A personal take on what went wrong – feel free to skip this if you’ve read Animal Farm


Posted on July 30, 2022

Introduction

I am South African. I have always wanted to write something about my country of birth – not out of a sense of patriotism, but in that curious way that people have of wanting to explain themselves to themselves, or of wanting to make the world seem more sane than it is.

In an unconscious attempt to put off ever doing this I reached out to a blogger based in the States to ask whether he had any questions about South Africa. He suggested that I write about how apartheid relates to any current problems we have, and whether there were ‘discontinuous trends’ when apartheid ended.

This ballooned into such a fraught undertaking that I almost succeeded in putting this off forever. But I persevered, trudging through some uncomfortable terrain to write what you have before you – a condensed look at the problems of my country, as you yourself might find them if you live here for some time.

Summarising almost 30 years of democracy in post-apartheid South Africa can clearly not be done in a single blog post, and I make massive simplifications. I have my own biases, so I encourage you to do further research – as is typical, I make liberal use of wikipedia links I deem relevant. Numbers and statistics are approximate – I have done my best to use numbers from credible sources, but I have finite time and patience.

TLDR; Poverty and inequality are sky high. The economy was performing terribly even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and unemployment sits somewhere between 34% and 47%(!), depending on how you measure it. Economic indicators related to social welfare are generally negative (there are still people and corporations making a killing). Some of this is due to the legacy of apartheid; but much of it is also due to a lack of accountable or competent leadership, and a massive program of organised corruption that has completely undermined the ability of the state to perform its basic functions, including keeping its citizens safe or encourage investment. Due to the peculiarities of the South African energy sector this extends to being unable to generate enough power to keep the lights on (literally). Much of the blame can be laid at the door of the political party that has been running the country since the end of apartheid – calling South Africa a kleptocracy would not be inappropriate (although the related term ‘State Capture’ is typically used instead). Factional battles within the party threaten to tear the country apart – I cautiously lay part of the blame at the door of the nature of revolutionary politics, and uncautiously and with great certainty at the door of the many corrupt members of the ruling party destroying the country, with the assistance of unscrupulous people in the private sector (thanks McKinsey, Bain, et al).

Some depressing statistics

In a nation of nearly 60 million people, only around 7 million people earn enough to pay income tax, around 18 million people rely on monthly grants from the government to survive, and the unemployment rate is somewhere between 34% and 47%, depending on how you define it (youth unemployment is even higher, a clear recipe for disaster). So for every taxpayer, there are between two and three people of working age who receive social grants, funded by those taxes – many of them rely on these grants for survival.

I’ll let that sink in for a bit.

Alright? In addition we have one of the worst performing education systems in the world (hitting 146th place out of 148 in the 2013-2014 WEF Global Competitiveness report, despite spending a larger portion of our GDP (which is the second largest on the African continent, after Nigeria) than most other African countries on education. Only Yemen and Libya scored worse.

It does not follow from this that literally everything is awful (the above report ranks us first on ‘Strength of auditing and reporting standards’, and the ominous sounding ‘Efficacy of corporate boards’, and there is a lot to like about living here) but it does help to contextualise the problems we face as a country. The cognitive dissonance of belonging to the shrinking middle class and living something like a first world lifestyle in a sea of inequality and poverty is intense.

In what follows I will use very broad brush strokes in an attempt to explain the situation.

Our problems

Inequality

Inequality in South Africa is absurdly high. We are often cited as one of the most unequal societies in the world, and based purely on our GINI coefficient, we are in fact the most unequal (as of 2022) (source). This is obviously bad. In addition to the suffering implied by this metric, almost anybody who thinks about this for the smallest iota of time will realise that this is a perfect recipe for social instability, and perhaps a nasty revolution at some point. An obvious sequala is rampant violence and property crime, which I will not discuss, but is also definitely bad.

Eskom

I would need to write an entire book to do justice to the absolute tragic clusterfuck that is Eskom.

Eskom is a state owned power company with near monopoly on power generation and distribution. It has been looted to the bone by the people running it, thanks to the help of people in government and their friends. As a result the country doesn’t generate enough power, and hasn’t for 14 years. We have frequent episodes of ‘loadshedding’ (an infuriating and Orwellian euphemism for ‘rolling blackouts’) to avoid a total grid collapse. This is by far the single most obvious and avoidable obstacle to economic growth, but is itself just a symptom of a deeper malaise.

The government was informed, in the 1990s that the country would run out of sufficient generating capacity by 2007 if something wasn’t done (e.g. construct more power stations). So surely they went ahead and built more power stations? Haha, no.

Critical maintenance was also largely neglected (as in ‘not done at all at a number of power stations’) for some amount of time – it’s not clear for how long, but perhaps for the better part of a decade. At one point the executives running Eskom saw it fit to incentivise something like ‘total hours generators are running’ with cash payments to the station managers. The outcome was that sure, for some time we had fewer blackouts, but the power stations deteriorated even more, because they were run at a rate they were not designed for, and underwent almost no maintenance. This is a textbook example of a perverse incentive.

There have also more recently been credible reports of sabotage – for example, a pylon was downed with power tools, plunging the country into yet another unexpected period of rolling blackouts. This is almost certainly related to factional fights in the ANC, which I will get to later.

The examples I could give to illustrate the problems are so ridiculous that I imagine they must appear comical to someone who doesn’t have to live with the consequences (i.e. rolling blackouts). One that I consider illustrative of the absurdity of the situation is that Eskom, a company in the business of selling electricity, at one point took out advertisements encouraging people not to use electricity. The only surprise is that they didn’t try to spin this as a win for environmentalism.

The entire fiasco is almost a textbook case of why competition is important to markets – in this case the same entity that had a monopoly on power generation and distribution (the government, via the Department of Public Enterprises) was the one that maintained the legislation to keep competitors out of the market, while also not actually being competent enough to generate power. I’m not saying unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism is objectively and unambiguously good (it certainly isn’t) but at least in this specific case having credible, independent power producers (preferably of the renewable type) would likely have prevented the absolutely insane situation that currently exists. Despite (or likely because) the South African government has continued bailing out Eskom, they are also the largest threat to the national fiscus, with the total debt on their books sitting at between 8 to 10% of the country’s GDP, while they continue to haemorrhage money and fail to deliver on their core mandate.

Passenger rail

Another State-owned enterprise that essentially has a monopoly on an essential service has been looted to the point where they barely provide any service (you may be beginning to see a pattern here).

The culprit in this case is Prasa, the entity responsible for passenger rail. Among their more egregious errors: they spent R2.65 billion (at the current exchange rate this is close to $160 million) to buy trains that literally don’t fit on our rail network. I wish I could blame this on incompetence. But no, every reasonable engineer involved told them the trains were of the incorrect specification, and they bought them anyway. Why? Well, because the bribes were paid to the correct people, of course (i.e. people connected to the ruling party).

Passenger rail in large parts of the country has essentially collapsed in the last two odd years. I live near an important regional train station – there hasn’t been a train in over two years, and most of the overhead power cables have been stolen (copper theft is a lucrative business).

All of this is clearly bad and has obvious knock-on effects on the wider economy. As always the poor are the most affected, as they no longer have access to affordable rail services, and must now rely on the far more expensive minibus taxis, which are a topic on their own (the short version is that they are more or less run as criminal organisations).

July 2021 riots

Last year in July, just as those of us who care about such things were giving a sigh of relief that the very corrupt super innocent ex-President Jacob Zuma was being sent to jail for contempt of court, our joy turned to horror as a well thought out political campaign aimed at destabilising the country, publicly coordinated and recorded via social media, led to wide-spread looting in several provinces. For a few days it appeared that the entire country might go up in smoke. Parts of it did.

If you want to you can google for images and videos of the event. If not, imagine some dystopian scene involving many thousands of mostly poor people (but also some well-heeled people in fancy cars) looting warehouses and setting stuff on fire.

Over 300 people died. The damage in the city of Durban alone is estimated at R70 billion (around $4.2 billion).

And Zuma? It sort of worked – he’s out on medical parole after serving only two months of his fifteen month sentence, for no reason that anyone can determine, but likely related to the fact that he had the power to incite mass looting. His next trial is coming up in August, and there are ominous rumblings of a recurrence of the previous anarchy.

The root causes of the mess we’re in

Teasing out the underlying causes is not a simple issue. Below I give some necessary context, and then mention some of the causal factors contributing to the current situation.

A ludicrously short history of colonial South Africa for context

Doing justice to the history of the geographical area now called South Africa would require a multivolume series of massive tomes. The following is a very brief contextualisation of South Africa in broader world history. For convenience I’m starting with the advent of colonialism – this is unfortunate, because it smacks of Eurocentrism. But if I want to write about South Africa today the legacy of colonialism is absolutely relevant (especially if we’re talking about inequality), and if I started with precolonial South African history and prehistory (which is super interesting and you should definitely go read about on wikipedia or something) I would never get around to that.

Much of the current inequality certainly has its origin in apartheid, which forcibly removed millions of people from their homes, relocating them to places lacking in economic opportunities; forced them in to low-paying manual jobs; deprived them of a decent education; treated them as inherently inferior to ‘white’ people; generally denied them basic human rights; and did various horrible things too numerous to list. But the sad reality is that while the official policy of apartheid no longer exists, the actual material conditions of millions of people have not improved, and in certain ways are likely worse.

Apartheid was preceded by the era of colonialism, which also involved various horrible things (from a certain perspective apartheid was merely a continuation of colonialism, but I will gloss over that for the sake of brevity); discussion about the extent that other, more recent factors are to blame for our current predicament are a political mine field. It has become a bit of a joke that politicians from the ruling party like to blame everything on apartheid.

Keep in mind that the political dispensation called apartheid only spanned the period from 1948 to the early 1990s – less than half a century. Before that there were several centuries of colonial rule; the country was ruled by the British from 1806 to 1910 (technically we were a Dominion of the British Empire until we became a Republic in 1961). They at least had the decency to outlaw slavery throughout their Empire in 1833, but they also laid some of the groundwork for what became apartheid – see wikipedia for a short summary.

The initial colonialism was arguably initiated by a large international company rather than a country; the fascinating multinational company the Dutch East India company, created a way station for their ships on the way to India in 1652. That way station eventually became Cape Town (which is nice by the way, and worth visiting).

In a cartoon, Eurocentric version of history that was when the history of ‘South Africa’ started. But as I pointed out above, that’s false; there were various indigenous peoples living here long before the Europeans arrived, with their own ways of life, and their own forms of social and political organisation; the interior of what is now South Africa was only settled by European colonists (and Boer voortrekkers) much later; there were various independent Boer republics later on, the current borders reflect arbitrary colonial decisions, etc. Laws that paved the way for apartheid were promulgated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the implementation of apartheid as official government policy in 1948, when the Afrikaner National Party came to power. And even way before that indigenous people were dispossessed of their land in various ways, typically involving violence – not that different from the story of the dispossession of the indigenous peoples of the Americas or Australasia, although the details differ a lot, of course.

As a result of the preceding it should not be surprising that we are a culturally diverse country – contemporary SA has 11 eleven official languages. I mention this because a popular trope among the right-wing is that multicultural societies cannot ‘succeed’ – people often point to the relatively homogenous cultural makeup of the wealthy Nordic countries as evidence for this. I hope this is false. It certainly adds to the complexity of the situation, but I know of no reason to believe that this diversity must inevitably lead to the types of problems we struggle with as a country – rampant corruption, crime, and unemployment.

The ideological roots of the ruling party

Although this is strangely not very clear from their wikipedia page, the African National Congress (ANC), that has run the country since we become a democracy, has ideological roots in Marxism-Leninism. If you just read their wikipedia page they sound like some sort of generic and benign social democracy committed to a vanilla liberalism – my own experience of living in the country for over 30 years tells me that is completely wrong. It is true that the party is committed, on paper, to a market-oriented growth model, but this is largely at odds with their rhetoric, which owes more to the combination of African Nationalism and Marxism-Leninism that has historically characterised their political ideology than anything else.

Here is an essay helpfully linked to by marxists.org written by Thabo Mbeki, our president from 1999 to 2008 (it’s not a bad essay). The essay’s point of departure is a reading of history that is essentially Marxist in character. I believe this is an accurate representative sample of the historical perspective prevalent among the ANC intelligentsia during the struggle against apartheid.

Ironically, Mbeki presided over a period of economic growth in SA, and was accused by his detractors of being neoliberal in his outlook (neoliberalism is a popular bogeyman in South Africa, although it is difficult to find anyone who claims the label). He is also infamous for his AIDS denialism, which seems to have been rooted in his ideological paranoia about the ‘West’, and too much bad philosophy – by some estimates this led to the preventable deaths of over 330 000 South Africans (see e.g. this journal article).

Despite ruling the country for decades the ANC still sees itself as a vanguard party, in the sense of Leninist vanguardism. Official party rhetoric is often best understood in this context (here is an interesting and thoughtful article pointing out how this poses challenges to representative democracy).

If you are of a certain political bent and don’t dig very deeply, you might notice this influence of Marxism-Leninism, decide that’s obviously a bad idea, and conclude that’s the underlying problem. But the general level of incompetence and corruption make it difficult to judge the extent to which the ruling party’s ideological positions contribute to the position the country is in. Personally I think Marxism-Leninism is an awful idea that is almost synonymous with authoritarianism, and likely to lead to the destruction of the economy. It is tempting to note that we are becoming more authoritarian and that the economy is in a terrible state, and conclude that Marxist-Leninism is to blame, but I do not think this follows as logically as some people seem to believe.

Similarly ‘neoliberalism’ as a concept is too all-encompassing a notion for me to discuss in a manner useful to this discussion. South Africa exists on the same planet and swims in the same currents as other nations. The relevance of broader socioeconomic trends and theories to the actual psychology of the people involved in looting the state is unclear; if they are relevant it seems to me they are primarily so to the extent that they are used as set pieces in orchestrated narratives that are used by factions of the ruling party and associated organisations to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Despite this it is fashionable among the left-wing in South Africa to ground our problems in the broader context of whatever they construe neoliberalism to mean. There are certainly valid concerns around the extent that policies that can be lumped together as ‘neoliberal’ can lead to bad outcomes (e.g. allowing companies like Bain to facilitate the destruction of the South African Revenue Service) but the discussion can feel somewhat pedantic and/or conspiratorial when weighed against the more obvious personal failings of the country’s leaders.

I will venture to say that many of our problems are reflections of the tensions that arise when revolutionary liberation movements, aimed at the overthrow of the existing social order, transition to becoming the actual government. They are typically high on lofty rhetoric, which some of their members may even believe, but short on intellectual and moral capital, and feel entitled to what they consider their just rewards (immortalised in Smuts Ngonyama’s phrase ‘I didn’t struggle to be poor’).

The ANC has been so terrible at implementing its own policies, and performing the basic bureaucratic tasks required for a state to function that determining to what extent the content of Marxism-Leninism has contributed to the country’s decline is a dead end for me – but it is an important historical touching point to understand the broader context in which the ANC came to power. A far more compelling question, I believe, is investigating the content of revolutionary political systems in general, and why they often fall prey to the twin diseases of corruption and incoherence. I will not attempt to provide any concrete answers to those questions here.

Geopolitical context

South Africa was embroiled in a low intensity war along the northern border of its territory (which at the time included the country now known as Namibia) for close to half of the duration of the policy of apartheid. This war was, among other things, a front in the Cold War, with Cuba and the USSR aligned on the side of revolutionary anti-colonial forces in Angola and Namibia. The SA government became involved to avoid having a hostile Soviet-aligned country on their doorstep facilitating an armed resistance against their rule (at least that’s what they claimed, and there are reasons to believe them) – the ANC was involved, because, well, they saw themselves (and many members still do, as I pointed out above) as a revolutionary member of a community of anti-imperialist forces aimed at the emancipation of the African proletariat. They were aligned with, and gained support, from the USSR, where many ANC members received military training. The topic is complex and draws heated debate, and I hope my simplified version has not drifted too far from the brute facts. If you want to know more, this section in the relevant wiki article isn’t too bad. Broadly, the border war coincided with the wave of decolonisation throughout Africa in the wake of the collapse of the historical Great Powers after the World Wars, and their subsequent withdrawal from their colonial territories.

I mention this because an important factor in the end of apartheid, absent from overly romanticised versions of the event, was the dissolution of the USSR. The subsequent realignment of global power structures encouraged the more reform-minded members of the National Party to consider negotiations with the then-banned ANC. This eventually led to our first democratic election, which the ANC won by a landslide (the National Party made sure to dismantle the country’s nukes before handing over power, which I reckon was an objective good, even if the motives were cynical).

So one discontinuous trend in post-apartheid South Africa would be who the governing country sees itself closest to politically and ideologically. While the previous dispensation was decidedly anti-Russian, the current one has done its best to pander to the interest of Russia and China. Both are countries, you will note, with poor human rights records and an interesting understanding of democracy. The ANC government has a terrible record with regards to the way it positions itself internationally regarding human rights issues, having either abstained from or voted against several important resolutions at the UN. Most recently it joined the majority of African nations who have explicitly refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. The government has also sheltered people charged with international war crimes and refused entry to the Dalai Lama due to pressure from the Chinese government.

Apartheid ended as part of a negotiated political settlement. I have seen claims online that this was ‘bloodless’ or something to that effect. This strikes me as propaganda – a lot of blood was in fact spilt, just not on the level of a full-scale civil war. In addition to the violence associated with the enforcement of the apartheid system itself, the state security apparatus tortured and murdered anti-apartheid activists (it’s not entirely clear how many), and some of the anti-apartheid movements were also committed to violence; they bombed churches, restaurants, etc. People suspected of being police informants were often necklaced (a barbaric and horrifying practice that lives on in instances of vigilante justice and xenophobic violence in the townships). My father was a journalist in the 80s – he had a few close calls, including having his car stoned while he was covering a story in a township, and nearly being blown up by a car bomb. He still has the rock that nearly took his life, a grisly memento mori representing the path the country could have taken.

Cadre deployment

The ANC is committed to a policy of cadre deployment. The result is that many of the people employed by the state are literally and objectively incompetent. While people generally think this of their country’s bureaucrats, you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s worse here than in many other places. The use of the word ‘cadre’ should be a hint – some politicians here also make a point of referring to each other as ‘Comrade’, which always makes me cringe. You can usefully replace the word with the term ‘apparatchik’.

People’s perceived loyalty to the ANC is often the primary consideration when appointing them to political roles. In reality it also comes down to family connections and the like – part of the performative rhetoric required of politicians is referral to their Struggle credentials, even if they are literally too young to have taken part in the resistance to apartheid. Being a child or grandchild of an anti-apartheid hero associated with the ANC is enough to grant you a nimbus of virtue, and can assist you in gaining access to a political career. Nepotism exists everywhere, but there is something particularly odious about it when the people who are looting the state and dismantling the apparatus of democracy apparently believe on a deep psychological level that they are entitled to it.

State Capture

The period from 2008 onwards saw an intentional and purposeful destruction of State capacity and competency via the executive branch (see wikipedia for a short summary).

Our political system was literally purchased by a wealthy family of Indian businessmen, creating something akin to a shadow government.

As much as I enjoy pillorying overly simplistic notions of shadowy cabals pulling the strings behind the scenes, as I believe many of the world’s ills are emergent, in this case there totally was a shadowy cabal pulling the strings and making important political decisions.

More well-developed countries also have instances of this, but our case feels somehow more completely disempowering, because the systems of checks and balances that were designed during our transition to a democracy to prevent this type of thing were deliberately dismantled by the same party that claims the moral victory of having ushered in that democracy (this claim is also somewhat ahistorical, in that numerous organisations and individuals not directly associated with the ANC opposed apartheid).

The ANC would have you believe that this period has definitely stopped – it has not, it has merely taken on different forms, as the party has degenerated into the equivalent of two armed camps trying to outmaneuver each other. The one camp is, in theory, less corrupt than the other, but the entire organisation is compromised by the same ideological and emotional baggage, and cleaning their Augean stable of cynical amorality is a task likely beyond any conceivable Heracles.

Black Economic Empowerment

Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is a complex and divisive topic. Short version: certain policies are in place that, in theory, are supposed to assist the ‘non-white’ part of the population to rise out of poverty by facilitating broader access to the economy from which they have historically been excluded. In reality it benefits only the well-connected, and adds a bunch of costs to doing business – your BEE status determines whether you can do business with the state, which creates some truly wonderful opportunities for corruption and rent seeking. In the majority of cases the extra costs effectively end up in the pockets of the corrupt, with no discernible advantage for the people the policy is supposed to benefit.

In my mind the current form of the legislation is a prime enabler of some of the most insidious forms of corruption, including State Capture, and should be scrapped. From a moral perspective I don’t approve of legislation based on race categorisation (it is worth contemplating why a South African might think that).

It is pretty clear that BEE in its current form doesn’t work, but has instead actively harmed the country and its economy; but pointing this out is far outside the South African Overton window. If a form of BEE could be suggested that doesn’t contain the perverse incentives of the current system I might support it; but experience has made me cynical, and in any case there is currently 0% chance of this happening.

Summary

The political party that has been running the country since the end of apartheid has screwed up royally, and is ethically and intellectually bankrupt. They also seem to be incapable of performing the basic functions necessary to run a state.

In addition, they sustain a narrative of geopolitical victimhood, invoking colonialism and apartheid as evidence of the inherent untrustworthiness of the power structures associated with the West (not completely without reason); and the post-Cold War global order as being opposed to the specific vision of social justice they espouse (in theory, if not practice).

The ANC has no real commitments towards upholding democratic values or improving the lot of the common South African – they are greedy and entitled, and will do whatever it takes to accrue power to themselves. Until the electorate understands this we will continue our slide towards a kleptocracy.

Increasing inequality, failing state institutions, and botched land restitution policies are leading to an increase in left wing populism. In reality this comes down to people mobilising the disaffected poor, who are increasingly young, into militant style political organisations who like to quote Fanon.

The discourse of these organisations is negative, manifesting in opposition to allegedly ‘Western’ models of democracy, in favour of a collectivist and nativist rhetoric that I believe runs in a straight line to a dangerous (nominally leftist) populism and fascism.

Various charts summarising inequality in SA

Article about taxpayer distribution

Russia and the ANC

The South African energy crisis

The Prasa train saga