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The result of the recent South African election was not unexpected, but it was nonetheless disappointing.

This was the election when the first of the ‘born free’ generation voted, that is voters born after the ending of Apartheid in 1994.

They seem not to have voted for the ANC which at its fifth electoral victory secured 62.5% of the votes compared to 65.90% in 2009 and 69.69% in 2004. Its main rival the Democratic Alliance was up at 22.23% of the vote from 16.66% in 2009. The most rapidly growing political organisation, the Economic Freedom Party recorded a creditable 6.35% at its first contested election.

There were 25 million people eligible to vote and 18 million or 73.4% did so, down on the previous election of 77.3%, reflecting disenchantment with a political process dominated by the ANC and Zuma; a buffoon and the butt of many justified jokes.

The ANC have a hold over South African politics which will be hard to break because of widespread corruption by members of the party and public officials who owe their preferment to members of the ruling party.

South Africa has not moved far from the crossroad it stood at after the first free and multicultural election in 1994. The prospect for failure and decline is as strong as that for creative growth.

The South African population is 53 million. The birth rate is 19 per thousand or around one million per annum, with 30% of the population 15 years or younger. The population increase in 2013 was around 500,000. There are 5.26 million people with HIV, or approximately 10% of the population, up from 8.9% in 2004. Of those aged between 15 and 49, 16% have HIV, up from 15% in 2004.
Unemployment is running at 25%, but black youth unemployment is 50%, feeding armed robbery, home invasion, carjacking and other violent crime, including sexual assault and rape. There were 65,000 cases of reported rape in 2012. Internationally South Africa has one of the highest incidents of murder, around 50 per day or 18,000 a year, although the rate is said to be falling.

White farmers have been particularly singled out for attack and murder, indicating not only very high levels of rural black poverty but also resentment at white ownership of land. Most people I know in South Africa, both black and white, have directly, over the past ten years, experienced some form of crime.

The ANC came to power on the back of Mandela, financial sanctions and internal protest by black youngsters who were not members of the ANC. It has an unhealthy sense of entitlement, expressed in the growing corruption of Ministers and officials. The ANC acts as though it were an instrument and element of the state. This is a dangerous mindset for the future of democracy.

The South African economy is struggling to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, although the ‘black’ economy is substantial and sustained by refugees from central Africa and economic opportunists from West Africa, particularly Nigeria. Estimates put their numbers at above two million, but the figure is just a guess. The government says that there are around 700,000 genuine asylum seekers from other parts of Africa.

Many local black South Africans resent their presence and see them as competitors for scarce jobs. There have been some nasty xenophobic attacks usually on the most vulnerable.

Debt is running at 44% of GDP, growth was 1.9% in 2013; mining contributes 10% to the economy but is 60% of foreign revenue. In the past year the Rand lost 20%. Strikes have cost platinum miners $A 200 million in the past eighteen months with violent police action aimed at ending the disputes costing mine workers their lives.
Since 1994 over 3 million homes have been built for poor blacks; a considerable achievement in the face of endemic corruption. However, the need remains overwhelming with millions of black South Africans living in squatter camps, without running water, sewerage or electricity.

Although increasing its vote the Democratic Alliance, led by former veteran journalist Helen Zille has, in its present configuration, probably peaked. It is seen as a party of white free traders with a social conscience. Its roots can be traced back to the old white opposition Progressive Party of the Apartheid era. Nonetheless it attracted over 1 million new voters, many of them black.

It tried to pull even more black voters from the ANC by entering into an arrangement with veteran anti-Apartheid activist and former director of the World Bank, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, for her to become president of the DA. After publicly agreeing, Ramphele pulled out after it was disclosed that she had not discussed the deal with the membership and executive of her own party Agang.

Agang picked up two seats in the new parliament with 52,000 or 0.28% of the vote. When I spoke with her last year in Cape Town she was very confident of picking up enough seats to possibly hold the balance of power. After her clumsy flirtation with the DA her electoral stocks fell dramatically.
The rising black star is Julius Malema, formerly with the ANC Youth League, who now heads Economic Freedom Party. The members like to refer to themselves as the Economic Freedom Fighters. The EFP thinly veils its anti-white message. It wants all white farmers off the land and it wants to nationalise the mines. It promises homes, education, jobs and health care to the disposed and poor. His message is appealing to those the ANC has neglected. In the past Malema has faced charges of corruption. He is a dangerous and rogue element in the difficult social and political mix of present day South Africa.

In the past decade 300,000 white South Africans have returned to live. A positive development tempered by the fact that most will have chosen to live in gated developments and suburbs.

However the upside is the energy of South Africa. There is an edginess and frisson, in part caused by fear, which heightens the senses, enhances social interaction and pushes creativity. South Africa is ahead of Australia in design innovation.

The potential for South Africa to achieve great things is obvious to anyone familiar with the country or who visits for any length of time. An organisation I helped to establish has grown beyond expectations in just under ten years. Ifa Lehtu was brought into existence to curate works of art returned to South Africa by myself and my predecessor at the Australian Embassy. These works were produced by black South African artists. The only way they could be shown was under diplomatic immunity. Many were bought by expatriates and diplomats.

Over 700 works have now been donated back to South Africa. Ifa Lethu now teaches art, textiles, craft and culture in schools throughout South Africa and designs and produces cheap and smart items of clothing. It employs an increasing number of young people.
South Africa craves leadership and positive input. A small investment in human capital pays substantial dividend.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and former diplomat, posted to South Africa from 1976/79. He helped news paper editor Donald Woods escape South Africa, portrayed in the film, “Cry Freedom”. From 1990/93 he ran a program bringing black South Africans to Australia for training and in 2004/5 helped establish Ifa Lethu.

OLO 13.6.14

I have two daughters at school in Orange and a farm in Mudgee. My time is fairly evenly divided between the two. Conversations with other parents at sporting and other occasions are convivial, politics as a topic is generally absent or discussed only in the broadest of terms. Not over the past few weeks.

As the likely effects of the budget measures begin to sink in conversations at netball have an increasingly critical and hard edge and this from people normally reserved and slow to judge. My fellow parents are doctors, nurses, school teachers, engineers, lawyers, business people, farmers and the like. Middle Australia.

Distance is money in rural Australia, so increasing the price of fuel has an immediate and negative impact. Education and health are primary concerns. Rural Middle Australia is aspirational in the broadest sense. There is anger at the costs being imposed on tertiary education. Country parents already pay a premium to help their children through higher education. Country kids can’t live at home and attend university.

There is anger at cuts to the CSIRO and to funding scientific research, particularly in agriculture. There is a perception, as with Rudd and Gillard before him, that the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has little understanding of the issues facing rural Australia. Little slack is cut for claims of building new rural infrastructure.

But it wasn’t by any means all about them. There was concern at the removal of the safety net and the right to sustenance and dignity from the least advantaged and disabled in the rural community where jobs, training and care are hard to access and require private transport.

There is anger that Abbott has moved so fast to engineer change, particularly when the message of crisis has failed to resonate. Rural Australians are not so easily spooked or corralled as Canberra advisers seem to believe of the broader community. If you want crisis try managing a farm or business through extended drought.

They don’t like the way Abbott and Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, project themselves. Pyne is seen as strange and Abbott as less than credible. Lying was never going to sit well with the conservative middle class. It is a question of character.
Both federal members in the electorates that I move between are seen as time servers and the National Party as ineffective in arguing the case and getting positive outcomes for rural Australians. The budget has weakened the grip of the Nationals in rural Australia. There seems to be a general feeling that Malcolm Turnbull would provide more coherent leadership and project a better image of Australia than Abbott.

Worryingly, from the Abbott government’s point of view, the concerned rural middle class seem to have made their minds up about Abbott and his budget. Spin is unlikely to change those impressions, the damage is done.

If other parts of middle Australia have come to a similar conclusion Abbott has a problem. His brand is damaged, perhaps irreparably.

The unanswered question is where is Abbott taking us? What are the government’s plans for the future beyond slash and burn? When we reach the Elysium of a balanced budget, what then?

Those voters perceived to have supported the Labor Party are being punished; the problem for Abbott is he is punishing many of those in his own support base as well as the swinging voters he needs to get re-elected. Can he do it, or is he One Term Tony. He might get another term, but that will be all. On the other hand Turnbull as leader would get two or three terms, all other things being equal.

But first he has to throw off the yoke of the right wing nutters, many of them on Abbott’s front bench.
Not even Shortens lack of conviction might be enough to keep Abbott in power. Rural Australia might see again the rise of Independents and the Greens and Palmer can be expected to increase their votes. However a galvanised Turnbull might keep them at bay.

Even the much vaunted ‘success’ of turned back boats might come to haunt an over inflated Morrison. As the number of asylum seekers builds on Indonesia, Australia can expect to be asked to take some.

A distinguished, highly educated former senior diplomat and colleague of mine said to me recently that he believes that Abbott really doesn’t understand very much at all. That he hasn’t a clue about infrastructure, that he thinks in sound bites and that he believes in nothing except maintaining his hold on power, oh yes, and that he lacked maturity.

The Senate may save Abbott in the short term from further backlash at the excesses of his budget, but it will not save Abbott in the longer term from the ravages of his personality and make up.

As he goes about dumbing down the country and humiliating the disadvantaged, he is furthering the gap between the haves and have nots, a dangerous agenda for the future social and economic well being of the nation. He is mistaken if he thinks he can buy back the concerned middle class with tax cuts. That will not be enough to get them swinging.

Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.