The end of Apartheid in South Africa brought a surge of hope for a brighter future. But the ANC, the party that liberated the Black majority from oppression, has transformed the country into a swamp of corruption, mismanagement and despair. Some are trying to turn things around.
Every time parliamentarian Siviwe Gwarube walks to work, the anger comes surging back. Every time she lifts her gaze to the Corinthian capitals on top of the white, neoclassical pillars that line the magnificent façade of South Africa’s parliament building in the heart of Cape Town. This building – once built as a testament to British colonial rule and later a symbol of the dark Apartheid era before then emerging, in 1994, as a beacon of hope when the country’s first democratically elected representatives from all of South Africa’s ethnic groups moved in – for Siviwe Gwarube, this building has become a symbol of her country’s failure.
The chief whip for the Democratic Alliance (DA), the country’s largest opposition party, looks through shattered windows into the sky above the Cape of Good Hope. There is no roof to block her view. The stench of the soot from the two-day-long fire that ripped through the building in January 2022 still hangs in the air. Sandbags are lying in front of the portico as plaster peels from the walls. The South African flag hangs limp from a pole.
With a camel-brown overcoat tossed over her dress on this chilly July morning, the 34-year-old heads towards her office in the undamaged administrative section of the building complex. It’s quiet, with only the clacking of her high-heeled boots on the cobble stones echoing off the walls. "After more than a year and a half," she says, shaking her head, "they still haven’t even cleaned up the rubble."
Three Decades of Poor Governance
Three decades have passed since the end of Apartheid and the widely celebrated introduction of democracy in South Africa. Three decades since Nelson Mandela’s vision of a rainbow nation, in which people of all skin colors would live together in prosperity. Gwarube, though, now finds herself standing before the ruins of that dream. "The country is collapsing at a monumental scale."
South Africa, the most developed economy on the continent – a nation that in the 20th century didn’t have to shy away from comparisons to Europe – now finds itself, following decades of economic malpractice and political incompetence, on the brink of the abyss. The reasons for the collapse aren’t difficult to find, says Gwarube. "At the top of all our problems is governance. Governance has broken down in South Africa."
Gwarube is now sitting in her wood-paneled office, a portrait of Nelson Mandela hanging on the wall behind her. The leather-bound volumes of past parliamentary debates are lined up in the bookcase. Most of the representatives from the African National Congress (ANC), the party that liberated the country and now holds an absolute majority in parliament, pay little mind to the needs of the people who elected them, says Gwarube. In fact, she continues, many of them have little understanding of how parliament works and don’t even know what the separation of powers actually means. "It’s greed and corruption," she says.
The failures of the ruling elite has plunged South Africa into a dire political and economic crisis. Six out of 10 young South Africans are jobless and more than half of the country’s 60 million residents live in poverty, according to the World Bank. Furthermore, South Africa’s murder rate is one of the highest in the world, with around 25,000 victims per year. Since Apartheid, more than half a million people have met a violent death.
For the fiscal year 2021-2022, the auditor-general found that 219 of the country’s 257 municipalities did not have clean audits. In countless cities and municipalities, the infrastructure, administration, education system, health system, sewage and garbage collection are all subpar or completely dysfunctional. In many places, not even the trains are running, while some regions are forced to go for days without running water.
An independent investigative commission recently disclosed the degree to which public officeholders have systematically plundered state-owned companies and institutions and driven them into bankruptcy – from the flagship airline SAA and the public broadcaster SABC to the national postal service. Thus far, not a single high-ranking politician has been convicted in the final appeal. And despite repeated pledges to take action, President Cyril Ramaphosa hasn’t dared to do anything, likely out of concern that the kleptocrats in his own party would push him out of office.
Stealing Money from the Public
The damage caused by theft, sabotage, incompetence and mismanagement has been particularly severe at the country’s railway operator Transnet and the nationwide power utility Eskom. On some days, there is no electricity for 12 hours at a time in some places and large cities sink into inky blackness at night. The South African Reserve Bank estimates that such outages cost the economy the equivalent of almost 45 million euros per day.
A joke in South Africa these days asks what the difference is between the Titanic and South Africa. Answer: At least the Titanic’s lights were on as it sank.
The government long treated Eskom as a convenient and fecund source of easily accessed lucre. According to the company’s former CEO, government ministers were also part of the cartel that plundered the utility’s coffers. The executive had hoped to be able to save Eskom, but he was ultimately forced to resign and only barely managed to survive a poisoning attack. Gwarube says her party recently petitioned for the establishment of a parliamentary committee to investigate what happened to Eskom. "The ANC representatives voted against it," she says.
Ever since the fire in early 2022, the lawmaking body has only actually been operating at around 20 percent, the DA floor leader estimates. But, she adds, the bitterness detectable in her voice, the ANC isn’t interested in a functioning parliament anyway. "It would not be the resting place or refuge then for people who have stolen money from the public."
To change the course of the country, Gwarube’s DA party formed the "Moonshot Pact" in August together with six other parties. The goal of the alliance is to ensure that in next year’s elections, the ANC – for the first time since the end of Apartheid – will lose its absolute majority. Many South Africans fear that another legislative period under the party’s leadership could make the country’s collapse irreversible.
In February, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the most important international institution for combatting illegal money flows, placed South Africa on its "gray list," putting it in the company of failed states like South Sudan and Haiti.
How could things get so bad? The search for answers leads to the country’s commercial capitals and political nerve centers. To dilapidated rail lines, indifferent officials and run-down city quarters. And to people who, despite all of the headwinds, continue to search for ways out of the crisis.
The Fall of the ANC
In Saint James, a picturesque seaside suburb of Cape Town, 64 steps lead up to a Victorian house from an alley called Jacob’s Ladder. At the top, a silver-bearded man is waiting at the garden gate. Horst Kleinschmidt has amassed a comprehensive private archive of South Africa’s recent history and is almost unmatched in his ability to trace the dysfunctional path the ANC has followed.
A South African with German-Namibian roots, Kleinschmidt has collected thousands of documents detailing the fight against Apartheid – a campaign which, led by the ANC’s armed wing, got started in the early 1960s. Kleinschmidt, then a university student and part of the resistance movement, joined the fight. He was persecuted and thrown in jail before fleeing into exile in London, where he managed a legal assistance fund for imprisoned activists.
In 1994, the regime of white dominance collapsed, allowing Kleinschmidt to return to his home country, where he became general director of fisheries in the Environment Ministry in 2000. His aim was to fairly divide up the catch quotas – but he soon ran up against massive resistance from criminal cartels, in which ANC functionaries were also involved. "Suddenly, they were no longer calling me Comrade Horst, but Mister Kleinschmidt." His name landed at the top of a death list and he was even taken hostage on one occasion. In 2005, he resigned in protest.
Now 77, Kleinschmidt says he often wonders what caused honorable fellow anti-Apartheid campaigners to mutate into such horrible politicians. A photo from 1990 hangs above his desk showing him together with Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie, the icons of the South African fight for freedom, a photo from those years of transformation. "Things have gone badly wrong," he says. "We now see every day how the ruling elite lies, steals and cheats."
But the moral decay, says Kleinschmidt, began far earlier. Even during the resistance period, he says, not all of those involved were quite as selfless as they would later seek to appear. Aid money was embezzled, there was intrigue, resistance members suspected of spying were liquidated and, Kleinschmidt says, some criminal transgressions were glorified as acts of heroism.
Even Nelson Mandela didn’t turn his back where there was personal advantage to be gained. "In 1990, he called me in London and asked for $60,000 from our aid fund for the criminal proceedings against his wife." Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had been charged with kidnapping and was suspected of murder. "I refused, because we only supported victims of the Apartheid regime."
During Mandela’s tenure, senior ANC officials began to enrich themselves without restraint, in accordance with the motto: "Now it’s our time to eat." "They had no scruples. They saw it as their reward for the fight for freedom," says Kleinschmidt. Under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, from 2009 to 2018, the new power elite was particularly brazen, a time when the term "state capture" began making the rounds, referring to systematic corruption whereby narrow interest groups take control of state functions for personal gain.
Mandela's Party Seizes the State
Kleinschmidt’s judgment after 30 years of ANC rule: "The party is rotten to the core and no longer reformable. We need to start again from scratch, otherwise our country will sink into the swamp." Still, though, the party continues to enjoy a "liberation bonus" among the country's Black majority. There may be protests across the country – the data service Municipal IQ registered 193 of them last year alone – but thus far, there has been nothing resembling a popular uprising, Kleinschmidt says. "Most people simply don’t know any other political leadership and would never vote for white opposition politicians."
On social media, the ANC power apparatus is now referred to as a kakistocracy, government by the least competent. This lack of competence has long since trickled down from the very top to the lowest administrative levels and ultimately encompassed the entire country. ANC Secretary General Fikile Mbalula even admitted recently that "if certain things are not resolved, we will become a failed state." He also added that South Africa was facing high levels of corruption. Neither he nor other senior ANC officials responded to repeated DER SPIEGEL requests for comment.
Letta knows full well that he's harming the community. He also knows that people are furious with men like him and that he has contributed to a situation in which they must take expensive minibuses to work every morning. "But what am I supposed to do?" The 45-year-old lives in a squatter camp, the kind of slum made of wooden huts and corrugated metal shelters that can be found across the country. He last held a job, in construction, in 2008. These days, Letta and his companion plunder train stations – or what’s left of them, at least.
Wearing torn pants and a wool hat, he is standing on one of the two platforms in Jeppe Station, part of the commuter train network in the heart of Johannesburg. The building was renovated just a few years ago, painted in pleasant shades of gray and blue. Today, it is nothing but a ruin. It stinks of urine and long trenches run along the platforms. "The looters break up the concrete with pickaxes to get to the underground cables," says Letta. All he does, he claims, is collect the leftovers.
About half of sub-Saharan Africa’s total rail lines are in South Africa. But the trains no longer operate regularly, if they run at all.
Furthermore, in the fiscal year of 2021-2022, around 1,500 kilometers of copper cable was stolen, says Transnet, the state-owned company responsible for rail service in the country. Infrastructure theft has become a lucrative revenue stream for organized crime, and they don’t just target the high-voltage lines owned by the railway. In the townships, gangs dig down to the power cables and pull them out of the ground using pickup trucks. The power utility in Johannesburg registered more than 2,000 such cases and similar that same fiscal year alone. Copper wiring is even stolen from hospitals, likely destined for sale abroad.
South Africa now exports more copper than its mines produce.
Behind the walls along the tracks in Jeppestown, the imposing skyline of Johannesburg juts into the sky, a metropolis built on gold and a place where mining magnates used to live in vast palaces. Today, many parts of the city center look little different than a slum. Opulent Art Deco facades are crumbling while homeless people are living in abandoned offices and skyscrapers, cooking over open fires. Just last week, a massive fire consumed one of these illegally squatted buildings, killing more than 70 people.
Large sections of the city lie in complete darkness at night, the result of widespread power outages and because the streetlights on major arterials have all been stripped of anything of value. Hundreds of trains sit motionless outside the train station, rusting away. Rail travel in the city has collapsed.
Fears of crime and violence have grown widespread. Those who can afford it have moved out of the city to the affluent suburbs, living in houses surrounded by high walls and electric fences.
Letta scrambles over a stoplight pole that was cut down on the street above, stripped of its insides and then thrown onto the tracks below. He walks along the railroad bed in search of metal that he can then sell for a few rand to a scrap metal dealer. But there isn’t much left. Windows, doors, water faucets, tiles, roof panels, signs, signal poles, switches, overhead power cables, isolators, elevators: It has all been gutted.
"Everything got worse because of corona," says Letta. "People had no money and had to resort to looting." He is standing next to a small tree that has pushed its way through the asphalt of the platform. "The police," he says, "don’t care. They don’t protect anything." Then, he climbs back into the railbed, where he has discovered a piece of bent-up guardrail.
"9910. That was the train I used to take to work every day. The last one ran six years ago," an aging Black man says in disgust as he walks past the station entrance. He adds caustically: "We used to have work when the whites were in charge, and life was better."
It’s hard to believe: A 60-year-old Black man, who was oppressed and exploited for half his life, misses the Apartheid era?
Private Industry Suffering from Poor Infrastructure
"Roads and rail," says Martina Biene, "are our biggest problem." The 48-year-old is walking through one of the modern production halls where around 3,500 Volkswagen employees assemble the Polo and the Polo Vivo. Biene is head of the largest VW factory in Africa, a site here in Uitenhage that has produced far more than 4 million vehicles in the last seven decades. The factory is located not far from Gqeberha, the city formerly known as Port Elizabeth, a region that is the heart of the South African automobile industry. Along with Volkswagen, which is by far the largest employer, Isuzu, a Ford engine plant and 47 automotive supplies companies have also set up shop here.
BMW, Mercedes, Toyota and Nissan also build vehicles in South Africa, with the automotive sector being the second most important economic pillar for the country after mining. But things are no longer running the way they should. Because of power outages, the factory has already lost eight days of production this year, resulting in a shortfall of around 4,000 vehicles, says Biene. Meanwhile, the railway network for freight traffic is in such bad shape that it has become difficult for the companies to transport their products – between 40,000 and 50,000 cars a year for VW – for the local market.
The total damages suffered by South African companies as a result of transportation difficulties amounted to the equivalent of 23 billion euros in 2022, estimate researchers at by Stellenbosch University.
Recently, the head of the rail operator Transnet came by for a visit, says Biene as shiny new cars glide through a tunnel made of neon lights as they are inspected for paint imperfections. The transportation executive told Biene that it was becoming more and more difficult to protect rail lines from vandalism and theft – and that of the 23 diesel locomotives that had been purchased from China, 17 were currently inoperable due to a lack of replacement parts.
The private economy has even been forced in some instances to take over tasks from the state so they can continue operations. In Johannesburg, insurance companies have begun repairing potholes and they even employ some firefighting units so as to reduce damage payments. In the Gqeberha region, companies have "adopted" damaged roads, water pipes, substations, stoplights and a total of 76 schools. Industrial factories support law enforcement and provide emergency aid when water services are interrupted.
"We are bundling the know-how of international companies to solve the city’s problems," says the head of the local chamber of commerce. "At the end of the day, we would be better off if the politicians didn’t get involved at all."
But such private initiatives were constantly blocked. Since 2018, Gqeberha has had 10 different mayors – and Martina Biene can count every single one of them on her fingers.
Party Hacks, Not Experts
The deputy of the most recent city custodian in this bleak series hurries to City Hall the next day. Mkuhseli Jack – who everybody just calls Khusta – is only here to briefly greet his successor. After just eight months in office, he was forced out when the fragile coalition of which his party was a member collapsed. "They threw me out because we wanted to break apart their corrupt networks," he says.
Thanks to the automobile industry, the industrial region surrounding Gqeberha is relatively prosperous, and a new special economic zone with a deep-water port is currently under development on the coast. A short time later, Khusta is standing next to the lighthouse at the highest point in the city. Down below is the old port, where thousands of vehicles are waiting to be shipped out. "With our economic potential, we should really be doing quite well," he says. Yet the city center is in poor shape: buildings in disrepair, empty offices, mountains of trash, open sewers, potholes everywhere, drug addicts shoot up and smoke on the streets.
The public budget, he says, was systematically ransacked by a criminal syndicate made up of local politicians, city administrators, firms and shell companies. Public services collapsed.
The largest barrier to development, though, is that the state has been hijacked by criminal elements, he says. On top of that is the fact that the ANC hands out political posts exclusively to party hacks, "totally incompetent people who only want to enrich themselves."
An aptitude test recently conducted in the province of KwaZulu-Natal seems to back up Khusta’s assessment. Fully 298 of 1,944 city and municipal councilors in the region are illiterate – a rate of 15 percent. It looks as though the curse that befell many post-colonial countries in Africa now has South Africa in its grips – a curse that saw politicians take over control following independence despite a complete lack of expertise or thought-out development plans and ultimately run their countries into the ground. The cautionary tale most often told is that of the once booming neighboring country of Zimbabwe, which dictator Robert Mugabe and his one-party government turned into a poorhouse.
Khusta, a successful businessman, left the ANC in 2008 and founded his own political party two years ago. The 65-year-old remains optimistic. "South Africans are able to overcome extended crises," he says. Furthermore, he insists, the conditions in his country are still better than elsewhere on the continent. "Our civil society is engaged, we have creative young citizens, an independent judiciary, a free press and strong companies that can compete on the world stage."
Tops in Global Murder Statistics
When it comes to the murder rate, South Africa is already among the global leaders. In the Western Cape province alone, almost 4,000 people were murdered in the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
William Stevens seems composed as he stands in front of the brick police station in Manenberg. Every evening when the 53-year-old heads out for the night shift, he says goodbye to his family as though it was the last time. "Anything can happen here," he says.
Manenberg is one of the most brutal townships in Cape Town, a place where 52,000 people are living in just three square kilometers of squalor. It’s one of those settlements where Blacks and Coloureds are terrorized by armed gangs. Criminal experts estimate that such gangs have far more than 100,000 members in Cape Town alone. In his 11 years on the beat with the South African Police Service in Manenberg, says Stevens, he has learned to deal with the massive amount of violence, "but you never get used to it."
The captain inspects his unit before the beginning of the 12-hour shift, with the 32 police officers saluting like soldiers just before going into battle. The day before, there were 18 shootings in Manenberg.
"Let’s go find the weapons," Stevens orders. Ten police cars roll slowly through the township on their way to the funeral of a recently killed gang member. Trash-covered streets lie in darkness due to a power outage, with fog shrouding the few streetlamps that are still working. There are eight gangs battling for supremacy in Manenberg, says Stevens, fighting over weapons, drugs, prostitution, protection money payments and other sources of income. All is quiet when the police cars cruise past.
"Shots fired," a policewoman, who is monitoring communications on her mobile phone, suddenly calls out. The police car speeds through the darkness, glass scrunching under the tires. Whistles are warning of the approaching cops. The shooter escapes and the officers are only able to arrest a heroin dealer. "The gangsters wait until we are gone to resume shooting," says Captain Stevens.
It’s 9 p.m. People in rags, delirious on cheap drugs, are staggering through the shadows. It is a dystopian scene the likes of which are repeated in townships throughout the country, places where the state is no longer present. Even ambulances are attacked and robbed.
Stevens doesn’t think this will ever really change. The gangs, he says, have been here for decades. "And they will be here for decades to come."
The Frustration of the Born-Free
Axolile Notywala is waiting at the entrance of St. George’s Cathedral, located just behind the fire-damaged parliament building. His choice of this historical spot for our meeting is no accident: In September 1989, around 30,000 people gathered in front of the neo-Gothic house of worship for the first march against Apartheid that included people of all skin colors. "Today, we’re back in the same situation as that of our oppressed parents, just that we’re not fighting against an unjust white regime, but a Black government."
Notywala is a member of what is called the "born-free generation," those who are too young to have experienced Apartheid. The 34-year-old studies political science through an open university, but he spends most of his time building up a new movement to challenge the ANC. His organization is called Rise Mzansi, using the colloquial name for South Africa. It is one of numerous civil society groups that are pushing for radical reform following 30 years of administrative malpractice.
Student Axolile Notywala in Cape Town's St. George's Cathedral: "We live in the most unequal society in the world."
"We live in the most unequal society in the world, and the divides are growing wider and wider," says Notywala. "It has become even more unequal since the ANC has been in power. Liberators? Don’t make me laugh!" The activist is furious with the corrupt heirs to Nelson Mandela, and he doesn’t hold the country’s hero in particularly high esteem anymore either. "He is romanticized and worshipped like a saint, but young South Africans no longer believe in him." Mandela didn’t really bring about true change, he says, because existing power structures were left in place. "He wanted reconciliation, but he forgot about social justice. In the end, the wealthy whites got away scot-free while the majority of the Blacks remained poor."
The T-shirt that Notywala is wearing beneath his bomber jacket is emblazoned with his movement’s motto: "2024 IS OUR 1994." The year Apartheid ended and the year of the next parliamentary elections. Notywala is hoping that the ANC, after three lost decades, will finally lose its absolute majority. The activist’s words echo from the walls of the cathedral’s nave: "It is perhaps our last chance to overcome the structures of Apartheid."