South Africa in need of an opposition

South Africa in need of an opposition

JOHANNESBURG – Rows of black marble headstones mark the graves of those who died in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when South African police fired into a crowd of demonstrators, killing 69 of them including James Buti Bessie, who was 12.

It is a solemn yet peaceful place. Last month, police invaded it. They were chasing looters who were hiding among the graves after a mob of 200 ransacked two nearby supermarkets.

The looting had spilled over from a day of what South Africans call “service delivery” protests—expressions of outrage at the government’s failure to provide housing, running water, acceptable schools or, as in Sharpeville, reliable electricity.

Service delivery protests take many forms—roads, even motorways, can be blocked for hours, sometimes by burning tyres; buildings, even schools, can become targets.

In May protesters set fire to more than 20 schools in Limpopo province, in an argument over local-government boundaries.

South Africans have cause to be angry. The economy is in dire shape: thanks partly to slowing sales of iron ore and platinum, it shrank by an annualised 1.2% in the first quarter of this year, after growing by only 0.4% in the quarter before.

The rand has lost about 15% of its value against the dollar in the past year: over the past five years it has halved. Unless there is a dramatic change in policy or circumstance, a downgrading of the country’s sovereign debt to junk status is expected before the end of the year.

Own goals, like a new visa regime that makes it harder for tourists to take advantage of the cheap rand, are depressingly common. A new bill that will make it easier for the state to force whites to sell land for redistribution to blacks (paying a “fair” price that the government will determine) was passed by parliament last month.

Mining investment has slowed to a trickle, in part because of “empowerment” rules that require mining firms to ensure that 26% of their shares are held by black investors. The appointment of political hacks (“cadre deployment”) to state-owned firms has made them less efficient—and less able to supply South Africans with electricity, transport and unbiased television news.

Politically, the president is weakened: condemned by the country’s Constitutional Court for failing to pay back public money he spent on his home, at risk of having corruption charges against him reinstated, and at war with his own finance minister as the economy crumbles.

It is said that the five most senior party officials below Zuma have privately urged him to step aside. There are rumours that the party will try to push him out before his term ends in 2019, as happened to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.

All this bodes badly for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has held power since South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. National elections are not due until 2019; but municipal ones will take place on August 3rd.

The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), hopes for a breakthrough. The going, however, will be hard.

The DA’s biggest problem is that most blacks see it as a white party. It won 22% of the total vote in 2014 but only about 6% of the black electorate, a serious weakness in a country that is 80% black.

It governs Cape Town and the province that includes it, but it has yet to break out of that enclave, where the population is mostly coloured (mixed-race) or white.

The party hopes that things are about to change. A year ago it elected its first black leader, Mmusi Maimame, who is only 36.

In previous local and provincial elections he helped boost the DA vote in Johannesburg and in Gauteng province, which includes both it and Pretoria, the capital. It has selected a raft of black candidates to run for mayor in most of the municipal elections in August, most notably Herman Mashaba, a cosmetics magnate who is one of South Africa’s most successful self-made black businessmen.

Mashaba hopes to be mayor of Johannesburg.

But the fact remains that the DA’s chairman and two of its three deputy chairmen are white, as are many other senior officials.

“It’s a white party with a black face,” scoffs Zwelinzima Vavi, a trade union leader who has nonetheless turned against the ANC, which he says “is neither pro-worker, pro-poor nor pro-business. It is only pro-Zuma.”

The DA insists that it is neither white nor black, but that thing that South Africa most badly needs: a non-racial party. It has steadily increased its vote share at election after election since democracy arrived.

“We are now challenging the ANC in its heartland, in Pretoria, in Johannesburg, in Port Elizabeth,” Maimane says.

“I’m angry about the failure of black South Africans in this country—but our record in the Western Cape shows that we can deliver better services for South African people than anyone else.”

Opinion on that is divided. Much of Cape Town is as sleekly prosperous as anywhere in the developed world, but it also includes some of the most deprived and dangerous townships in the country.

In Khayelitsha township, for instance, Virginia, a trader in the scruffy marketplace behind the main road complains that at the age of 46 she still lives in a corrugated-iron shack with no running water, no power and only a communal toilet.

“The DA have done nothing at all for us,” she says.

A rival seller, though, disagrees. “Mmusi is young, he’s modern: we need new blood in this country, we’ve had enough of the old men who have been stealing from us for so many years.”

The DA’s hopes are highest in Nelson Mandela Bay, the municipality that contains Port Elizabeth. The party has a strong chance of winning outright or coming close enough to form a mayoral government there with the help of some of the dozen or so tiny parties that snap at the heels of the larger ones.

Port Elizabeth is the sixth-largest city in the country.

The really important battles will come in Tshwane, the metropolitan area centred on Pretoria, the capital, and the Johannesburg municipality, the country’s largest, which includes South Africa’s commercial capital and its far poorer (and all-black) sister city, Soweto.

No one expects the DA to win either of these contests outright. But it still may be able to form local administrations there, if only it can settle the trickiest problem the DA now faces: what to do about the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a party led by a renegade ANC leader, Julius Malema.

Malema’s EFF is hardly an ideal fit for the DA, which likes to project itself as sober, economically responsible, tough on corruption and wedded to the rule of law. Malema, who was turfed out of the ANC in 2012, is none of these things. He is given to disrupting parliament with protests, once called on his supporters to “kill the Boer” (a reference to white South Africans of Dutch ancestry) and recently urged them to burn down ANC offices. He was once indicted for corruption, which he denies; the charges never came to court. Whereas the DA espouses liberalism, Malema offers revolutionary swagger. He vows to nationalise mines and banks, seize white land without compensation and build bigger houses for the poor so that they can have sex without being disturbed by their children.

Formed only the previous year, the EFF won 6.4% in the 2014 election, and is on track nearly to double that in August. The DA’s internal polls suggest it is running at 35% or so in its target areas. Together, the DA and the EFF have a good chance of breaking the ANC’s majorities in both Johannesburg and Pretoria.

What then? Opinion within the DA is sharply divided. Going into coalition with the EFF could be a disaster, alienating the DA’s core vote and perhaps leading to chaotic government, followed by a spectacular divorce.

Maimane refuses to say much about it.

“The time for talking about coalitions is after the election,” he says, adding that if the party were to form one with the EFF it would insist on holding the jobs of mayor and municipal treasurer.

The DA has a golden chance to show South Africans that it can govern outside the Western Cape. Until it can do this, its chances of national office will remain slender. So a lot is at stake in August. – The Economist

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