Our 30-year-old democracy in a perilous state – Christo van der Rheede

Springbok rugby team captain Siya Kolisi and the rest of the team greet the crowds on top of a bus as part of the trophy parade in Soweto, after they won the 2023 Rugby World Cup in November. Photo: EPA

Springbok rugby team captain Siya Kolisi and the rest of the team greet the crowds on top of a bus as part of the trophy parade in Soweto, after they won the 2023 Rugby World Cup in November. Photo: EPA

Published Jan 8, 2024


By Christo van der Rheede

In 2024 we will be celebrating 30 years of our democracy. Millions of people were given an opportunity to vote a new democratic government into power for the first time in 1994. This was the result of the visionary leadership of two of the most esteemed political leaders of our time, the late presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk.

Both realised that South Africa could no longer continue with its race-based system of exclusion, in short apartheid. A system characterised by marginalisation, disenfranchisement, forced removals, job reservation and militarisation of the state, especially against its black citizens.

De Klerk, erstwhile leader of the National Party, and Mandela, leader of the ANC, were instrumental in laying a firm foundation for the establishment of a free and democratic South Africa through the unbanning of the ANC, dismantling of apartheid laws and negotiating a new constitution for South Africa. Together they elevated our country which at that stage was ravaged by civil conflict, hatred and mistrust, to an example of a model state premised on sound constitutional building blocks.

These include inter alia:

– the establishment of a constitutional democracy

– a programme aimed at nation building to heal the divisions of the past

– creating a society based on democratic values, social justice and basic human rights

– laying the foundation for a democratic and open society in which government is founded on the will of the population and every citizen is protected equally by law

– increasing the quality of life of all citizens

– unlocking the potential of every human being

– the building of a united and democratic South Africa capable of taking its rightful place as a sovereign state in the community of nations.

South Africans turned up in their millions to vote and ushered in a new democratic dispensation based on an impressive set of values, ideals and rights embedded in our national Constitution. This brought to an end to an era of conflict between black and white, an end to South Africa’s pariah status in the eyes of the international community and an era of sanctions and excluding South Africa to trade openly with the rest of the world.

The agricultural sector was set for tremendous growth over the past 30 years. Indeed, an achievement to be celebrated and honoured. Bold steps were taken after 1994 to liberalise trade and deepen South African producers’ integration into global food value chains.

To actively pursue international markets, modernise agricultural practices and build an inclusive and growing sector. Agricultural marketing boards and the single marketing system, which previously forced producers to negotiate en bloc with powerful international supermarkets, were phased out.

However, trade liberalisation also saw the phasing out of tariff protections to South African farmers and further decreases in farm subsidisation. As a result of the latter, the Producer Support Estimate to South African producers shrunk to about 3% – well below the 20% average of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Support to producers in South Africa amounted to 4.5% of gross farm receipts in 2020-22. Most direct payments are provided as input subsidies (fuel tax refund) or as investment subsidies directed towards small-scale farming.

Despite all of these changes, the value of agricultural production increased dramatically annually, largely due to the increase in values of field crops, horticultural products and animal products. Agritourism, including professional hunting and related industries, have also seen tremendous growth over time.

The fresh fruit industry in South Africa is now considered the biggest contributor to the agricultural export sector (by value) and a major source of employment.

Today fresh fruit accounts for approximately 35% of South African agricultural exports. Fruit exports include citrus fruit, pome fruit, stone fruit, table grapes, subtropical fruit, berries and other exotic fruit – exported to more than 100 destinations. Vegetables are also exported from South Africa. The economic value generated from these exports is more than $3.3 billion (R62bn).

The avocado industry has expanded from around 13 000 hectares in 2010 to almost 19 000ha to date. Volume is expected to grow to 250 000 to 300 000 tons by 2028 to 2029. Apple and pear export volumes grew by 41.81% and 16.7%, respectively, from 2010 to 2019.

This coincided with a growth in peach and nectarine exports, which showed strong growth in volume and value over the last decade. The number of export cartons was 55% more in 2019 than in 2010, driven by the demand for nectarines.

With a total value of more than R60bn projected for 2029, foreign revenue is expected to contribute 70.14% of the combined overall earnings in the citrus, table grape, pome and stone fruit industries.

The story of the South African soybean industry is hailed as one of the biggest successes with respect to a targeted import replacement programme with a common vision pursued by government and private sector.

Twenty years ago, South Africa produced only 220 000 tons of soybeans, while the latest estimate for the 2023 production season puts soybean production at 2.8 million tons. In essence, a favourable investment environment coupled with clear policy mandates by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) triggered private sector investment in 2 million tons of crushing capacity during the early 2010s.

These investments, in combination with extensive cultivar trials and the introduction of the technology levy to incentivise seed companies to provide South African producers access to latest seed technology, ignited the rapid expansion in production.

In terms of the professional, responsible and ethical hunting industry, research indicates that the approximate contribution of trophy hunting to the South African economy amounts to about $180m annually.

Numerous entities, such as government bodies issuing hunting licences and permits, staff supporting professional hunters with tracking, setting up of camps, accommodation and other field staff are either directly or indirectly involved and benefiting as such.

The heroic and visionary leadership by Mandela and De Klerk laid a firm basis for this growth. But it was under the leadership of former president Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel, erstwhile minister of finance, that economic growth in South Africa gained extensive momentum.

During their presidency, the South African economy grew at an average rate of 3.5% per year. Democratic South Africa inherited a debt-to-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio of 42.7% in 1994, and it remained relatively stable during the formative years under Mandela.

It reduced significantly to 23.5% in 2008 due to the prudent fiscal policies adopted under Mbeki’s tenure and the implementation of sound financial management by Manuel and his team.

The reign of Mbeki and Manuel unfortunately came abruptly to an end when he was replaced by president Jacob Zuma at the 52nd National Conference of the ANC held in Polokwane, Limpopo, from December 16 to 20, 2007. A more populist direction was pursued by the ANC and as a result state spending started to increase dramatically, while government revenue started to dwindle as a result of a stagnating economy.

While the lips of austerity remained pursed under the leadership of Mbeki, it quickly turned into a monster with jaws wide opened to capture the state through corruption, mismanagement and political patronage.

Today South Africa faces huge challenges. Our hope was pinned on President Cyril Ramaphosa to lead South Africa out of this dark abyss of state failure, poor service delivery, high unemployment, corruption, lack of law and order, lack of accountability, political thuggery and populism.

His superficial approach to solve complex challenge, inability to hold Cabinet members to account and indecisiveness has accelerated social, economic and political adversity. Investment has withered, imports grown, foreign debt increased, undermining the balance of payments. Currency devaluation has hastened as a result.

South Africa also faces serious fiscal trouble. State expenditure surpasses state income. Prioritising social expenditure over economic expenditure has resulted in state-owned enterprises no longer being able to deliver public services and maintain power plants, rail networks, harbours, roads, and water infrastructure. South Africa’s economy has been rapidly hollowing out, the sources of growth exhausted, productivity falling irrepressibly.

Unemployment, poverty and inequality are at record levels. This decline and hollowing out of the economy are both the consequence of a fundamental error of development strategy on the part of the ANC, including cadre deployment, lack of accountability, lack of competence and visionary and imaginary leadership. There is in fact very little to celebrate on the eve of our 30th year of democratic rule by the ordinary man on the street as they experience the brunt of economic stagnation.

However, the power to change the course of South Africa, away from destruction to reconstruction, is in the hands of ordinary people and visionary leaders who are not self-serving, but who see themselves as servants of the people. The election in 2024 provides an opportunity to elect such a political leadership. A political leadership that understands that best performing states provide security, good governance, higher prosperity and social welfare. Worst performing states fail on all these measures.

The prediction is that South Africa is entering the era of coalition politics. There is certainly hope if a political coalition consists of like-minded political leaders and party members. This is an imperative for trust, collaboration and efficient and effective service delivery. A coalition consisting of adversarial political parties, however, has in many local governments resulted in infighting, poor service delivery at local level and complete collapse of infrastructure.

Leaving the future of our constitutional democracy in the hands of untrustworthy politicians, is our downfall. South Africans of all walks of life need to take greater ownership of our democratic dispensation and hold ourselves and our public leaders to account.

It is in promoting, practising and strengthening the values and ideals embedded in our national Constitution that we can save South Africa from becoming a failed state. This obligation rest on each and every citizen and everyone throughout the rest of the world that has an interest in the future of South Africa.

Let us not only be ambassadors of our national Constitution, let us also honour it in our thoughts and deeds. Each positive contribution, however small or big, will help to restore the magic we all experienced in 1994 when we peacefully and full of hope ushered in our newly founded democracy. Let the recent World Cup victory by the Springboks serve as a recipe to turn South Africa into a winning nation again.

In fact, let us create a Springbok team in every town or district to address the many social, economic and politically divisive challenges that our people face. That should be the legacy of every South African.

Christo van der Rheede, former CEO of Agri SA and Adjunct Professor in the University of the Free State Business School.