The year before the next general elections must be considered a critical period for the governing party to demonstrate its efficacy. It is crucial for showing how its governing of the country leads to a better life for all, as it promised during its first administration almost three decades ago.
To be honest, the whole current term of office has been a huge test for the African National Congress (ANC) in the first place and for our democracy as a whole. This sixth administration marked a sixth chance given to the erstwhile liberation movement to prove once and for all that it can govern and govern well. The first five administrations from 1994 to 2019 achieved a lot but left a lot to be achieved. Poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, decaying public infrastructure, social divisions, corruption and crime are among the stains on the movement’s long record in power.
Of course, the second and third administrations, from 1999 to 2009, could claim progress in registering positive economic growth consistently, some growth in formal unemployment and a reduction in income poverty through a massive expansion of social grants. It did enjoy a decent level of public trust in state institutions among the population.
While some major achievements were achieved in the early stages, including reversing the physical legacy of apartheid in access to housing, water, energy, and other basic services, by the end of the third administration in 2009, there were already reversals taking place.
In the fourth administration, poverty remained on the increase. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. The economy was locked in low and jobless growth. The shortage of homes remained high. Access to pipe drinking water and electricity still eluded many. School drop rates and disease incidents remained high.
The efficiency of the state was called into question in reports of the Public Service Commission. The role of parliament in ensuring better performance remained weak. The rise of service delivery protests from the early 2000s grew more widespread by the 2010s, becoming a clear barometer of growing levels of public discontent.
We saw a continued positive trajectory in economic growth only until 2010. The social grant response to poverty had positive effects, but unemployment and underdevelopment remained high, and the country battled to overcome the same challenges. The global financial and economic crises that began in 2009 could partly explain this decline.
By the fifth administration in 2014, the trends had deteriorated markedly in the climate of a global economic crisis and failures of government. The deterioration in the state of public roads was an indicator of a decline in the state of public services and governance. Potholes would become signals for holes in our capacity to govern ourselves. The energy crisis also worsened. The problem of corruption that is old became the talk of the town.
This had a deleterious effect on the capacity of the state. It diminished stated-owned enterprises, used as strategic levers, little room to influence economic growth and development positively. The decision to focus on economic freedom in this administration gave rise to ANC resolutions on the radical economic transformation in the hope that it would speed up growth while ensuring greater inclusion in the economy.
By the time the current administration began in 2019, the ideal of a better life for all had remained elusive, with growing public discontent due to high costs of living, deteriorating public services and declining trust in public institutions. Fighting poverty, unemployment, and underdevelopment would again be a super-priority, as had been the case since the second administration. The corruption of the state by private actors with state actors would also be a major focus. The new dawn promised by this administration would be a litmus test as the term draws to a close.
This test will be about whether the current administration will turn the economy around as envisaged in the National Development Plan (NDP) in order to enable South Africa to end poverty and underdevelopment. It will be tested on its ability to reduce unemployment and reduce corruption. As things stand, it seems that indicators are not positive. We have the worst energy crisis in decades, and it has a hugely negative effect on economic growth, development and social stability. It helps deepen a sense of public unhappiness and loss of trust in the state.
The number of municipalities that are nearly collapsing has increased. The country’s external debt has increased. Challenges of poverty, unemployment, underdevelopment and corruption remain entrenched, with only small wins here and there. Of course, like the global financial crisis that bedevilled the fourth administration, the current government can name the Covid-19 pandemic as a major reason for its failures.
What can the government do in this penultimate year of the term to turn some things around? It is clear that there are opportunities in three areas. The first is to immediately fix the energy crisis or at least ameliorate it. The second is to strengthen state-owned enterprises and use them to decisively shift the economic fortunes.
The third is to act with speed to strengthen the state along the lines spelt out in Chapter 13 of the NDP. Fourth is to immediately fix the social compact on which rests the full realisation of economic and social goals. The ANC will need to act responsibly and ethically always.
There is no time for doing both the essential and the nice-to-do things at the same time. Crisis times require a business unusual conduct. It requires firm and decisive leadership. It demands that President Cyril Ramaphosa and his party treat every week until the 2024 elections as an opportunity to register observable success.
The country must be run like an urgent project, with the president, ministers, premiers and mayors operating like efficient project managers, driven by clear milestones on a weekly or monthly basis.
Parliament can assist the country by asking intelligent questions, conducting focused monitoring and evaluation exercises. Civil society has to be vigilant and keep politicians and officials on their toes. 2024 is around the corner. The reckoning begins now.
Prof Siphamandla Zondi is the Director of the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.