South African media figures discuss future of country’s democracy, history of corruption

A panel of media figures from South Africa spoke about issues facing the country like political corruption at the Elliott School of International Affairs Thursday.

Mondli Makhanya, Pule Molebeledi, Branko Brkic and Ranjeni Munusamy each spoke about topics like the state of democracy, economic inequity and the energy crisis in South Africa. Institute for African Studies Director Jennifer Cooke moderated the event, which was hosted by the institute.

Cooke introduced the panel by highlighting recent diplomatic engagements between the U.S. and South Africa, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip in August and President Joe Biden’s meeting with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa the week before, along with the recent appointment of former Elliott School Dean Reuben Brigety to the position of U.S. Ambassador to South Africa. She also referenced the upcoming 2024 general elections and the need to repair relations between the people and the government.

“If you read the South African newspapers there is a lot of talk about ‘Is South Africa a failed state, is it a failing state?’” Cooke said. “And we’re going to examine that a little bit today.”

Munusamy, a South African political commentator, spoke about most powerful party in the country’s politics, the African National Congress, and its December conference where they will pick their presidential nominee.

“So, for those in the audience who are not familiar, what happens is that every five years in December the ANC holds a national elective congress with the top six leaders of the party, including the president, is elected as well as an 80-member National Executive Committee,” Musunamy said. “The ANC is the governing party in the country and that NEC together with the top six is what basically directs what happens in the country and all the big decisions. But those people are elected by 5,000 ANC delegates representing branches and structures of the ANC from across the country.”

Makhanya, the editor-in-chief of the City Press newspaper, said when former President Jacob Zuma took over as the head of the ANC in 2007, it began 10 years of “chaos” and that the country is still recovering from Zuma’s corruption.

“That 2007 conference was seminal, it was a huge part of changing the country in the wrong direction,” Makhanya said.

Zuma, later elected to the South African presidency in 2009, dealt with several scandals throughout his career in politics, including using millions of dollars of public money to renovate his country estate and a sexual assault allegation.

Mounting frustrations with Zuma’s misconduct led to him resigning from the South African presidency in 2018. He was later sentenced to 15 months in prison in July 2021 after not appearing before a judicial commission during a corruption inquiry.

“We were about to go over the cliff and we managed to turn the vehicle around and avoided catastrophe,” Makhanya said.

Molebeledi, the director of news and media for Arena Holdings, a publishing group of multiple financial media outlets, said the “great” nation of former President Nelson Mandela has been betrayed by “chronic governance.” He said the country was once the largest economy in Africa, but it is now falling behind other countries like Nigeria and Egypt due to “indifferent management.”

Brkic, the editor-in-chief of South African newspaper Daily Maverick, said South Africa is also facing problems with its power grid due to mismanagement of its state-owned power utility, Eskom. He said about 20 years ago, he remembered the utility winning an award for its services.

Eskom now faces severe debt and implemented power blackouts across the country for more than 10 hours a day last week. The blackouts are happening because of Eskom’s need to save electricity and continue to operate its struggling and old power stations.

The panel then took questions from the audience on topics like the balance of power between older and larger parties and smaller and newer parties in South African politics. Answering a question on how the country equates itself to the world, Makhanya said the country is equating itself to its own government in the wake of 1994 and the end of apartheid.

“What it achieved was nothing short of a miracle,” Makhanya said. “The water that was rolled out through communities in the most rural areas and the electricity to many far-flung areas. Not many areas still have it, all but water. But basic services like clinics in communities and so on, basic health. The government in the first 10 years of the democracy actually did amazingly.”

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