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South Africa: A Model of Democracy?

South African President Jacob Zuma (second l) talks with Mandla Mandela (l) after they and other dignitaries unveiled a bust of former South African President Nelson Mandela (r) at the South African Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, April 28, 2014.

South African President Jacob Zuma (second l) talks with Mandla Mandela (l) after they and other dignitaries unveiled a bust of former South African President Nelson Mandela (r) at the South African Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, April 28, 2014.

Twenty years ago, South Africa ended decades of oppression under white-minority rule and embraced the dawning of a new democracy.

The year 1994 ushered in a new era of hope for South Africans when the country held its first fully democratic elections and elected its first Black president, Nelson Mandela.

Mandela’s African National Congress has dominated politics ever since and the country has curbed political violence, demolished discriminatory laws and provided basic health care, housing, welfare grants and clean water to millions of impoverished citizens.

However, South Africa celebrates two decades of multi-racial democracy against a backdrop of rising joblessness, inequality, labor strikes and corruption within President Jacob Zuma’s government.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu had hoped 20 years ago that South Africa would become a thriving all-inclusive Rainbow Nation and a shining light for the African continent to follow. But some analysts said that vision has not been realized.

“I personally had great hopes of South Africa leading the continent. For a while, being the continent’s biggest economy and also a strong democracy - South Africa seemed poised to be the natural leader of the continent and I expected Zuma to, even Mbeki, to have a more robust and clearer international policy,” said Kennedy Opalo, a Kenyan doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University in the United States.

Opalo argued that South African foreign policy has been a “failure” and poor leadership has slowly eroded the great expectations many in Africa had two decades ago.

“…(N)ow I think most young people when they think of South Africa, they think of striking miners not necessarily this beacon of hope for the rest of the continent,” he said.

A three-month strike has crippled the world's biggest platinum industry, resulting in flaring violence in the mining belt and police clashes. The strike has been the most damaging in South Africa's history, leaving large parts of the mining belt in dire financial need.

Voter discontent

As South Africans prepare for elections, there is widespread discontent directed at the ANC, the liberation party that promised better equality when it took power 20 years ago. Although the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen since 1994, at least 24 percent of the country's workforce is chronically unemployed. The ruling-party has been marred by corruption scandals. A government watchdog report recently revealed that President Zuma misspent $23 million of state-funds to upgrade his private home.

Despite widespread disappointment with the pace of South Africa’s development since the end of apartheid, it still compares favorably with many of its neighbors who struggle just to hold free and fair elections.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, recently overtook South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy, but the West African nation still lags behind its southern neighbor in terms of the sophistication of its democracy, according to Abubakar Umar Kari, a politics lecturer at the University of Abuja.

“In terms of the credibility of elections - the elections in South Africa have remained fairly consistent and fairly credible unlike the ones in West Africa - particularly in Nigeria, where organizations, conduct and outcomes of elections are often overshadowed with controversies, disputes, agitation and crisis,” Kari stated.

In these elections, polls indicate South Africans are expected to keep the long ruling ANC and Jacob Zuma in power for an additional five years. The margin of victory may be less than in previous votes, due to growing discontent with poor service delivery and growing graft. But that may be because South Africa’s democracy lacks effective opposition parties - denting its credentials.

Professor Robert Mattes is the Director of the Democracy in the Africa Research Unit at the University of Cape Town and co-founder of the Afrobarometer, a regular survey of public opinion in 35 African countries. “South Africa itself - I think - is not one of the democracy leaders on the continent,” he said.

Conflict resolution

He argued that South Africa has had a pivotal role in conflict resolution, but its democracy is not as sophisticated as others in Africa. Afrobarometer polls reveal South Africa’s public attitude is a step behind places like Botswana and Ghana, in terms of how people understand democracy.

“Ghanaians have a clearer understanding about what democracy is about. They are much more strongly in support of it whereas, a lot of South Africans kind of still entertain - they think democracy is almost consistent with one party government or one party rule,” said Mattes.

Ghana and Zambia have succeeded in peaceful transitions of power between opposing political parties following elections. Mattes said many consider a handover of power to be a significant test of the strength of a country’s democracy.

“The country just hasn’t been pressed on that yet, the ANC has not come that close to losing actual power so one wonders how they would react if that ever became a reality,” said Mattes.

In April, F.W. de Klerk, the nation’s last white president said that despite the challenges “For 20 years millions of South Africans have been able to lead their lives and pursue their dreams in conditions of relative peace, personal dignity and harmony" and that, he said, makes South Africa today a much better and fairer country than it was before 27 April 1994.

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