Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Challenging the Elders

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 27, 2015 --  

South Africa's angry students never lived under apartheid, only under the neglectful watch of the ANC.

As South Africa's student protesters mass to vent their anger over high tuition, the government has been taken off guard.   President Jacob Zuma went on television to promise a freeze in tuition hikes, yet somehow managed to make protesters even madder by not addressing them directly.1 The students are demanding free education and an end to lingering discriminatory practices.

Much of the prestige of President Zuma, a veteran of the struggle against apartheid, is lost on the students.  Those under 21 were born after the fall of the apartheid government.  Yet despite two decades of majority rule, young South African blacks face the same problems as the generation before them. Poverty is widespread.  Good jobs are scarce. White South Africans still dominate the economy. 

Consider that South Africa has the fourth worst income inequality in the world, as measured by the gini index.2 Unemployment hit an 11-year high this summer at 26 percent, with youth unemployment estimated at more than 50 percent.3 Long-term growth rates at 2.9 percent would be fine for a developed country, but are way too low to lift the masses out of poverty.4

The unfortunate truth is that very little economic progress has been made since 1990.  Many well-connected black South Africans have enriched themselves through relationships with politicians.  But this phenomenon is not widespread. 

Meanwhile, the successors to Nelson Mandela have been backpedaling on the very civil liberties that their hero fought so hard to achieve. In 2011, the ruling African National Congress passed a law establishing prison terms for publishing "state secrets," a term defined to include revealing evidence of government corruption.5 Since then, journalists have been repeatedly harassed for unflattering reporting on government figures.

More recently, the government embarrassed the country before the world by rolling out the red carpet for Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir despite an outstanding arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for war crimes.6 South Africa has since announced plans to withdraw its membership in the International Criminal Court.7

For aging African National Congress leaders like President Zuma, showing solidarity with evil figures like al-Bashir is in tradition of honoring Pan-African solidarity, especially for countries like Sudan that supported the ANC in its struggle against apartheid. But younger South Africans, including the student protesters, these struggles happened before they were born. As the post-apartheid population of South Africa continues to grow, the masses will be less and less impressed by such nostalgic pageantry -- especially when the country's intractable problems continue to fester.

The challenge posed to the ruling African National Congress by the student protesters is just the beginning of this inter-generational struggle. Given the failure of the old revolutionaries to govern South Africa in a way that improves the living standards of the masses, this challenge can not come soon enough. 

Related Web Columns: The End of Unity, June 8, 2010


1. BBC, South African Students Continue Fees Protest, October 26, 2015

2. Human Sciences Research Council, Income Inequality and Limitations of the Gini Index: The Case of South Africa, November 2014

3. Wall Street Journal, South Africa Unemployment Hits 11-Year High, May 26, 2015

4. International Monetary Fund, Economic Growth in Post-Apartheid South Africa: A Growth-Accounting Analysis, January 12, 2006

5. Freedom House, South Africa Press Freedom Report, 2012

6. The Guardian, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir Leaves South Africa as Court Considers Arrest, June 15, 2015

7. Ibid., ANC Plans to Withdraw South Africa from International Criminal Court, October 11, 2015