Reflections on Democracy in South Africa

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South Africa has always been on my mind. I published my first article about South Africa in 1986 – a piece very much written by a teenager for my high school newspaper about the divestment movement and how American educational institutions could stand in solidarity against the apartheid regime. I traveled to South Africa as a college student in 1991, a little over a year after the thrilling release of Nelson Mandela from prison. And throughout my academic career, I have returned to this case again and again to study a range of questions about politics and human development. I have learned a great deal from working with various students, colleagues, and partners.

In 2018, as the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s first truly multi-racial election approached, I decided to write a book chronicling that country’s remarkable experiment with democracy. I wanted to share what I had observed during more than three decades of studying and visiting the country. While I was motivated in part by democratic theory, most importantly, I wanted to use social science analysis and personal narrative to describe the modern history of a place that meant so much to me. In Until We Have Won Our Liberty (Princeton University Press, 2022), I characterize the South African democratic project as a success story – albeit with many drawbacks and challenges – one that ought to provide hope and insights concerning the value of democracy itself.

My largely positive portrait is, quite understandably, a hard sell for close observers, especially for South Africans themselves. It has been almost three decades since the African National Congress (ANC) first took power and the country faces ever-worsening rolling blackouts, violent crime, low rates of economic growth, and high unemployment; and citizens hear and read about government corruption all the time. Popular sentiment in recent years has been decidedly downbeat.

Of course, I don’t intend to minimize the very real problems South Africans face, and I am wary of being pollyannish. Rather, I try to be realistic about what democracy is and what it can achieve, especially under very challenging circumstances. In a world in which populist authoritarianism is on the ascent, and some citizens and South African commentators speak longingly for a “benevolent dictator,” democracy advocates need to offer concrete examples and expectations of its value, and that’s what I try to do using South Africa as a case study. I argue that the country has experienced dignified development during the democratic era – a pattern of increased recognition of the value of all citizens through respectful treatment, including but not limited to improvements in material welfare. Democracy is uniquely well suited to deliver in this way because it relies on the active input of citizens.

One important perspective used in the book to illuminate the success of South Africa’s democracy is a historical one. By the end of the 1980s, the country had accumulated deep legacies of violence, racism, and inequality. The poor, Black majority, received low- quality education and health services. And Black people, including those classified as Coloured or Indian, were treated with daily indignities in virtually all dimensions of life, with severe restrictions on how and where they could live, what jobs they could hold, and so on.

In the book, I zoom in on a single municipality, Mogale City, centered in the old mining town of Krugersdorp, where as late as the early 1990s, White political leaders tried to hang on to segregation and some radicals committed acts of gruesome violence against Blacks. And Blacks themselves were hardly a unified group, and expressed very different sets of preferences for the future. Considering the fragmented region in the years prior to the 1994 election, it was hard to be bullish about peaceful and prosperous co-existence.

Progress in the post-apartheid era needs to be judged against such a backdrop – and democracy could never be a panacea for the plethora of inherited problems. Nonetheless, in the book, I document impressive numbers of new schools, new homes, and other facilities. Large shares of the population have gained access to electricity, water, and sewerage; and the voices of the previously excluded have been heard: Like municipalities around the country, Mogale completed six rounds of free and fair local elections, complementing the six rounds of national elections (and in the book I focus on that sixth round in 2019). Political competition has been fierce, but many of the area’s problems stem from the challenge of addressing legacies centuries in the making. While violence and crime are still problematic, democratic practice has become increasingly institutionalized as the arena for resolving conflict.

At the time of transition, various scholars predicted massive bloodshed, or development of an authoritarian single-party state. In reality, in recent years, we’ve observed a more peaceful country, with increasingly competitive elections, including alternations of power in many key cities. People speak their minds freely, and the courts function well. The country is hardly a “melting pot,” but in so many ways, the respectful recognition of various cultures and perspectives has become routinized in everyday life to the extent that some can hardly recall how things used to be.

I argue that it is also important to see South Africa in comparative perspective. I look to other African countries and other Upper-middle-income countries as benchmarks. From those vantage points, again, South Africa generally looks very good. It is quite fair to celebrate that the country did not experience the brutal violence of Rwanda or Yugoslavia, because such an outcome was eminently plausible. The efforts to democratize did not collapse as was the case in the Arab Spring. South Africa has done far better on female political empowerment than most of its peers. While the extent of reported corruption is troubling, by some measures, it is fairly typical for a country at its level of development. Moreover, South Africa is very much a global leader in articulating a vision of how to protect human rights.

On some measures, South Africa is a laggard. Though comparable to Brazil’s, the country’s pattern of economic growth has been slow, even relative to peers. South Africa’s levels of income inequality and unemployment are both unacceptably high.

In short, in Until We Have Won Our Liberty, I try to highlight that while very far from perfect, South Africa has done quite well under multiracial democracy relative to what easily could have been, and relative to quite reasonable expectations. There is still much to critique – and most importantly, millions of South Africans crave and deserve a better life. Frustration combined with political opportunism could well upend the democratic project. Nonetheless, the fact that South Africa has so far muddled through is an amazing accomplishment. Democratic practice affords the possibilities of further extending the promise of dignified development in the years to come.

Evan Lieberman (@evlieb) is a Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The book is available on Amazon, including as an audio book, from Princeton University Press, most online retailers, and several independent bookstores including Politics and Prose. It will be released in late-August in the United Kingdom and I am hopeful that it will be distributed to South Africa at that point.

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