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Impatient South Africa

NEW YORK – The African National Congress, which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid, is in serious trouble. Unfortunately, the country may not be far behind.

In 1994, the ANC – widely credited with ending decades of white minority rule – came to power with a near-monopoly on political legitimacy among the country’s black majority. Together with President Nelson Mandela’s moral authority, this status helped the party to accommodate a wide range of interests and establish a stable economic order without losing the support of poor black voters, many of whom fell outside that order. Although supporters’ expectations were high, so was their patience – a dynamic reinforced by the ANC’s liberation mythology and early successes in expanding housing, electricity, and social grants.

Nearly 20 years later, this patience has worn thin. While poverty has decreased slightly since 1994, inequality has vaulted upward, fueled by extreme unemployment, state incapacity, corruption, and affirmative-action policies skewed toward the upper reaches of the economy (not to mention the pernicious legacy of apartheid).

Rapid urbanization has increased the number of people living in settlements surrounding the country’s major cities, where deprivation is especially stark and government malfeasance is more widely felt. Meanwhile, a new generation of “born free” South Africans are not swayed solely by the ANC’s historical credentials, especially with youth unemployment near 45%.

As a result, the ANC’s monopoly on legitimacy is loosening. Although still electorally dominant, the party’s parliamentary representation has dropped below the two-thirds threshold required to change the constitution. And, if the 2011 local elections are any indication, its popular backing continues to decline (the ANC won just 63% of the vote). Meanwhile, growing apathy and discontent with the scope and pace of economic change has substantially reduced voter turnout.

Beyond the ballot box, violent, inequality-driven protests are on the rise, as citizens step outside the ANC and its affiliates to demand economic improvements. There has been a boom in so-called “service-delivery protests” in the settlements surrounding urban areas.

Last year’s wave of wildcat strikes in the mining sector – which precipitated the infamous “Marikana massacre” – ended up shaving 0.5% off the country’s GDP growth in 2012. Recent labor unrest on wine farms in the Western Cape reflects the same dynamic. While violence and instability have long marred the informal sector – witness the country’s high crime rate and frequent attacks on foreign traders – they are becoming more common in the formal sector as well.

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These structural, “bottom up” pressures will continue to weigh on South Africa, making 2013 another year fraught with political risk. President Jacob Zuma’s sweeping re-election as ANC president at the party’s December conference was a defeat for the most radical factions, and will foster a more decisive government than the country had in 2012. But the ANC leadership will alienate leaders and constituencies from the very same areas where protests and strikes are most common, including Gauteng, Western Cape, swaths of Eastern Cape and Free State, and mining communities in North West and Limpopo.

Government efforts to control provincial spending will exacerbate tensions, as will the growing influence of Zulus in Zuma’s ANC. Retrenchment and shutdowns at gold and platinum mines –as well as the expiration in June of wage agreements in the gold and coal industries – will almost certainly spark more labor unrest, especially considering the growing rivalry between the ANC-aligned National Union of Mineworkers and the more militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

Given that the ANC’s overwhelming priority is to maintain political dominance in the 2014 elections, the party will be tempted to win public support through increased spending and statist policies, rather than implementing critical structural reforms that investors demand. Although the ANC dismissed proposals to nationalize the country’s mines, its embrace of “strategic state ownership” has brought further policy uncertainty to the sector while paving the way for a weightier government presence in related industries like energy and steel.

Similarly, the party’s endorsement of the pragmatic National Development Plan and the election of popular labor leader-turned-billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa as Deputy President are unlikely to stem the risks that it now faces. The NDP’s most urgent proposed measures – more flexible labor laws, education reform, and rationalizing local government – will be watered down by vested interests and weak governance, while its (otherwise welcome) emphasis on expanding infrastructure will be undermined by political favoritism and corruption.

Ramaphosa’s respectability will undoubtedly provide the party (and the scandal-plagued Zuma) with some badly needed cover. But the ANC government will still have to focus on short-term measures and patronage in order to shore up its electoral support. Without these steps, continued bouts of social unrest may well shake investor confidence more than unwelcome policies do.

The ANC no longer has sufficient credibility with poor South Africans to ask for continued patience in achieving “a better life for all.” It is no longer 1994, and Zuma is no Nelson Mandela.

Ian Bremmer is President of Eurasia Group and the author of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. Mark Y. Rosenberg is Africa Analyst at Eurasia Group.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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