The scary, sensational and surprising future of South Africa

“In incredibly complex systems,” explains SA Institute of Race Relations' Frans Cronje, “thousands of actors are competing for a certain end. A small change in the behaviour of a single participant can bring about such a huge shift in the future of that system that forecasting to single point is impossible.

“The only antidote is to abandon the idea that there is a singular future and that a brilliant analyst with perfect information can show you that future. There are multiple futures all roughly as plausible as the others. The challenge is to limit the number of futures to those most plausible and then to map the events that will be a characteristic of specific futures.”

Imagine the unimaginable

Go back to the morning after P.W. Botha’s infamous “Rubicon Speech” back in 1985. Could you have imagined that in less than two decades the last leader of the National Party would be gearing up to become the Minister of Tourism in an ANC government which is well on its way to halving the interest rates it’s inherited from the Nats?

“Imagining this turn of events back then would’ve been impossible,” says Cronje. “However, a scenario exercise built on the above mentioned methodology of identifying major trends and how they interact with each other would’ve identified it as a possible, however improbable, future.”

Cronje’s advice? Keep an open mind. When the world changes it does so very rapidly.

Scenario 1: The rocky road (Click on play and skip to 5.55)

After the 2014 election the ANC denies it has a problem. It blames everyone except itself. It sheds its reformist leaders. It intervenes in the economy in an increasingly draconian fashion. It realises it can’t deliver on its supporters’ expectations and, as a result, tears down democratic institutions in order to rule with impunity. South Africa becomes a lot poorer.

“This scenario is certainly plausible,” warns Cronje. “However, we must fight for the other scenarios that we believe are equally plausible.”

In the more positive, turnaround scenarios the ruling party realises that, if it doesn’t reform economic policies, it won’t meet the expectations of its supporters and will lose the election.

In another scenario the ANC fails to turn itself around and the DA wins the 2024 election. “Very senior ANC people will and do, privately at least, accept that this is a real and probable scenario,” says Cronje. “If the ANC doesn’t change they will sink beneath the waves. My fear is that they’ve left it too late already.”

The darkest possible scenario? The EFF keeps on growing while the ANC drops to below 50 percent. The two parties form a coalition and get a two thirds majority. The ruling coalition changes the constitution within the first few weeks to assure they never again suffer a loss that brought the ANC to such a low point.

Scenario 2: The wide road (Click on play and skip to 10.20)

South Africa becomes a high-growth, high-performance economy in an increasingly closed political and social system.

After the 2014 election the ANC realised the trouble it is in. It recognises that to drive investment and the economy in order to meet the expectations of its supporters it needs radical reforms – dealing with bargaining counsels, watering down labour legislation, walking away from empowerment and affirmative action, etc. It faces a lot of opposition and, in order to push through sweeping economic reforms, it starts to erode the capacity of its opponents to fight it in the courts.

We are left with an increasingly closed political system which is applied to create the most business and investor friendly scenario you can imagine. The ruling party becomes über-pragmatic (“It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse”)

“In discussions with the ANC I get the idea that they like this scenario,” says Cronje. “They seem to like the idea of pragmatism.”

Scenario 3: The toll road (Click on play and skip to 13.27)

“This is the most dangerous one of all!” warns Cronje. “It’s the ‘muddle along’ scenario.”

Look at North-Africa and you’ll realise how treacherous a “Muddle-along” future can be. “It is invariably a rapid, fundamental change when these types of scenarios ‘break’, as the North-African examples indicate.”

“Muddle-along” also heralds the nightmare scenario of an EFF/ANC coalition mentioned above.

Scenario 4: The new road (Click on play and skip to 16.44)

The ANC realises it needs to reform (as it’s in actual fact currently doing in private conversations with Cronje). It starts to understand that the only hope of long-term survival is to secure the economic performance needed to create the jobs it needs to meet the expectations of its supporters.

“If they realise this, are they capable of the type of radical reform that De Klerk’s government achieved? We think they and Jacob Zuma is capable of this.”

There are two reasons why Cronje believes Jacob Zuma is an asset in the reform process. “Firstly, Jacob Zuma is not an ideological man. Secondly, he is ruthless which is exactly what the ANC will need to reform in the face of popular opinion in the country which sees more state control, more regulation and more hammering of business as the route to a more prosperous country.

“There is every chance that a Zuma-led ANC will bring about the most remarkable series of economic reforms in the style of a Margaret Thatcher and that, in ten years from now, the difficult business environment that we’re dealing with today will be a thing of the past.”

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