Democratic South Africa at 30 years: Battling state capture and ethno-racial populism

By Christi van der Westhuizen

South Africa’s seventh democratic election sees the country teetering amid several simultaneous crises. The ruling African National Congress has failed in addressing the colonial and apartheid legacies of severe under-development and socio-economic inequality. Its attempts at imposing a Leninist-influenced African nationalist hegemony on the state unleashed nefarious forces, with destructive results. These include collapsing state capacity and infrastructure and grand scale corruption known as state capture, driven by politics reflecting the worldwide surge in ethno-racial populism. As also seen elsewhere, South Africans are suffering from disillusionment with democracy, given its seeming ineffectiveness in the face of rampaging neoliberal capitalism.

Jacob Zuma canvassing votes for uMkhonto weSizwe (Picture: @DZumaSambudla/X)


It has become a truism to describe South Africa’s general election taking place on 29 May 2024 as the most important since the transition from apartheid to democracy three decades ago. Political violence marked the period of multi-party negotiations that culminated in the first democratic election in 1994. Now the threat of political violence looms large again.

Democratic South Africa has been described as a one-party dominant state. The anti-apartheid liberation movement African National Congress (ANC) governed with a mostly significant majority after 1994. But voter disaffection has grown significantly. If all eligible voters are counted, voter turnout dropped by 37% between 1994 and the last national election in 2019. The overall voting percentage fell below 50%. By the 2021 local government election, one-in-three eligible voters stayed away from the ballot box. These were mostly ANC voters, as the party’s overall support dropped below 50% for the first time in that election. Independent polls consistently place the ANC at below 50% for this year’s election. Hence the door may for the first time since the advent of democracy be opened to a national coalition government. The shift to coalition politics had already happened in councils of metropoles and towns at local level.

To regain control of the Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni metropoles in the economic heartland of the country, the ANC entered into coalitions with the third largest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the former ANC youth leader Julius Malema. The second largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), governs the capital Tshwane in a coalition with several other parties. These coalition governments have been marked by high volatility, with Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay switching between coalitions led by the ANC and the DA coalitions with a frequency that has undermined governance. Evidence has emerged of bribery of councillors to undo DA coalition governments, for example in Nelson Mandela Bay metro. These cynical tactics have surfaced in the run-up to the election. Smaller parties partnering with the ANC includes the Patriotic Alliance (PA), which is alleged to have offered bribes to DA public representatives to force the DA into a coalition at provincial level in the Western Cape. This has been the sole province not under ANC control, having been governed by the DA since 2009.

Crisis of development

The primary factor driving the decline in ANC support is a lack of meaningful development that could substantively alleviate poverty. This failure is most starkly illustrated by unemployment standing at almost 45 percent, a figure that includes both active and discouraged job seekers. Half of the population, of whom the vast majority are black, live in poverty – a situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. As measured by the Gini coefficient, South Africa struggles with the highest level of socio-economic inequality in the world. The mismatch between daily lived reality and the promise of the “miracle” transition from apartheid to democracy has fuelled political disillusionment. South Africa’s 1996 constitution encapsulated the promise of democracy. Unusually, the constitution blends liberal political and socio-economic rights. The jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court places human dignity as the central principle alongside equality and freedom. Many of its judgments advance economic inclusion.

But despite the sweeping replacement of oppressive and exclusionary apartheid laws with progressive legislation based on the constitution, the ANC government has produced poor educational and health outcomes when compared to other middle-income countries. Large-scale infrastructural collapse overturned the gains made in water and electricity provision, with power and water outages in rural and urban areas. Lack of maintenance has made water scarcer in an already water-scarce country, as sewage pollutes rivers and the ocean and lands up in drinking water. The decline in service delivery and infrastructure, which started when the ANC was in sole command of metros and towns, has been accelerated by coalition instability.

The extreme decline in state capacity is due to a number of factors, including a dispute at the heart of the ANC about the best economic approach to follow to overturn the country’s 350-odd year legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. The party toyed with the Keynesian Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) in the early 1990s before ditching it for the neoliberal capitalist Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan of 1996. GEAR was spearheaded by the second democratic-era president Thabo Mbeki. The austerity policies of GEAR stabilised the economy, improved growth, reduced crime and slowly turned the tide on joblessness during Mbeki’s presidency in the 2000s. But corruption had already struck a blow, with the arms deal of the late 1990s leading to Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s deputy, being charged with racketeering, money laundering and fraud arising from 783 payments. GEAR provoked a challenge from contradictory leftist, ethno-racial and patriarchal forces in the ANC. This “coalition of the wounded”, all slighted in some way by Mbeki, converged around the figure of Zuma. After keeping a low profile, Zuma emerged as a powerful populist orator. Mobilising both rural and urban publics, his rhetoric conjured an idealised “traditional” past of ethno-racial and patriarchal harmony, combined with black nationalist, liberation symbolism exemplified by “Awuleth’ Umshini Wami” (Bring my machine gun), his signature song at rallies.

Harnessing the support of the South African Communist Party, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, rural-based traditional leaders, and the ANC’s youth and women’s leagues, Zuma succeeded in having Mbeki recalled as president in 2007. Ascending to the country’s presidency in the 2009 general election, Zuma and his faction held forth the need for “radical economic transformation” to combat the “white monopoly capital” still controlling the country. Mbeki was depicted as doing the bidding of white monopoly capital. Zuma and his protégé Malema garnered disgruntled black capitalists that felt excluded from the benefits of the ANC policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). State spending, also to placate voters with social grants paid to 47% of the population, pushed the government debt to gross domestic product ratio to 74% by the end of 2023.

“Radical economic transformation” for state capture

It transpired that the concepts of “radical economic transformation” and “white monopoly capital” were developed by the disgraced UK public relations firm Bell Pottinger. Since shut after its involvement in political interference in other states also emerged, it was hired at the time by the Guptas, an Indian family close to Zuma, to fuel racial tensions, particularly through social media disinformation. Zuma, with the help of the Guptas, embarked on a project of grand corruption, according to the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture (the “Zondo Commission”, as it was chaired by then Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo). Over the nine years of his presidency, Zuma and a Gupta-run network of ANC politicians, public servants and private sector companies siphoned as much as R1 trillion (50.5 billion euros) from the country’s many state-owned enterprises. This became known as state capture, bringing crucial entities to their knees: most notoriously, the state electricity company Eskom and the railway, roads and port company Transnet. Rolling electricity outages shaved off up to 3.2 percent in economic growth in 2022 while dysfunctional ports had 96 container ships waiting for up to four months at a cost to the economy of R98 million (5 million euro) per day at the end of 2023.

The inability to resolve the crisis in development also played out at the other two levels of the state: the provincial and local government levels. Party political battles erupted for control over resources in the form of government posts and procurement. Assassinations have become a regular occurrence, including to forcibly claim posts in political office or the public service at local level by removing incumbents, or to thwart investigations into corruption, including at universities.

Postcolonial trends witnessed elsewhere in Africa have been unleashed. Instead of the constitutional aim of a reciprocal relationship between state and citizen, a system has taken root of favours offered, demanded and acceded to arbitrarily. With politically connected individuals acting in their own narrow interest, poor people resort to direct action, deemed as more effective than voting to communicate grievances to politicians. Hence the withdrawal from voting has gone hand in hand with South Africa becoming a protest-intensive society.

“What has Zuma done?”

Zuma depicts his successor Cyril Ramaphosa as, similar to Mbeki, in service of white capital. Ramaphosa, a billionaire beneficiary of BEE, appointed the Zondo Commission and has since attempted to restore state-owned enterprises and other essential agencies such as the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the South African Revenue Services (SARS) that had also been “captured”. However, the commission found that the ANC’s Leninist-inspired policy of “cadre deployment” enabled state capture. The ANC conceives of itself as a vanguard party that mush establish a hegemony over all aspects of the state. This is done through the “deployment” of party loyalists, irrespective of ability or expertise. This self-image of the party, shared alike by neoliberals such as Ramaphosa and ethno-racial nationalists such as Zuma, clashes directly with the constitution. The ANC drive for hegemony also underpins the politicisation of institutions such as the NPA that should under the constitutional dispensation be independent. Such politicisation started already under Mbeki, if not under Nelson Mandela, the first democratic president.

It has also enabled Zuma’s argument that the corruption charges against him are politically motivated. He has been able to present himself as a victim of the Ramaphosa faction, leading to a popular anti-apartheid struggle song being revised by his supporters to declare “Wenzeni Zuma”?” (What has Zuma done?). Zuma’s arrest and sentencing to jail for refusing to appear before the Zondo Commission led in July 2021 to unprecedented public violence in which more than 350 lives and 2.8 billion euro were lost due to sabotage, looting and arson. Worst affected was Zuma’s home province KwaZulu Natal, the second most populous province where Zulu nationalism had been a force kept alive during apartheid through the Bantustan policy, and which Zuma has been able to tap into. It was also the province in which political violence during the transition played out most fiercely between the ANC and the Zulu nationalist Inkatha. Gauteng was also heavily affected because of Inkatha-led violence by Zulu migrant workers at the time. The July 2021 violence mapped onto the political violence of the 1990s.

“…you do not vote with fellow blacks, you will die…”

There is a very real danger this year of political violence erupting in the same areas in the aftermath of the election. Zuma has relaunched his political career with the new uMkhonto weSizwe party, named after the disbanded military wing of the ANC. It is a signature Zuma move: the re-invocation of struggle myth-making, this time as a frontal assault on constitutional democracy. The party’s manifesto declares that the constitution, the country’s democratic bedrock, should be scrapped. Instead of the supremacy of the constitution, South Africa should return to the apartheid-era system of parliamentary supremacy. Furthermore, parliament should be restructured to create an upper chamber for traditional leaders. These are unelected men who, on the basis of bloodline and gender, are currently empowered under postapartheid customary law to control traditional authorities that map onto apartheid’s Bantustan areas.

Zuma especially has in his crosshairs the liberal principles of equality before the law and the separation of powers. He is on the record for questioning how the judges of the Constitutional Court could have the power to make decisions in cases concerning him. He also intends to change the foundational rules that ensure free and fair elections: “If you are black and you do not vote with fellow blacks, you will die… If it was up to me, I would say every black person must pass before me to see which party they voted for and stop this thing of a secret vote. Why would you hide when you vote for something you love? When we govern, we will change voting laws and there will be no secret voting system.”

MK Party rhetoric has been characterised by threats of violence. The Independent Electoral Commission is already considering action against the party for spreading disinformation. It spread videos on social media with allegations that vote rigging was taking place in KwaZulu Natal. The party has insisted that it will gain two-thirds of the vote, with suggestions of violence should this not happen. Despite being disqualified from returning to parliament by the Constitutional Court because of his 2021 prison sentence, Zuma remains the face of the party. Polls place the MK Party at around 10 percent. Indications are that Zuma will try to force another constitutional crisis by insisting on returning to parliament, this time as kingmaker in a coalition with the ANC.

About the author

Prof Dr Christi Van der Westhuizen is an author, political analyst and Associate Professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Democracy and Non-Racialism at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), South Africa. She served as a visiting professor at Leipzig University’s Institute for African Studies and the Leipzig Research Centre Global Dynamics (ReCentGlobe) from October 2022 to January 2023. She is also member of ReCentGlobe’s Scientific Advisory Board. She recently published The D-Word: Perspectives on Democracy in Tumultuous Times (edited with Siphiwe Dube and Zwelethu Jolobe; Mandela University Press).

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Christi van der Westhuizen (2024, 29. Mai). Democratic South Africa at 30 years: Battling state capture and ethno-racial populism. Global Dynamics. Abgerufen am 25. Juni 2024, von

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  1. 06/06/2024

    […] Democratic South Africa at 30 years : Battling state capture and ethno-racial populism, par Christi van der Westhuizen, sur le Carnet Global Dynamics ; […]

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