South Africa – on its way to a failed state

These past two weeks I’ve been on my first visit to South Africa. Having been a critical observer from a distance for 15 years since the first democratic elections, I was keen to see how the post-apartheid policies were affecting the everyday lives of people.

While I was there the African National Congress won political power for the fourth time in a row with a majority of two-thirds of the popular vote. On the surface it appears people are happy and have given the ANC’s leadership a vote of confidence. The reality is very different.

The most significant aspect of the election campaign was a report from the ANC Women’s League released just a day before the country went to the polls. The league had been speaking with people across the country’s nine provinces in the lead-up to the election. They visited urban areas, black townships and rural communities. Their report was a blunt message to the ANC leadership that people were angry and frustrated with the government and the lack of progress for the poorest and most alienated South Africans. People said they had voted for the ANC for the previous three elections but still lived in poverty without housing or basic services such as electricity and water while education was in a mess and health services under-staffed and under-resourced.

Having visited activists, trade unionists and community leaders across the country in my brief visit I can attest to the strength of this feeling. In this latest election enough of the poor have given the ANC their vote again but I don’t believe there will be any significant change for these people in the next five years. The ANC leadership is in another world altogether.

Their campaign slogan “working together we can do better” had neither promise nor vision and their campaign message had another more subtle change. In past elections the ANC has proudly proclaimed the number of houses the government has provided with water and electricity but this election it talked about the number of homes which have been provided with “access” to these services. These services are now more widespread but they are provided at unaffordable prices for the majority of people. In some areas the number of disconnections exceeds new connections and this is expected to get worse. For some of the poorest communities water is provided via pre-paid meters at a far higher price than for water to middle-class homes.

A similar story applies in housing. In one new housing development close to Cape Town residents told me they were promised if they paid R350 per month for five years they would then own their modest houses in a rent-to-buy arrangement. However the local council sold the houses to a private company and within two years the rents have more than doubled to R800 per month. Many families have faced eviction and it’s only through sticking together in a determined campaign that they are able to keep a roof over their heads.

At another development in Kliptown near Johannesburg 1300 housing units (houses and flats) were developed in an area where 40,000 live in abject poverty. However despite earlier promises from local councillors these houses have been given to families from well outside the area because the local people can’t afford the high rents the council and private developers are demanding.

These essential services of housing, electricity and water are provided on a user pays basis where market-forces determine the price. These policies, like those of the previous apartheid regime, prioritise the development of a black middle class. In practise it means locking out the poor who are the majority of the population.

This is all a far cry from the heady days of the early 1990s when Mandela was released from prison and the country voted for the first time in 1994 for a democratic government which promised to transform this deeply-scarred country.

Meanwhile business has never been better in South Africa. The ANC has delivered the corporate sector a free-market capitalist economy they could only have dreamt about. Companies which grew fat on apartheid’s race-based slavery are continuing to cream it. Economic apartheid has proved to be more effective in exploiting South Africans than the crude racist policies of the old regime.

On top of all its existing problems unemployment in South Africa is independently calculated at 40%. With this figure rising in the global recession and no real prospect for significant policy change South Africa is heading down the familiar path to a failed state.

There is a saying that the most dangerous thing a society can produce is young men with nothing to do. The ANC is producing them in their millions.