South Africa goes to the polls next month for its fourth proper election—20 years after Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) came to power and ended white-only rule. It will be a time for reflection on the first two decades of democratic rule, the retrospective mood heightened by the recent death of Mandela himself.
It will also be an appropriate moment to look ahead and reassess what have in many cases become outdated assumptions about South Africa and its relationship to the rest of the continent.
One of the old assumptions is that South Africa was a bellwether for the rest of Africa—that if the country went awry, it would hit investor sentiment continent-wide. This is no longer the case. There has, correctly, been a decoupling. Among investors in the West, there is generally more enthusiasm for countries to the north of South Africa. This is partly because South Africa’s challenges are regarded as unique, its particularly twisted history having left more scars than standard colonialism.
South Africa’s flagging position stems from the scale of the wealth imbalance and the social, institutional, and economic rifts from apartheid. While these imbalances exist in most countries to the north, their sedimentary, institutionalized nature have made them much harder for the ANC government to address—while simultaneously trying to change the very nature of government itself. Meanwhile, the populist political responses to such economic hardship have spooked investors.
South Africa’s Election
The outcome for the May 2014 election in South Africa—an ANC victory—is a foregone conclusion. However the details of election results will provide a crucial augury of how the next two decades play out. It is most likely the beginning of the end for the ANC as the unchallengeable elected force in South Africa—unless the party can re-invent itself.
The pull of history would suggest that the party is entering the final stage of the post-liberation curve, when, like in Zambia and Zimbabwe, the ANC will come under pressure from the political offspring of the trade union movement.
Having been in a cozy alliance with all key political players until recently, it is now facing pressure from a populist radical, Julius Malema and his new Economic Freedom Front, as well as from the left, where significant players in the trade union movement are planning to form their own party. The numbers on either side will make little impact for some time, but the pressure will mount as the ANC struggles to address the endemic unemployment and poverty which, beyond the substantial pockets of first world sophistication, affect the majority of the population.
The Prognosis for South Africa
The prognosis is that the ANC will be compelled to enter into regional coalitions to shore up its position. The party will most likely secure the 2019 election, with 2024 being the point at which it is probably voted out of power.
But this narrative is far from certain. There are many ways it could play out—the ANC is a divided and factionalized political party, with pockets of deep strategic talent, so the way in which it reacts is far from predictable. If it does not find better leadership, the more sinister securocrats could make life harder for the opposition. Most likely is a muddled reaction—a varied response from the broad range of interests within the ANC ruling alliance.
The Future of Futurology in Africa
Whichever way it unfolds, there will likely be even fewer reasons to draw analogies between South Africa and its continental neighbors.
There will of course be similar themes. Economically these are a reliance on mineral wealth, an infrastructure deficit especially regarding power, a dearth of manufacturing, and cumbersome regulatory systems. But beyond some of these shared characteristics, the trajectories for most African countries are going to be less predictable than at any time since independence.
Two factors are likely to significantly impact existing assumptions and predictions. These are (i) the ability to get things done due to increasingly available mobile telecommunications and the internet, and (ii) the population curve, which will make the region the world’s biggest source of young labor.
Countries that are nimble enough to adjust will be able to capture the benefits—and, with the inevitable technological boom, the ways in which they do so could transform the current laggards into the continent’s champions.
In the technology sector, internet provision is picking up fast—hot on the heels of the incredible growth in mobile coverage and usage—and this is transforming the speed at which changes can take place. For example, even in perpetually crisis-hit neighboring Zimbabwe, fiber-optic cabling is expanding coverage, and new data transmission techniques with power transmission poles are on the cards. The possibilities for remote educational tools and healthcare suddenly open up, enabling sclerotic bureaucracies to do what was recently considered impossible.
Throw in the power of new drone technology—to manage agricultural projects, and effect other forms of service delivery—and there is scope for rapid transformation.
The continent’s population is meanwhile expected to quadruple over the next century. This rapid growth could make some African countries new centers of manufacturing growth. There is a line of thought that this demographic boom could see the continent become the world’s greatest source of young labor. The challenge for most countries will be to adjust the regulatory environments to make commercial employment easier.
It is now 66 years since the first colonized sub-Saharan African country—Ghana—became independent. Since then much hope has been placed in the next generation of African leaders. In most instances this much-awaited change has not yet arrived. The wave of Chinese capital, and the commodity boom, have perhaps helped to ingrain some of the ways of the past, not least the dependence on resources. With the Chinese drive now entering a more measured phase, and commodity prices ungenerous to resource-dependent states, there is even more reason for many African countries to defy the old assumptions about them.