On May 8th, South Africans will go to the polls. Virtually all pundits predict that the incumbent African National Congress will win its sixth consecutive mandate to govern the country nationally. While the party’s margin of victory remains an open question, it seems inconceivable that anyone other than Cyril Ramaphosa will be President. This threatens catastrophe for the left.

To understand where South Africa is now, it is necessary to examine the past decade. Jacob Zuma’s nine years in office were characterised by widespread corruption and mismanagement, with harm falling overwhelmingly on the poor. 17 million South Africans who rely on social grants to survive had their payments repeatedly put at risk and delayed. A miners’ strike at Marikana was met with brutal police reaction, killing dozens in the worst incident of state violence against civilians in the country since the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Over 100 mental health patients died, some of starvation, when the provincial government in Gauteng outsourced their care to NGOs lacking proper accreditation.

These are the worst examples, but the harm exceeds even these individual tragedies. Unemployment is above 25%. Nearly 80% of 9 or 10 year-olds cannot read. Eskom, the state power utility, struggles to keep the lights on. These issues are connected: how can a child be expected to learn by candlelight? Worse still, 25 years after the end of apartheid, the country remains profoundly unequal, with disadvantage continuing to be undeniably correlated with race.

Zuma destroyed public institutions and hollowed out the state to serve his personal interests but in the long term the most damaging result of his tenure may be its corrosive effect on public trust in government. Commissions of Inquiry on corruption abound, dominating news coverage but have revealed little that is surprising and have led to virtually no prosecutions. The sheer number of implicated public servants proved to South Africans what they had for a long time suspected – that politics is a game of self-enrichment. To most, a clean politician is now the exception that proves the rule. This has led to hopelessness and apathy. The 2014 general election was the first in which those born after the fall of apartheid (‘born frees’) could participate. But only 33% of this generation even registered to vote.

Amongst all this, however, there were flashes of hope. In 2015, a movement calling for free tertiary education (‘Fees Must Fall’) exploded onto university campuses, energising and radicalising students. However, as activists graduated or dropped out, the movement fizzled to nothing. Although the government was forced to make some concessions and a planned fee increase was halted, what seemed at the time to be a pivotal moment of youth mobilisation – a political reckoning – has come to very little.

What now?

Zuma’s replacement is Cyril Ramaphosa, his former vice-president. Ramaphosa is a billionaire who turned to business after playing a pivotal role in negotiations with the National Party to dismantle Apartheid.

While it is understandable to find Ramaphosa’s rise a relief after the national trauma of the Zuma years, he is no saviour. The rot in the ANC runs deep and it will take more than one man, even a powerful and canny one, to change that. Politicians implicated in the worst parts of state capture can be found high on the ANC’s party list and command key positions on the party’s National Executive Committee. The coming election is a national one. A strong showing for the ANC will not empower Ramaphosa specifically, allowing him to root-out corrupt elements. Rather, it will vindicate the party as a whole.  

Even if (and it’s a huge if) Ramaphosa were able to clean up his party, he is unlikely to have the best interests of the working class at heart. The ANC fudged free tertiary education and pays lip-service to the need for land reform while victimizing indigenous communities. Ramaphosa frequently refers to the exciting possibilities offered by the 4th Industrial Revolution, but his party’s manifesto offers little substance on how to address a changing world of work that is likely to leave the most vulnerable South Africans behind. The ANC is no longer the radical, progressive party it claims to be.

Alas, other parties seem to offer little by way of a viable alternative. The official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has long struggled to shake off its reputation as a ‘white party’ and reconcile its ideologically disparate factions. This election the DA appears to have settled firmly on the right – a popular campaign slogan is ‘Secure our Borders’ and leader Mmusi Maimane uses public appearances to rant about the danger posed by ‘socialist leftists’.

Formed in 2014, former ANC youth leader Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters once presented an inspiring vision for the future of the left in South Africa. Eschewing political traditions (its MPs strikingly wear overalls and maid’s uniforms in parliament), the party arguably did more than any other to hold the ANC to account. However, since Zuma stepped down, the EFF has found itself mired in corruption allegations of its own. Worse, it increasingly resorts to dangerous populism, viciously attacking the press (and individual journalists), and spreading conspiracy theories on social media.   

South Africa’s hope lies in a positive, non-partisan politics. Among the left, there is broad agreement on what the country needs – functional government institutions, land reform, vastly better basic education. Young people have shown that they can organise and send a strong message, but need to create movements with staying power. That means favouring solidarity over unnecessary division and drawing on the considerable wealth of experience available from older generations – particularly anti-apartheid and HIV/AIDS activists.

We should also reject the argument – which all major parties have engaged in on some level in the latest campaign – that foreigners are to blame for South Africans’ economic woes. Apartheid would not have ended without the support of other African countries. Resorting to xenophobia is a betrayal.

Above all, we cannot let the shamelessness of Jacob Zuma lower our expectations and render us complacent. Efficiency is not a good in and of itself. A functioning government would be an improvement, but getting things done is only truly commendable when those things help those in need.