The ANC has left South Africa a land of broken dreams. Its time seems over | Simon Tisdall

Who will save South Africa from itself? Not the ruling African National Congress (ANC), whose 30 unbroken years of under-achievement have brought the country to its present sorry pass. Not “reformist” president Cyril Ramaphosa, widely considered a disappointment. And not Russia or China, either, to which Pretoria’s flailing regime, increasingly at odds with the west, looks for succour.

Three decades after Nelson Mandela’s historic poll victory formally vanquished apartheid, and less than three weeks before another watershed election, it’s all going wrong for the Rainbow Nation. Africa’s most developed country is now its most unequal, the World Bank says. Crime is rampant, corruption endemic, growth is tanking. More than 60% live in poverty. Unemployment among black people is 40%.

Voters face a choice on 29 May between a discredited, tarnished ANC, which is predicted to lose its parliamentary majority for the first time, and a broad array of disunited opposition parties. Like 1994, it is also a fundamental choice about what sort of South Africa they want – democratic or authoritarian, open or closed, free market or centrally directed, inclusive or exclusive.

The same pivotal choice faces other would-be 21st-century powers – countries such as Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Indonesia. As when Mandela completed his long walk to freedom, the international community, and the western democracies especially, are watching closely to see which way South Africa jumps. It has a chance to lead again.

The statistical story so far is an index of broken dreams. Reporting in 2022, the World Bank identified race, apartheid’s legacy and unequal land ownership as ongoing core problems. Even now, 30 years on, about 10% of the 60 million population controls 80% of the wealth.

Government attempts to level the playing field frequently misfire. Ramaphosa says about 25% of farmland is now owned by black South Africans. But critics argue the land restitution programme has sharply reduced productivity and employment. Government “equity targets” to ensure workplaces accurately reflect the country’s racial make-up attract similar controversy.

The official, overall unemployment figure is a dismaying 32%. Surveys suggest vast disparities between the average monthly incomes of black and white households are persisting. Housing and education are other big problem areas, where the discriminatory and segregationist practices of the past still disadvantage the least well off.

Yet at the same time, white South Africans, angry at the institutionalised bias of the Black Economic Empowerment regulations and spooked by violent crime, continue to vote with their feet. Nearly one-fifth of 1994’s total white population has emigrated, exacerbating present-day skills shortages. This has led to arbitrary curbs on capital export and pension payments, and declining tax revenues. Only about 12% of South Africans pay income tax. About 62% of the black population receives state grants (welfare benefits).

In his state of the nation address in February, Ramaphosa implicitly laid much blame for post-1994 failures on his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who was briefly jailed amid corruption allegations in 2021. “For a decade, individuals at the highest levels of the state conspired with private individuals to take over and re-purpose state-owned companies, law enforcement agencies and other public institutions,” he said.

“Billions of rands that were meant to meet the needs of ordinary South Africans were stolen. Confidence in our country was badly eroded. Public institutions were severely weakened. The effects of state capture continue to be felt across society, from the shortage of freight locomotives to crumbling public services, from the poor performance of our power stations to failed development projects.”

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It was an extraordinary confession, inadvertently highlighting Ramaphosa’s own ineffectiveness since taking office in 2018. Organised corruption remains a hugely destructive problem. The speech provided an odd preface to the coming election, in which Ramaphosa, as ANC leader, is seeking a second presidential term.

The main challenger is the liberal, centre-right Democratic Alliance, good for an estimated fifth of the vote. Unsustainable state spending, low growth and investment, crime and graft are key DA campaign issues. Yet if the ANC does fall below 50% support, it may be the land-expropriating, hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters and a new populist party, uMkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), backed by Zuma, that do the most damage.

Messy coalition negotiations could lie ahead. By rights, in any modern democracy, the ANC’s record should “cast it into oblivion”, wrote Brian Pottinger, former editor of South Africa’s Sunday Times. “Not so in South Africa. To many, particularly poor and rural black people, [it] is a powerful, even mystical brand. There is nostalgic pride in the ANC’s 112-year-long struggle for black emancipation and dignity.”

Yet research shows loyalty to the ANC is weaker among post-1994 generations – the so-called “born frees”.

Pottinger believes that, while the country desperately needs change, the ANC is incapable of delivering it – and will double down on failure. “The ANC will stick to its catastrophic redistributive economic policies rather than pursuing growth, batten the hatches against capital flight and pre-emptively seek to chill free speech,” he predicted.

As western political confidence and business investment wanes, the ANC is relying ever more heavily on defence, security and commercial ties with Russia and China. South Africa has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and joined naval operations with China and Russia last year. Beijing is South Africa’s largest trading partner. Russian oligarchs have helped fund the ANC.

For all who value democracy, freedom and the rule of law, these are plainly the wrong choices. Exploitative great powers and dictators such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will not save South Africa from itself. Nor will self-serving ANC elites. Only South Africans themselves can do that – by exercising en masse the power of the vote bequeathed to them by Nelson Mandela.

The Guardian