Think Again: South Africa

It emerged from apartheid a bright young democracy, but Mandela's South Africa is today a fading miracle. As voters go to the polls on April 22, the country's most trying days may yet be ahead.

Touchline/Getty Images
Touchline/Getty Images
Touchline/Getty Images

South Africa Is a Vibrant Modern Democracy.

South Africa Is a Vibrant Modern Democracy.

Not entirely. Democracy has rarely had such a bright start as it did in South Africa, emerging from 46 years of apartheid in 1994. The country’s Constitution became the world’s most democratic, including rights to water, food, education, security, and healthcare. But former President Nelson Mandela was indeed prescient in titling his biography Long Walk to Freedom, for as South Africa approaches its fourth national elections, its democratic credentials are far from clear.

During the last 15 years, South Africa’s politics have increasingly fallen into an elite system more intent on patronage than provision of services. As convicted criminals and fraudsters populate party lists with little public outcry, leading figures of integrity have all but given up, eschewing public service and leaving the door open to those who view politics as an opportunity for personal enrichment. Mandela’s vision — to build a democracy based on one people with a common destiny in [its] rich variety of culture, race, and tradition — appears to have been lost on successive generations of South African politicians across the ideological spectrum.

The news for opposition parties is equally troubling. Although elections are held and contested freely, South Africa is today a de facto one-party state ruled by the African National Congress (ANC). Recent events paint a disturbing picture of how the line between the ruling party and the state has blurred. In December 2007, then President Thabo Mbeki was ousted as head of the party by his former deputy and political rival, Jacob Zuma, despite corruption charges against the latter. Less than a year later, Mbeki was gently forced to resign the presidency — humiliated — from his weakened position. Instead of formally putting forward a motion of no confidence to Parliament, the ANC’s National Executive Committee pressured Mbeki to go quietly out the back door.

The Mbeki-Zuma fissure, which began as an internal party squabble, soon became the country’s divide. So deep was the conflict that, for the first time in South Africa’s post-apartheid history, a credible nonracial opposition party emerged from the ranks of disaffected ANC members. Still, it will take years for the Congress of the People (COPE) to penetrate the one-party structures that have come to dominate mainstream politics. A recent survey conducted by market research firm Plus 94 projected that the ANC will retain eight of the country’s nine provinces, losing only the Western Cape to a coalition of opposition forces. COPE garnered only 8.9 percent of public support in a recent Ipsos Markinor poll.

After the elections, South Africa will have to continue on its very long walk toward freedom under the rule of Zuma, whose leadership divides the country and instills concern, not confidence.

South Africa Has Overcome Racism, Ethnicity, and Violence.

At the polls. Certainly, South Africa is home to an increasingly mature polity. The ANC and opposition parties include figures from a rainbow of races, and the ethnic violence that left 12,000 dead in KwaZulu-Natal province before the 1994 election has not returned. But political apartheid — white rule over a black majority — has proven much easier to end than economic and social separation.

Ghosts of racism past are still evident on the richest city streets and in the most impoverished township neighborhoods. South Africa has one of the highest Gini coefficients, a measure of inequality, in the world — and studies suggest the economic divide is only growing. The government’s policy of black economic empowerment has created an emerging black middle class of some 2.6 million South Africans, colloquially referred to as black diamonds. Yet, though nearly half of this new elite now lives in formerly white suburbia, for much of the country’s remaining 44 million people, poverty still follows racial lines.

Nor has the apartheid mind-set been fully exorcised from South Africa. The country’s Human Rights Commission receives a plethora of complaints about racial inequality each year. Examples include an incident at the University of the Free State a year ago in which a group of young white male students tricked older black female employees of the university to eat urine-laced meat stew, or a young white teenage boy’s shooting rampage in the Skielik informal settlement that killed four and wounded six people. Such cases remind South Africa of darker days.

HIV/AIDS Is the Biggest Problem Facing South Africa.

If only. After years of bad news on HIV/AIDS, South Africa is actually making progress in fighting back against the epidemic. Throughout much of his administration, Mbeki and his now notorious health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, advocated only one policy toward AIDS: flat denial. The minister’s recommendations — for AIDS patients to eat beet roots and avoid poisonous antiretroviral (ARV) drugs — became a rallying point for local and international activist communities. Dr. Beet Root is gone, and today at last, the government has a comprehensive action plan to combat HIV/AIDS, including a commitment to paying for patients’ ARV drugs. The plan and its budget have consistently grown every year. And a visionary new minister of health, Barbara Hogan, has significantly boosted hopes of bringing help to the country’s 5.6 million infected people.

The country’s other epidemic, however, remains largely a silent one. The education system in South Africa is abysmal, and it has failed to deliver the skills that the economy requires to grow. According to research by the South African Institute of Race Relations, of the students who completed their secondary education during 2008, only 20 percent attained the marks necessary to enter university. New outcome-based curricula have failed to stop the slipping scores. Among this 20 percent, many who enter university do not complete their studies — whether for financial or other reasons. Exceptionally low levels of information technology use compound the crisis, preventing South Africa from tapping into the modern global economy.

Indeed, though unemployment rates are high across the board (estimated between 35 and 45 percent in 2006, an increase of about 5 percentage points from 1994’s rates), the vacancy rate for highly skilled positions is only growing across the country. In areas of science and mathematics, South African students today perform worse than peers in more impoverished neighbors Mozambique, Botswana, Swaziland, and Tanzania.

The more the education system fails, the more it exacerbates inequality. Many wealthier South Africans can afford private schools, while the majority must make due with the public system. Because class divides are still unfortunately racial, lack of high-quality education remains the foremost obstacle to upward economic mobility for South Africa’s majority. Poor schools are stunting both the country’s economic and social development.

South Africa Is Getting Safer.

Not really. Between April 2007 and March 2008, 18,487 murders were recorded in South Africa. And that is an improvement. From 1997 to 1998, the murder rate was 59.5 per 100,000 compared with last year’s 38.6 per 100,000. Still, the nature and number of rapes, robberies, assaults, and murders paint a picture of a violent society that struggles to ensure the safety of its citizens. Organized crime — including human trafficking, cigarette smuggling, the narcotics trade, and sophisticated forms of fraud and identity theft — is a growing threat.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) is woefully unprepared to deal with all this crime. Training is insufficient, equipment is substandard, and the country lacks a proper forensic capacity as well as laws to facilitate DNA evidence gathering. Recent arrests of SAPS officers for involvement with drug dealers confirmed concerns about the high levels of corruption in the force. The country’s elite organized crime and corruption-busting unit, known as the Scorpions, was dissolved in 2008 for taking its job a little too seriously.

Ongoing struggles within the ruling party have only made this situation worse. The country’s top crime-fighting leadership post remains effectively vacant since the national police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, was suspended on special leave in January 2008. He is accused of corruption and thwarting justice. But his absence from duty, and the failure to install a successor, has further demoralized a weak and poorly equipped national police force.

For many, the government has performed so poorly that private security is the only remaining refuge. The vast majority of middle-class South Africans opts for private services, which now literally outgun the South African Police Service 2 to 1.

The judiciary system hasn’t helped, and the ANC’s internal succession battle during the course of 2007 caused considerable institutional damage. Zuma’s corruption trial called into question the political independence of certain judges, with accusations flying from both the Zuma and Mbeki camps that the other was meddling with the courts. Regardless, criminal charges against Zuma were dropped in early April, as the National Prosecuting Authority’s acting head, Mokotedi Mpshe, called the prosecution neither possible nor desirable. The news came as scandal engulfed the country’s intelligence agencies, which are accused of passing classified, intercepted conversations to Zuma’s legal team. South Africa’s inspector-general for intelligence is probing this accusation further.

South Africa Is a Regional and Continental Leader.

Only when it wants to be. There is much to praise in the international efforts undertaken during the Mbeki era. South Africa took on leadership roles in negotiations in conflicts ranging from Burundi and Rwanda, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Kenya. The country contributed to U.N. and Africa Union (AU) peacekeeping operations. Economically, too, it was a leader in both liberal reforms and financial heft.

But more recently, South Africa’s leadership has disappointed, calling into question the country’s ability to inspire Africa toward a more democratic future. South Africa’s quiet diplomacy in Zimbabwe has been a certain disaster. For months, while ruling President Robert Mugabe denied that a cholera epidemic had infected 91,000 Zimbabweans (4,000 of whom died), Mbeki subtly attempted to arrange a forced marriage between the president and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. His efforts created a unity government that hardly warrants the name. The deeply flawed administration will not be able to correct human rights abuses, halt ongoing farm invasions, or bring the country back from the economic brink as long as its leaders tussle for control.

South Africa’s record on the U.N. Security Council has also disappointed anyone who expected the country to embody the human rights legacy of the Mandela era. South Africa has blocked substantive debates on Burma and Zimbabwe — both clear cases of human rights abuses — on technical grounds. Nor has the country made any effort to reverse the AU’s opposition to the indictment of Sudan’s president for genocide by the International Criminal Court.

And though one might expect South Africa to expand its regional role in the coming years, for example by lobbying for a permanent Security Council seat, the opposite may be true. The Zuma administration will be forced to focus on domestic questions, particularly the country’s growing internal disparities and socioeconomic challenges. The financial crisis has only added to the mess and will make an inward turn ever more likely.

With the internationalist Mbeki gone, unsavory figures are likely to fill the continental leadership void. The new African Union president is none other than Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi, a well-known Mbeki rival. Qaddafi has already begun to show his undemocratic colors, recognizing coup-created governments in Mauritania and Madagascar against the AU’s consensus.

The World Can Claim South Africa as a Success Story.

Yes, but the end of apartheid was only a fleeting victory. The global anti-apartheid movement helped catalyze South Africa’s democratic transition, yet some areas of international involvement failed to last beyond the euphoria of the initial years.

In the 1990s, vast amounts of bilateral and multilateral assistance poured into South Africa to ensure a smooth transition of power between the apartheid and democratic regimes, peaking at $541 million in official development assistance in 1999. International expertise and financing helped foster a strong civil service, legislature, civil society, and independent media.

But the world’s attention soon waned. South Africa was too rapidly deemed a full-fledged democracy, and various forms of assistance dropped off between 1999 and 2002. Newly created South African institutions were left to their own devices. Even the country’s courageous trade liberalization program met with less reciprocation than hoped for abroad.

Recent political events have proven that the South African state was more fragile than we thought. Increasingly majoritarian rule has put new pressure on the very legitimacy of the South African state. Once again, various bilateral and multilateral donor agencies are committing assistance — $718 million in 2006 — to South Africa to shore up the gains that have been made. The country they have found is far different from the democratic paradise they might have hoped for a decade ago.

Raenette Taljaard is a former South African parliamentarian and executive director of the Helen Suzman Foundation.

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