The rise of broad-based civil disobedience is on the brink of changing the political landscape in South Africa – for the better. Twenty years after the miracle of South African democracy, South Africa faces a challenge of comparable magnitude, said journalist and author Max du Preez, speaking at the FNB Franchise Leadership Summit held in Johannesburg on 12 November.

“[Currently] we are a deeply unhappy nation. We have daily violent protests in the squatter camps, townships and now even universities. Unemployment is higher than ever before. We have over the last year witnessed the dangerous rise of cheap populism, reckless rhetoric and the promotion of violent solutions. The foundation of our economy is rejected by some of these reckless politicians, demanding the property clause in our constitution be scrapped, making it possible for the state to rob citizens of their properties,” said Du Preez.

“But we are a long, long way away from what we were before we became a democracy, from that dangerous time before 1994. I think we’re on the brink of something new and better. South Africa does not need a messiah-type leader any more. There are few problems that an active citizenry together with good leadership, cannot fix themselves.”

Du Preez observed that the difficulties currently facing South Africa are not unique, but are being experienced by most emerging markets and even some developed ones, including Brazil, Turkey, Australia, Russia, Greece and Italy.

“There’s one overwhelming positive to be taken out of the political developments of the last year: the hegemony of the ANC has been broken. A part of our problem over the past 21 years was that we were effectively a one-party democracy. Now our democracy is normalising to a point where no single political party will again dominate our country,” explained Du Preez.

He identified a major step in the breaking of this hegemony as the protesting students, the leaders of government and business of tomorrow, who took their fight to parliament, the ANC’s headquarters at Luthuli House and to the Union Buildings and proclaimed #BladeMustFall, #ZumaMustFall and #ANCMust Fall.

“The protests started off being about university fees, but quickly refocused on government contempt for the constitutional rights of citizens, evidenced by corruption and self-enrichment. Nothing focuses a politician as a threat to his power. And we are building up to a situation where the ANC will get a bloody nose at next year’s local elections and possibly dip below 50% in 2019 – then politics of coalition will begin in earnest, and with it will come accountability,” he said.

Du Preez listed some of the issues prompting this new wave of civil advocacy: South Africa having the most expensive state bureaucracy in the world per capita, with 14% of state revenue being pay for civil servants rather than service delivery; the crisis in numerous state-owned enterprises; the systematic capture of public institutions by the Zuma inner circle, among these SARS, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and the SABC; the cumulative effect of corruption, tender fraud, nepotism and cadre deployment which are all beginning to bite; creeping authoritarianism by Zuma-aligned securocrats, similar to that of ex-president PW Botha; utter policy confusion; and a president who is corrupt, morally and otherwise, but is virtually untouchable because he has cleverly surrounded himself with loyalists.

Yet, said Du Preez, Zuma has not succeeded in undermining our freedoms, and he offered some examples where public opinion had stopped his efforts to silence public opposition: “People claim Zuma is getting away with Nkandla, but this is actually not the case. He didn’t, it has done him and his party serious damage because the citizens did not stop protesting. Another claim is that the ANC is silencing the media. While the ANC tried to rein in the media with the Secrecy Bill, civil society forced them to rewrite it three times. Also, it is alleged the ANC is attacking the judiciary – yet the Chief Justice called them out and forced a meeting between the cabinet and the judges. The people won again,” said Du Preez.

Underpinning this opposition to growing authoritarianism in South Africa has been the growth of a significant black middle and upper middle class over the last two decades, “at a spectacular and unprecedented rate”.

“The number of black people earning more than R400 000/year grew by 1,000% from 120 000 in 2000 to 1,2-million in 2014, with nine out of ten of them in the private sector. The black middle class grew 300% from 1,8-million to 6-million over just the past decade. In the five years 1996-2011, black disposable income grew 370% from R161-million to R756-million – significantly higher than total white disposable income.

“There are today more black homeowners paying off bonds on their properties than whites, whereas 21 years ago black people could not own property; nine out of ten black households have at least one cellphone; private schools are 72% black; and the proportion of black people living on less than $2/day fell from 16% to 2,5% since 1996,” he said.