South Africa Votes for Change

No longer boxed in.

Photographer: RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa’s voters have long had plenty to complain about. In municipal elections last week, they gave voice to their grievances. In what amounted to a referendum on the national government’s performance, they called for change.

Big wins by opposition parties in key municipalities could, with luck, push South Africa’s democracy away from racialism and outdated revolutionary rhetoric toward the overdue basics of good government.

To be sure, the ruling African National Congress still commands the loyalty of most South Africans: It won 54 percent of the overall vote. But its total slipped below 60 percent for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994. and it has lost support in urban centers. The opposition Democratic Alliance -- crudely slurred by the government as the party of whites -- attracted enough ANC defectors to become the biggest party in three cities, including Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, the seat of the executive branch.

Voters have reason to be unhappy. South Africa’s economy won’t grow this year. Unemployment has risen to 27 percent. The proportion of people living in poverty has fallen since the days of apartheid, but massive inequality remains. White households still earn more than five times as much as black ones.

QuickTake South Africa

Since taking office in 2009, President Jacob Zuma has plumbed the depths of scandal, injustice, and incompetence -- misappropriating taxpayer money to upgrade his country estate, favoring friends and family with contracts, mishandling violent strikes and protests, flouting international law and South Africa’s constitution, and roiling markets with his erratic decision-making.

Zuma overcame an impeachment vote in April, but seems unlikely to step down before his term ends in 2019. Yet critics within the ANC increasingly recognize that to avert worse losses in the next general election, the party must focus more on helping the country and less on helping itself at the country’s expense. A critical test for both the ANC and the opposition will come with this October's appointment of a new public protector, whose job it is to investigate any improprieties in government.

A more immediate task is to stave off a downgrade of the country’s credit rating to junk status. Public debt as a percentage of GDP has nearly doubled since 2008. Public sector salaries eat up almost half of tax revenue, which could otherwise go toward badly needed infrastructure.

South Africa also needs to spur private investment and growth by improving its competitiveness. On that measure, it has fallen way behind: Between 2008 and 2016, its ranking in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index sank almost 40 places.

Central to this effort will be improving South Africa’s dismal public education system, which critics say exists more for the benefit of the educators than the (poorly) educated. More competition in policy making on education and public administration can only help -- and the Democratic Alliance has improved school performance in the areas under its control.

What needs to happen isn’t really a mystery. Most of it is in South Africa’s vaunted National Development Plan 2030. Yet de facto one-party states are invariably bigger on plans than results. To make progress, South Africa needs a strong dose of political competition. It’s finally getting one.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.