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South Africa Is Becoming Something New, and It’s Not Good

The ceremony went virtually unnoticed. On an overcast April day in South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a lackluster speech commemorating the end of white-minority rule in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first Black president, the skies were sunny with hope. Thirty years later, Mr. Ramaphosa’s enervated display against a gloomy backdrop was symbolic of decline. The African National Congress, Mr. Ramaphosa’s party, has been politically dominant since the country’s first democratic vote in 1994. In the general elections on Wednesday, it may lose its parliamentary majority for the first time.

This is uncharted territory. On several occasions, the former South African president Jacob Zuma proclaimed that the A.N.C. would rule “until Jesus comes back.” Now Mr. Zuma is hoping to unseat the party that enabled his notorious graft. Founded in December last year, uMkhonto weSizwe, or M.K. — named after the A.N.C.’s former military wing — features him as its face. Even though he has been disqualified from running for office by the country’s highest court, the party has mobilized thousands of his supporters behind its populist platform. If it can overcome its internal factional battles and legal troubles, it may pose one of the greatest risks to the A.N.C.’s vote share and force it into coalition.

The party’s emergence is one of the many morbid symptoms in South Africa today. The A.N.C. is shorn of its purpose, a shadow of its former self, and the country it has long stewarded is troubled by collapsing infrastructure, systemic corruption, waning central authority and violent crime. Thirty years on from apartheid’s end, South Africa is in the midst of another complex transformation. What comes next is unclear. But given the country’s fragmentation, it is unlikely to be good.

How did we get here? At his state of the nation address in February, Mr. Ramaphosa allegorized the country’s post-apartheid trajectory through the fictional figure of Tintswalo, a woman born in 1994 who would go on to benefit from the deracialized expansion of social services like education, housing, electricity and health care. As many have pointed out, this democratic dividend persisted for at least the first 15 years of South Africa’s post-apartheid history when economic growth was strong, international market conditions were favorable and state management was competent.

The turning point came in 2009 — the year Mr. Zuma took power and a year after the global financial crisis. What followed was a comprehensive backsliding in life chances, political expectations and economic prospects. The A.N.C.’s hegemony was punctured by a series of consensus-shattering episodes: the Marikana massacre in 2012, in which 34 miners were killed by the police; the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters in 2013 by a former A.N.C. youth leader; the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers from the country’s largest trade union federation, which is formally allied with the A.N.C.; and widespread student protests in 2015 and 2016.

All these developments called into question the conceptual foundations of the post-apartheid settlement, not least rainbowism, the young state’s founding myth of a nonracial, cooperative democracy on a forward march of progress aimed at healing the legacies of apartheid and colonialism. This universalist vision, encapsulated in the assertion in the A.N.C.’s 1955 Freedom Charter that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it,” was gradually undermined by enduring inequalities and a state overrun by corruption. In its place, a void opened up.

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