In early 2018, an illusion which had underpinned South Africa's mainstream debate ended. But, in the main, the debate did not notice.
For several years prior to 2018, the mainstream account – promoted by journalists, commentators, many politicians, and citizens on social media – lamented the country's fall from grace. The presidency of Jacob Zuma, who was widely associated in the public mind with corruption and patronage, was compared unfavourably to the days before 2007, when he won the ANC presidency. This comparison underpinned an account of South Africa's reality after 1994. The new democracy, this view claimed, had been the envy of the world, the product of a transition in which the political class had placed the national interest first and produced a constitution of which the country could be proud. For almost a decade and a half, the new democracy flourished. But in 2009, when Zuma became state president, it fell into the hands of the greedy who destroyed the dream and turned South Africa into a society ‘in tatters’. Only new leadership could restore it to its former state.
The new leadership duly arrived in the form of current president Cyril Ramaphosa. Although he had served as deputy president in Zuma's government, Ramaphosa was the unofficial head of the ANC faction which opposed Zuma and so was associated in the minds of many with opposition to corruption. Surveys and the 2019 election results showed that he was popular among voters. Business people also appeared to place their trust in him: since he had spent years in business before returning to politics, they assumed that he favoured not only clean government but market-led economic growth. In almost every way, Ramaphosa seemed to be the polar opposite of Zuma. If the standard account was accurate, then, the new presidency would surely trigger growth and renewal.
But while Ramaphosa and his allies did make significant changes to the criminal justice system and state-owned enterprises, both of which had been key targets of the patronage politics of the Zuma era, the problems which were meant to begin vanishing under new leadership have remained. There was no economic revival – on the contrary, even before Covid-19 arrived, the economy faltered, falling into recession in 2018, followed by weak or negative growth in 2019. Unemployment reached 29 per cent in mid-2019.