Our partners at the Financial Times have a fantastic podcast episode tracking the fortunes of President Cyril Ramaphosa since he took over from embattled former head of state Jacob Zuma. Although Ramaphosa’s victory in Nasrek in 2017 at the ANC Electoral Conference came with much fanfare that South Africa was on the brink of a new dawn, it was short-lived as the sitting head of state was now haunted by his own Phala Phala skeletons , and his party faced spiraling fortunes in last year’s local government elections and what promises to be a tough time in the upcoming national elections in 2024. In the Rachman Review, the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman talks to writer and political activist Songeza Zibi, chairman of the Rivonia Circle think tank – a man who may one day be planning to run for the country’s highest office. The next 30 minutes is an interrogation of a representative of South Africa, who Zibi believes is an ANC that is not only morally bankrupt, but intellectually starved. – Michael Apel
Songeza Zibi on the biggest challenges facing South Africa
The biggest problem is the economy, specifically jobs because we have 36% unemployment. South Africa has a youth unemployment rate of 60%. So that’s the first. I think the second problem is in many ways directly related, which is crime. People feel unsafe, and in the focus groups we conduct, they refer to the criminals as children, which means that the people who commit the crime belong to the same community. And the third is corruption. People complain a lot about corruption, and in particular about the fact that the president did not deal with it as he promised.
The ANC under Jacob Zuma destroyed institutions, and institutions are nothing more than the corporate ability to get things done. So we cannot do anything in the public sector. You have the private sector investment to unlock, but you don’t have the mechanisms in the state to make it work. So that’s the first. The second thing, in my view, is that the orientation of the ANC is incompatible with the way a modern economy works or should work – or simply the economy we have. Events are designed for an economy that you wish you had, but actually doesn’t have.
To give you some specific numbers from the latest quarterly labor force survey. If you don’t have a qualification after leaving school, the unemployment rate is as high as 90%. If you have a post-secondary qualification, this is reduced to 50%. So you already see apprenticeships being offered to people with post-secondary qualifications. There are people who really fall between the cracks. So this is the first. Secondly, I think we just need to work with the economy that we have in the sense that the ANC has a big industrial society concept of the economy where people go to work at 8 in the morning and leave at 5 in the evening and they work for big factories and the like. The sectors we really need to focus on, given the skills shortage, are agriculture, tourism and so on, which would give us better labor absorption protectionism to get these equations.
About the energy crisis
In a 24-hour cycle, we get up to 9 hours of power outages. And this just shows the problem I just explained, because the idea of unlocking private capital to start renewable energy production is met with resistance in the ANC from people who have MADE investments in the coal sector. And these people fear that if the country moves too quickly to a renewable energy scenario, they will be out of pocket. So you have these vested interests that prevent a faster transition. You also have the ANC which does not know how to articulate the duration of the transition, the energy balance of the country and so on. Our Integrated Energy Resource Plan, which is a 50-year plan, needs to be updated every two years, but it gets right every six to seven years. That way, by the time another one comes along, it’s already out of date.
For a long time the ANC, for fear of losing one election or another, emphasized the need to keep the lights on, which means you save on capital maintenance so you don’t have too many power stations costing the country. So there’s a maintenance backlog that basically needs to be untangled. The second is the construction of new generation capacities. It’s not necessarily coal, but we’re just behind because it’s taken us an extremely long time just to approve renewable emissions licenses, as if we don’t have a crisis. You seem to lack understanding of how fast you need to move.
On who he sees after 2024 if the ANC falls below 50%
It’s much less about who and more about what. I believe that what we need – and there is a great appetite for this at the moment – is a broad coalition united by shared values and principles, shared priorities and consensus on how those priorities will be addressed. This will take the form of a combination of some political actors, civil society organizations, and community and other groups. It’s a difficult proposition, but I think South Africa now, since the early 1990s, has a history of coalitions moving together for change. Let’s get to the who now. Who is obviously not from the African National Congress. I also do not think that this person or such a group of people can be from the opposition parties, because they are not trying to create a coalition either. But I think that creating this coalition, this broad coalition, not necessarily for participation in the elections, but for the idea, is a necessary step.
When he thinks about going into politics
Rivonia Circle, which is a think tank that we founded, is a political activity. I made that very clear. One of its aims is to explore policy alternatives that South Africans should explore in the short to medium term. That is, 2024, until 2029. 2024 – national elections, 2026 – local elections, 2029 – national elections again. So this is already a political attempt. My approach to this is that we should use the Rivonia Circle to try to build this coalition. If this coalition looks possible and workable, then there is no reason why I should not enter politics myself.
We have to do the hard work because the problem with South African politics and why voters are so cynical is that a big man gets up on the podium and says, “I’m going to consult the people of South Africa about a new political party,” and then they form. But it’s up to them, and the voters are fed up with that. And that’s why I talk a lot about the coalition, because I really think we really need it. You need business, you need the community and other civic interest groups, building on a set of priorities and saying, well, if we solve these five or six things and we all make a real effort to solve them, we can start to affect hundreds of other similar problems, which we have.
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