South Africa is on a troubling economic and political trajectory that risks the stability of the state.
This trajectory could imperil democracy in South Africa and lead to some form of authoritarian government.
The 2024 South African general election could become an inflection point that pushes South Africa further toward a hybrid, democratic-authoritarian regime.
Since the end of Apartheid, the South African government has functioned as a one-party dominant democracy. The African National Congress (ANC) has provided political stability for an emergent nation that some feared would be torn apart by racial, ethnic, and tribal divisions. At the same time, it has given rise to structures that have enabled political elites to accrue tremendous power, wealth, and influence through corruption, patronage, and clientelism. As a consequence, South Africans are living in an increasingly flawed democracy plagued by state capture that has resulted in one of the most inequitable countries in the world.
The South African economy is in a precarious state of affairs. When Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president, there was widespread hope that his administration would be able to rapidly deliver on his promise to revitalize the national economy and restore ethical business practices. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic carried external shocks that led to a 6.3 percent contraction in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. While the economy experienced a 4.9 percent growth in GDP in 2021, the economic forecasts do not look promising. The country’s GDP is only projected to grow by 1.7 percent in 2022, 1.1 percent in 2023, and 1.6 percent in 2024. Moreover, there is a significant risk that the ongoing energy crisis will lead to a recession in the not-too-distant future.
To spur growth, the International Monetary Fund has recommended that Ramaphosa’s administration improve energy security, foster private investment, promote good governance, and create jobs. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. The South African government has very little room to maneuver given the public debt load, labor market rigidities, infrastructure constraints, and political realities. This is fueling concerns that there could be a collapse in basic services and public infrastructure accompanied by cost-of-living and employment crises. The recent decision by the S&P to downgrade the country’s economic outlook only adds fuel to that fire.
One-party-dominant systems like South Africa tend to conflate the interests of the dominant party with the interests of the state. However, this does not mean that these parties cannot tolerate internal factions with competing political views. Not unlike the Mandela family, there have long been camps within camps within camps within the ANC.
Prior to the next election, there is a risk that more and more ANC politicians will reject the notion that good alignment exists between their own interests and those of the party. According to a recent poll, more than half of South African taxpayers are seriously considering not voting for the ANC in the upcoming election. According to another, the approval ratings for Ramaphosa have dropped 8 percent in less than a year. Problematically, there are no quick fixes. Many assume that the ANC would lose significant votes without Ramaphosa as its leader. The ANC is therefore facing an increasingly uncertain future that could further undermine party discipline.
Perhaps more worrisome were his efforts to securitize the ongoing energy crisis. His declaration that the energy crisis was an existential threat that demanded extraordinary measures was met with immediate condemnation by pro-democracy activists. Some even claimed that these emergency measures could inadvertently bring about the conditions necessary for dictatorial rule. Early this month, the Ramaphosa administration responded by declaring an end to the state of disaster which they defended as necessary.
Over the last two decades, the government of South Africa has slowly but steadily moved away from full democracy toward a hybrid regime. This has coincided with sub-structural shifts in basic civil liberties, functioning of governance, freedom of the judiciary, participation in politics, and suppression of opposition. However, it would be unreasonable to assume that South Africa will remain a flawed democracy over the next two decades. Next year’s elections could even bring about a significant change in the position that it occupies along the democracy-authoritarian spectrum. A year out, most South African voters appear extremely dissatisfied with the status quo. The key questions are whether they will be willing to vote the ANC out of office, and, if so, whether the ANC will be willing to uphold free and fair elections that risk regime change.
To be clear, there is still a lot of time left between now and the elections. If Ramaphosa can somehow reign in corruption and spur economic growth, his political fortunes would almost certainly skyrocket. That would not only help to restore party unity and pour cold water on talk about regime change—it could open up the political space needed to forcefully advocate for democratic reforms within the party. Of course, that raises two follow-on questions: Would Ramaphosa still be willing and able to push for the reforms that are needed to achieve full democracy? And, if so, under what conditions?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.