The battle over South Africa’s Mining Charter highlights a lack of confidence in government. The mining industry has genuine concerns over the security of its investments, if the Charter is passed as planned, while the government is right to argue that the sector could do more to help counter racial imbalances in the country that continue to define the chasm between rich and poor. Yet Pretoria’s stance is undermined by a lack of confidence in it from all sections of society.
South Africa’s experience over the past 25 years could have been a great deal worse. The Apartheid-era government tried to hang on to power through a policy of divide and rule by inculcating violence between different ethnic groups. Coupled with the bitterness and cruelty of its racist ideology, this could have triggered a civil war and national implosion. Instead, South Africa was lucky that Nelson Mandela was on hand as a proponent of reconciliation and forgiveness.
A lot of progress on living standards has been made in the meantime, with millions of people now living in more modern homes that benefit from electricity and water supplies. Yet anemic economic growth over the past decade and a poorly functioning political system has seen that progress falter. While the rich continue to live very well, the improvements in living standards have petered out.
The African National Congress, which led the campaign to end Apartheid, has ruled the country since it became democratic in 1994. With limited support for the opposition, it became too confident in its ability to rule. The main political struggles have therefore taken place within the party itself. This has created an environment within which poor governance and widespread corruption have become common.
President Jacob Zuma has become the focus of much of that criticism, particularly over his use of state funds to upgrade his Nkandla home and allegations surrounding the wealthy Gupta family’s influence over government appointments. The loyalty that the ANC built up during the liberation struggle is dissipating. It has lost control of some local governments to the Democratic Alliance and there is now a real possibility that it could lose the 2019 elections.
In the meantime, Zuma and the government continue to limp on. When political difficulties occur, such as over the Mining Charter, Pretoria now acts with less authority than at any time since the end of Apartheid. This weakness affects all parts of the economy, within the energy sector and beyond. Something needs to change and it looks increasingly likely that it will be a change of government rather than the rebirth of the ruling party.