Gloomy sentiments

ANTHONY BUTLER: Things can get worse in SA — and fast

Sense of foreboding in the country is spreading to international partners and investors

First published in Business Day and BusinessLive

26 MAY 2023

Earlier this week ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula blithely reassured a BBC interviewer that “if certain things are not resolved we will become a failed state, but we are not journeying towards that direction”.

Unfortunately, Mbalula did not reveal what those “certain things” are, or how exactly they will be tackled. 

In the past, limitations of public healthcare, security and education did not unduly trouble local elites. Today, in contrast, a deep sense of apprehension has set in, with widespread fear about a total electricity blackout or the nightmare of a failed state. The new and alarming sense of foreboding that has gripped much of SA’s commercial and intellectual leadership is understandably spreading to international partners and investors. 

There is an inexorable accumulation of institutions and organisations that just don’t work. Power cuts are escalating, and a parallel collapse of local electricity distribution infrastructure is unfolding. The appalling cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal feels like the harbinger of a new epoch in the history of SA’s public health. 

The things that do not work cannot be fixed because other things are broken. The dysfunction of the freight rail system has driven heavy lorries onto a road system that is consequently collapsing too. Eskom is not just destroying itself: it is collapsing water purification and sewage plants, basic public health and education systems, and undermining the viability of businesses, big and small. The longstanding psychological escape valve of “hope for the future” has progressively closed. 

Three realities cannot be gainsaid. First, the idea that the governing party can reform itself is no longer credible. The new generation of leaders elected to the national executive committee in 2022 is more provincial, poorly educated, dogmatic and corrupt than any of its predecessors. No matter how demonstrably “deployment” has wrecked parastatal performance — most pertinently at Eskom — the ANC will not abandon it.  

Second, the party will not easily be removed through the ballot box. It will continue to campaign well, fuelled by money from parastatals, corruption, and international party-to-party transfers. The danger of ballot rigging is real. If the party nonetheless loses, it will most probably still run SA’s national government by informal coalition. The worse it performs, the more likely it is to team up with the EFF, a development that will make matters even worse. 

Third, even if the ANC loses power, democracy turns on the idea that a fresh coalition can form a new government and steer the machinery of the state in a different direction. However, the ship of state the ANC will leave behind has been holed below the waterline. Events in Tshwane over the past few days have dramatised this predicament.

The fiscus is weakened — both locally and nationally — which means there is no money for a fresh government to respond to inherited crises. Human resources in the public sector are in a parlous condition across almost all areas of its activity. Worse still, the removal of the ANC from political office at local, provincial and national levels will not dismantle networks of corruption that are now entrenched almost everywhere. 

The progressive deterioration of the state will continue. The ANC will not change. Electoral politics will not make much difference. Taken together, these features of our situation will accelerate the general and dramatic loss of hope domestically in the future of the country, which means money and skills will leave even faster.  

As for the blocs and countries whose companies actually invest in SA — in descending order the EU, US and UK — they will take their cue from domestic sentiment. While the situation is obviously bad, there is no reason to believe it cannot get far worse quite quickly. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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