered. Racial divisions are downplayed. Corruption is brought under control. The state effectively implements realistic, pragmatic and sensible policies while respecting the Constitution. It is the thinnest of his scenarios and the hardest to imagine in South Africa’s current circumstances. It remains the Mandela-Mbeki dream deferred.

Which way the country will go largely depends on what will happen within the ANC in the run-up to the next presidency. Events, however, can always intervene and rapidly change the course of a country such as South Africa. But Cronjé is confident that the fate of the South African nation will fall into one of these four scenarios.

This review was first published here.