John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Where Is South Africa Going?

by John Campbell
April 5, 2012

Supporters of African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) chant slogans during an ANCYL rally in Limpopo province March 25, 2012. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters)


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.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Lehlogonolo

    The biggest problem regarding the slow spread of income to the poor masses is the fact that they are not schooled and posses no skills.
    The second biggest problem is that those who took up the top jobs after 1994 also lack the necessary skills to do their jobs. Instead of trying to gain those skills, they spend their time wasting taxpayers’ money on parties and stealing monies for their own pockets.
    The third biggest problem is the labor laws that turns an employee into a boss that cannot be gotten rid of if they do not perform.
    The fourth biggest problem is the millions of people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the rest of Africa who now travel down to South Africa’s honey pots, which must be an indication of how bad things must be for them in their own countries.

    All the aforementioned problems could have been solved if only we had good leaders……

  • Posted by Ian

    Sorry John, but I think you’ve spent too much time focussing on white people’s opinions (incl. that SA was the land of milk and honey prior to 1994) in order to draw your conclusions which are flimsy and sadly parroting too much from the Africa-lite media. You need to focus on the facts rather than the perceptions in the media. I STRONGLY suggest that in the course of your travels you speak to a majority of black people in South Africa (after all they make up the majority of the population) – this will help explain why the ANC still draws a 60%+ vote (if things were anywhere as dire as portrayed they would not be polling such high figures.) While there, find out about the increases in literacy, access to potable water/electricity, access to healthcare and education and almost halving in the murders in that country since 1994. I completely disagree with your assertion that Zuma has been viewed as too authoritarian – many in SA complain that he is not authoritarian enough. *Perceived* corruption (eg TI reports) has increased due to some high profile cases (which in the past would never have been featured in the media), in reality however it has decreased because of the greater checks and balances now employed by the government. Finally please remember that before 1994, the vast majority of SA’s citizens were very poor and poorly educated, you do not overcome these issues and their consequences in 18 years. That said, the ANC has been responsible for some monumental cock-ups so don’t go easy on them, but please at least have some balance. Right now you don’t sound too well versed in South Africa and border on sounding like just another fawning Mandela fan.

  • Posted by Andrew

    Amb. Campbell- do you think the ANC would handover power to another party, e.g., the Democratic Alliance, if it lost elections? If it does lose and steps down, then the democratic transition will be complete in my view. But my concern is that the ANC see itself as the only stewards of post-Apartheid Africa because of its role in the liberation.

  • Posted by Maduka

    Much of the World is getting tired of “all-knowing” Americans telling them how to conduct their affairs and purporting to understand socio-economic conditions better than than locals.

    This, I assume, will apply to South Africa – a nation with several World class institutions of higher learning and no shortage of distinguished scholars.

    If the CFR believes that John Campbell is the best person to describe an extremely dynamic and poorly understood continent, well and good. They pay his bills and they assume that he adds value.

    Let me sound a note of caution here – the most important lesson of the last two decades is that Western understanding of the World and Western competence is vastly overrated (e.g. the Russian transition to market democracy, Asian economic crisis, Iraq and Afghanistan debacle and the global economic crisis point to that).

    Please take that into consideration when propounding your policy prescriptions in an “all-knowing” tone. Also, the CFR should consider hiring African voices to tell the African story. I just don’t see John Campbell having the background to accurately describe a society as complex and as sophisticated as South Africa.

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