Seventeen years ago South Africa transformed itself into a “non-racial” democracy under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, both of whom were rewarded with Nobel prizes. At that time, South Africa established a democratic constitution and formal guarantees of human rights that are the envy of democrats throughout the world.
But, economic and social transformation has not accompanied political change. Much of the country’s Black African majority remains mired in poverty, income distribution is among the most unequal in the world, and racial minorities, especially whites, have disproportionately benefited from the international opportunities of post-apartheid South Africa. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is internally divided and many believe that it has lost Nelson Mandela’s vision of a transformed, democratic South Africa, the “rainbow nation.”
Especially in civil society, there is mounting concern that the system is increasingly corrupt and that the country is moving toward the patronage politics to be found elsewhere on the continent. Some express concern that President Jacob Zuma’s legal difficulties involving allegations of personal corruption and an authoritarian style are too much driving government policy. Others, however, are more hopeful and see the ANC as retaining its traditional democratic core values, and that it is a “broad church,” with many divergent views. They remind that the ANC has a long tradition of internally self-correcting excesses.
This is the context for calls that the country’s democratic institutions need to be revised because their limitations on executive authority are retarding the “democratic” transformation of South Africa and have the consequence of entrenching apartheid-era, in effect racially, based privilege. Former ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema is a well-known example of this point of view, with his calls for nationalization of the mining industry and the expropriation of white farmers. Malema has been repudicated by the ANC establishment, but his views continue to resonate.
Like many, perhaps most, leaders of South African business, civil, legal and academic society, I believe that the country’s constitutional framework, with an independent judiciary, absolute freedom of the press, and institutions designed to promote government accountability, provides the best framework over the long term for addressing inequality and achieving economic growth. They are also the best check against patronage politics and the spread of corruption. But, it is undeniable that social and economic progress has been painfully slow, and impatience is growing.
I am traveling in South Africa to explore whether or not South Africa’s institutions and political culture are strong enough to meet current challenges. Though I am optimistic (not least because I was living in South Africa during the 1994 transition), for me the jury is still out. I will be writing about these and related themes in the coming months.