#BookClub: Why South Africans are Prisoners of the Past

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South African democracy is limited not because its governing elite has changed too much but because it has been unwilling or unable to move from the past.

The country’s democratic path since its first universal franchise election of 1994 is usually explained by a familiar story. It insists that negotiations which ended white minority rule and installed a constitutional democracy placed the country on a new path and gave it the tools to build a thriving democratic society. Things went well initially – particularly since the government was headed by the revered Nelson Mandela – but, once Jacob Zuma became president, it fell into the hands of politicians who spent almost a decade (between 2008 and 2017) looting the treasury and destroying institutions. Under a new political leadership, the country is trying to revive the lost promise but is not faring well.

This story should sound familiar to students of African democracy: it sounds very much like common accounts of post-independence Africa in which promising democratic beginnings soon lead to disillusion as elites use their new-found freedom to destroy both democracy and economic prospects.

In my recently published book, Prisoners of the Past: South African Democracy and the Legacy of Minority Rule, I argue that this account fundamentally misunderstands South African democracy. The difficulties it faces – weak economic growth, poverty and inequality, violence, corruption and often ineffective government – are products not of the (very real) damage caused by Zuma and his allies but of deep-rooted patterns established by minority rule which survive democracy’s advent a quarter century ago. Democratic South Africa is not further evidence that Africans cannot govern but a stark example of the notion of ‘path dependence’ which insists that political change often leaves the social, economic and political patterns of the past intact.

The apartheid legacy

South Africa’s current difficulties are not a product of majority rule’s failure to use its freedom wisely. They are symptoms of the tenacity of patterns established under minority rule. When the current governing elite blames the legacy of white rule for failures, it is accused of offering a lame excuse. While it is true that it, and the private elites, could have done much more to change these legacies, South African democracy really is hobbled by the survival of patterns which were entrenched when the minority ruled.

This does not mean that, as critics insist, nothing has changed since 1994. Much is new. The fall of racial barriers has allowed a black middle-class to emerge. Democracy works for those able to use it. While it is common to claim that the institutions were too weak to withstand Zuma, the contrary is true – Zuma was undone by the institutions. He and his allies were brought down by independent courts, a free media and the vote (his faction lost its hold over the ANC because one of its power brokers became convinced that it would lose its electoral majority if its leader was associated with Zuma). To claim that South Africa today is no different to the society democracy inherited in 1994 is to ignore how much apartheid demeaned and degraded the majority.

But the core patterns of the old order remain. Corruption is often associated purely with majority rule, but is one of South Africa’s oldest – and most non-racial – activities. The first European to establish an administration in the country – Jan van Riebeek who arrived in 1652 – was sent by the Dutch East India Company after he was caught enriching himself in a previous posting. Corruption was rife in successive white administrations. It reached its zenith in the last years of apartheid when attempts to evade international sanctions turned breaking the law into government policy. One root of today’s corruption is the absorption of some ANC politicians into the corrupt networks established by the minority elite in its attempt to defeat majority rule.

The survival of the old order

Another remnant of the old order is the survival, in the economy and society if not in politics and government, of racial pecking orders and prejudices despite a non-racial constitution. Middle-class black South Africans are the country’s most frustrated citizens because, while they enjoy opportunities and hold qualifications which were closed to their parents and grandparents, they encounter many of the same racial prejudices and barriers.

But the most important continuity is the exclusion of most citizens from many of the benefits of the new order. It is useful to think of South Africa before 1994 as a country run by an exclusive club open only to white people. The club is now open to black people but it still excludes around two-thirds of the country. Older (white) members enjoy privileges not available to the new black entrants. Club members are people who enjoy a regular income from the formal economy – wages, salaries, dividends and profits. But since members therefore include both corporate chief executives and the women who clean their offices, there are deep disparities within its ranks.

Economically, this shows itself in deep inequalities and a formal economy with huge barriers to entry. Socially, new black entrants are expected to fit into the rules and understandings which underpin institutions created by a small minority for itself. Politics is the monopoly of about one third of the country: the majority are talked about but never heard.  

Trapped in the past … but for how long?

Why has democratic South Africa remained trapped in the patterns of the past? Because the constitutional settlement addressed only one reality which needed to change. It is common for critics of the current order to blame its ills on the constitution, whose expansive set of rights has, they argued, protected white privilege. But there is nothing in the constitution, the book argues, which prevents change.

The problem with the much-acclaimed settlement of the early 1990s was not too much compromise but not enough. To end the patterns of the past, the negotiated compromise on the rules of political life needed to be accompanied by bargains on the economy and the society’s institutions and an attempt to face race domination. If they are to change in future, the unfinished negotiation of a quarter century ago needs to begin.

Before that can happen, elites will, the book suggests, need to face one of the reasons why nothing was changed except the constitution. Post-1994 South Africa is the product of an unspoken consensus between the new political elite and its old, economic and social, equivalent – that the aim of democratic South Africa is to extend to everyone what whites enjoyed under majority rule. This has ensured that change has been about shoe-horning as many black people as possible into the economic and social arrangements which underpinned minority rule, not creating new realities. Since what 10% of the country enjoyed by using force to exclude everyone else cannot be extended to all, this ensures that the excluded outnumber the included.     

Despite a justly celebrated constitutional settlement, South Africa remains trapped in a past which limits democracy’s reach and its capacity to address the country’s challenges. This will not change until the elites negotiate what was left untouched in the 1990s. Democracy is limited not because the new society does not know how to use freedom but because it is still chained by its past.

Steven Friedman is Research Professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg. His work focuses on democracy in South Africa and Africa.    

His new book can be purchased here.

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