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Worrying about South Africa

From my observation of democracies around the world, I’m worried that the risk of a slide into authoritarian rule in South Africa over the next several years is rising and substantial. This pessimistic view emerges from an unconventional understanding of what makes democracies survive or fail. For the past couple of decades, American scholarship on ...

-/AFP/GettyImages
-/AFP/GettyImages

From my observation of democracies around the world, I’m worried that the risk of a slide into authoritarian rule in South Africa over the next several years is rising and substantial.

This pessimistic view emerges from an unconventional understanding of what makes democracies survive or fail. For the past couple of decades, American scholarship on this subject has emphasized popular legitimacy and the habituation of elites to democratic norms and procedures as the means by which democracy solidifies. In this view of the world, the passage of time without failure is considered a useful indicator of consolidation, because time roughly measures the amount of habituation that’s taken place. If that’s right, then the 18-year run of South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy bodes well for its ability to survive shocks that would break younger regimes.

As far as I can tell, though, that’s not really how the world works. In fact, the risk of regime failure appears to increase over the first 15-20 years of a democracy’s life span and then more or less holds steady after that. What looks on the surface like a process of "maturation" is probably just what statisticians call a selection effect: More vulnerable democracies tend to die young, leaving only the more resilient ones to keep on aging.

This pattern makes more sense if we focus on the interests of the organizations that are directly capable of breaking a democracy, namely, major political parties and the military. In my view, democracies fail when one of these organizations a) sees state power as a means to address significant opportunities or threats to its interests and b) believes it has the capability to usurp and hold that power. Depending on which organization is doing the usurping, the resulting actions can take the form of a military coup, an opposition-led rebellion, or what some scholars call a "consolidation of incumbent advantage," where the winners of the most recent election try to cement their dominance by incrementally fixing future rounds of play in their own favor — rigging electoral procedures, harassing opponents, and circumscribing civil liberties.

Since the end of the Cold War, most failures of democracy have followed the latter path, producing "competitive authoritarian" regimes that aren’t full-blown dictatorships but don’t really give citizens effective ways to hold elected officials accountable, either. Military coups are rarer nowadays but still happen, mostly in poor countries with a history of direct military participation in politics. Successful rebellions remain rarest of all, in part because rebellions are inherently hard to organize and partly because insiders can usually preempt uprisings by meeting them partway.

Even though it’s nearly two decades old, South Africa’s democratic regime has yet to the face the kind of stress tests that typically produce these kinds of power grabs. The African National Congress (ANC) proved its resiliency by surviving and then winning the long and brutal struggle against apartheid, and it has thoroughly dominated politics in the post-apartheid era, in no small part because of its status as the champion of the nation’s large black majority, a winning electoral coalition by any math.

That prolonged post-apartheid honeymoon now appears to be ending, however, under the building pressure of unmet demands for the better life that many South Africans expected would follow from the end of white rule. The most visible sign of this rising pressure is the wave of strikes sweeping the country’s crucial mining sector right now. As former labor leader and ANC government minister Jay Naidoo wrote recently for Think Africa Press after police killed 34 striking miners near Marikana:

The fiasco of Marikana is a sign of the failure of leadership on all sides, and there is growing ferment in South Africa. The people in our townships, rural areas and squatter camps are bitter that democracy has not delivered the fruits that they see a tiny elite enjoying. Many of the leaders they revered have abandoned the townships for the Armani lifestyle previously exclusive to leafy white suburbs. They have long lost touch with the disgruntlement brewing in society.

In the 18 years since apartheid ended, the ANC has had no reason to tilt the electoral field to its own advantage, because it hasn’t faced electoral threats serious enough to warrant the costs. In the country’s last national elections, held in 2009, the ANC won 264 of 400 seats in the National Assembly, a comfortable majority that’s just shy of the two-thirds needed to amend the country’s constitution.

The ANC’s unchallenged dominance may finally be ending, however, as factions that have long toed the party line seek new opportunities in swelling popular frustration. Days after the August killings, erstwhile ANC youth leader Julius Malema came to Marikana and told the miners’ families that President Jacob Zuma was responsible for the 34 deaths and should back the striking miners’ demands or resign. Malema was expelled from the ANC in April for "sowing divisions within the organization and bringing the organization into disrepute," but his tough talk on the party and the president elicited cheers from the rally in Marikana. Meanwhile, senior party leaders allied with a faction that would apparently like to see Zuma replaced as president of the ANC at its national elective conference in December openly blasted a state prosecutor’s decision to charge other miners with the murder of the 34 killed at Marikana and criticized Zuma for the broader militarization of the police that preceded the confrontation there.

To think about how ANC leaders might respond to a split within the party or the emergence of a radical flank, we can take a look at their reactions to relatively modest political threats in the recent past. In late 2011, the country’s ANC-dominated parliament passed a law imposing harsh penalties on journalists if they publish information considered to be a "state secret" after one newspaper published parts of a 10-year-old confidential interview from an investigation into allegations of corruption by now-president Jacob Zuma. More recently, some observers have interpreted the government’s endorsement of tribal courts as a legitimate form of justice as an attempt by the ANC to win continuing loyalty from tribal leaders at the polls. And, of course, Malema’s insubordination was met with political exile.

These reactions suggest a willingness to play the kind of hardball that could lead South Africa into a competitive authoritarian regime as challenges to the ANC grow more frequent and intense. The motive to steamroll potential rivals in this manner presumably stems, at least in part, from the personal fortunes some party insiders have accumulated in the post-apartheid era. In a piece for The New York Times on the aftermath of Lonmin, Lydia Polgreen mentions Cyril Ramaphosa, a labor leader from the days of the revolutionary struggle who, in addition to occupying a senior leadership post in the ANC, is now a multimillionaire and board member of the mining company against which the 34 dead workers were striking. As Naidoo’s essay suggests, Ramaphosa is hardly exceptional in this regard, and the revolutionary leaders of yesteryear now stand to lose a great deal if they fall from power and find their wealth and prerogatives questioned by their successors.

Importantly, labor unrest does not have to transform into open rebellion for South Africa to backslide into authoritarian rule. Most strike leaders probably don’t have designs on national power, and they would almost certainly fail if they tried to seize it. What matters more is how the ANC leadership perceives the movement’s aims and capacity, and what other political figures try to make of it. If labor unrest spreads and persists, its most likely effect on the quality of democracy in South Africa will be to increase the risk of a consolidation of incumbent advantage by heightening the ANC’s fear of a loss of privilege and property.

Put those pieces together, and the picture that emerges is one of an increasingly oligarchical regime that seems likely to respond to emerging threats to its power by trying to squash them. This is the path followed by many other "young" democracies in the recent past: Russia, Armenia, Ukraine, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Malawi under Bingu wa Mutharika, to name but a few.

Of course, even if comparative analysis tells us this outcome is increasingly likely, that does not mean it is inevitable. As Jay Naidoo said in his essay, we can hope that the ANC leadership will not get stuck trying to protect itself against future losses of privilege and power and will instead help its country find a better way forward.

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