I’m writing this on Wednesday, 29 May, after having cast an early morning vote. It went smoothly, and the whole process, from joining the queue to leaving the station took 45 minutes.  This was the day of the big election, the one with all the hype, the game-changing event.

Maybe, maybe not. I thought to write something about it, but I’m struggling.

By the time you read this, some sense of the outcome may be apparent. We should have an indication of whether the ANC will remain in power alone, or perhaps the magnitude of its shortfall from 50%. We might have an idea as to how well the MK insurgency has performed, whether the ANC and EFF have stood up to its challenge. We may have a sense of how the reform-oriented Multi-Party Charter has done and whether this is a model for the future. And, of course, we might know whether the aspirants and independents have made an impression.

Each of these is an important issue in itself, and will be critical in determining the complexion of the new administration and its policy agenda. It is significant that this time round, the answers to these questions are uncertain.

But as I think about this, the sense that we may be changing is matched by a sensation of stasis. Hence the difficulty in composing this piece.

‘2024 is our 1994’

A lot has been said over the past months likening this election to the transitional one in 1994. ‘2024 is our 1994’, went one slogan. I beg to differ. The political transition dealt with a clearly identifiable issue in decisive and incontrovertible terms: it ended the exclusion of most of the population from full political citizenship and gave everyone (at least all eligible adults) the opportunity to participate in forming a new government. That was a major achievement for the country, but not all that was required.

One miracle is not enough was the title of a 1998 book by Rex van Schalkwyk. A revealing choice of words. For many if not most South Africans – this is confirmed by long-term polling – democracy was meant to bring a dividend in economic opportunities and rising living standards. South Africans are an aspirational people.

The record on this score was mixed, steady in the early years, and increasingly erratic during the latter. What stands out though is that on a bird’s-eye measure of this, GDP per capita, South Africa has fallen precipitously relative to the rest of the world. In 1994, South African GDP per capita stood at the equivalent of 99% of the world average. It more or less held this position until the global financial crisis, after which it tumbled. In 2022, per capita GDP was only 77% that of the world average.

We’re not only failing to get the necessary economic traction at home – investment, employment and so on – but we’re falling behind our peers.

The response has been palliative, with expanding programmes of state support – the social grants, state-provided or subsidised housing and so on.


None of this is viable long-term in its present form (let alone together with the copious uncosted promises made in the run-up to the election) until the great failing of post-apartheid South Africa is addressed: economic growth.

Or rather the lack of it. To make a dent in unemployment and to change the country’s poverty profile, South Africa needs an annual real GDP growth rate in excess of 5%. This has long been the case, but this is a rate has been attained in only three years in the post-1994 period.

Here is the hard challenge for an incoming government, irrespective of its ideological complexion.  Without growth, everything else in the socio-economic realm becomes unfeasible; and as a consequence, a great deal in the political realm becomes uncertain. Economic frustration can be profoundly destabilising.

Economic growth is essentially a matter of producing and growing volume of goods and performing an increasing volume of services. This means more investment – sinking funds into the roads and factories and power plants – for which the reasonable prospect of profitable returns must exist. Ensuring the latter is substantively a matter of ‘getting the basics right’, a dreadful cliché, but an accurate one.


In other words, it requires a government that can govern well enough to make things predictable. It’s about an environment where people and firms can go about their business without harassment, keep road and rail traffic flowing, ports open and educational facilities able to teach their charges the basic competencies of navigating a modern economy.

Unfortunately, South Africa has all too often failed at these, while talking up the virtues of incentives and preferences (something particularly associated with departing minister Ebrahim Patel). It’s been a horrible inversion of priorities, made all the worse by widespread dysfunction in the state, as a drive through many of our failing municipalities would illustrate.

So right now, I’m thinking less about who will preside over South Africa in the coming years, than in how they will meet the legion of problems they will inherit, starting with the country’s growth conundrum. Will they be up to it? That’s the big question.

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.