A decade of democracy: South Africa in review — Part One
David Everatt reviews the 10 years since the democratic general election of 1994. Part 1 of this 4 part series.
In early 2003, South African President Thabo Mbeki presented the annual State
of the Nation address in which he declared: "the tide has turned".
The currency was strong, GDP stood at 3.1% and the economy had grown every year
in the preceding decade. Debt was down and savings were up. "Our task",
Mbeki told the nation, ‘is to take this tide at the flood, further to
progress towards the achievement of the goals for which so many of our people
sacrificed’. A few weeks later Finance Minister Trevor Manuel made his
budget speech in which he raised social spending, cut taxes and promised greater
support for programmes in key areas including skills development, land restitution
and job creation.
The critics, however, present a very different picture, sharing to a greater
or lesser degree hostility towards government's neo-liberal economic policies,
its stance on HIV/AIDS and the provision of anti-retroviral therapy, centralising
tendencies ascribed to the Presidency and personality defects ascribed to the
President himself. There was talk of the African National Congress (ANC) having
sold out its revolutionary ideals, dropping its (supposed) support for socialism
in favour of enrichment for a tiny black elite and cosying up to local and international
capital at the expense of the working class and rural poor. The 'demobilisation'
of civil society is blamed for leaving the political playing field to the ANC
with no real opposition in sight; and in its place 'social movements' are eagerly
looked to as the source of popular opposition. (Social movements will be discussed
in more detail in Part Three.)
Since the democratic general election of 1994, commentators have veered between
describing South Africa either as a 'miracle' — the triumph of common
sense over prejudice, where visionary leadership steered the country away from
an apocalyptic race war into the global capitalist order; or as an elite sell-out
by conservative nationalists, largely drawn from formerly exiled ANC leaders,
intent on developing the national bourgeoisie rather than promoting the interests
of the working class.
Truth, one suspects, may be found in the messy reality that lies somewhere between
the 'miracle' and the 'sell-out', both of which have an element of truth but
neither of which gives a very broad or accurate picture.
Crisis? What crisis?
Commentators at either end of the spectrum have one thing in common —
the frequency with which they identify crises, whether economic, social, health-related,
governance-related, in foreign policy, or among national and party leadership.
The removal of apartheid was, for South Africa, 'the end of a history', but
it seems also to have wiped historical memories clear. Contemporary analysis
is seldom balanced with an assessment of the massive challenges facing the country
in 1994 or the gains made since then. As the 10th anniversary of the 1994 democratic
general election approaches, these tendencies are likely to reappear in newspapers
and books. Few recall that South Africa, just a decade ago, was on the brink
of cataclysmic events such as occurred in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and the Middle
Rustow Dankwart makes the point that democratic evolution is neither a steady,
nor a linear process. South Africa in 2003 is a vibrant, exciting, and challenging
place. Every issue — from regulating plastic bags to poverty — is
fought with passion and zeal, the energy of the anti-apartheid struggle is still
seen in communities, NGOs and others, and South Africans (and the South African
media) swing between demanding perfection to crying crisis with scarcely any
space between the two poles.
It may be useful to note that democratic transitions are not uniform processes
involving the same actors, strategies, issues or periods of consolidation. It
took Britain just under 400 years to manage its transition to liberal democracy.
Sweden began the process in 1890 and took another 30 years before the process
settled. At the aftermath of Ireland's independence from the United Kingdom,
the country was underdeveloped, and through a variety of policy options it is
now poised to become the third largest economy in Europe, a process which has
taken around 80 years. The lesson for South Africa is clear: a decade is little
more than a step in the overall history of the country.
South Africa is a complex society, with a damaged past and an uncertain but
positive future, constrained by local and global forces but bursting with vitality
— and paradoxes. Advances in one area are undercut in another. Rights
are extended to all citizens, yet women remain economically and socially subordinate.
Fractiousness pervades social relations, yet integration has permeated every
aspect of South African life. Non-racialism is a national goal, but race-based
measures are put in place to achieve it. There are no clear markers that will
inform South Africa when 'transition' and 'transformation' end and signal the
onset of the normal. Tensions, challenges and problems exist, but they do so
alongside the very real possibility that South Africa can take the democratic
project further than thought possible anywhere in the world.
The ANC came to power in 1994 with 62.7% of the vote, and Nelson Mandela became
President. The ANC election manifesto, The Reconstruction and Development Programme,
was premised on creating a better life for all South Africans, with particular
emphasis on the poor. The second democratic election in 1999 saw the ANC increase
its majority and embark on its second term under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki
who had been Deputy President under Mandela after spending most of his life
in exile. Despite its increased majority, the ANC was aware of mounting pressure
to deliver on promises of a better life for all. With the struggle for political
freedom realised in the first democratic election and cemented with the adoption
of the Constitution, government focused on delivery.
Reflecting the new emphasis on delivery, the Programme of Action announced
by President Mbeki at the opening of Parliament in 2000 contained the following:
- building a nation united in action for change
- moving to a faster job-creating economic growth path
- investing in human resources
- more effective, integrated and efficient government
- rural development and urban renewal
- eradicating poverty and broadening access to social services
- fighting crime and corruption, and
- African recovery.
The period immediately after the 2000 State of the Nation address was marked
by economic austerity; government implemented a financial strategy based on
tight fiscal discipline but the economy shed formal sector jobs and failed to
attract significant foreign direct investment (for more on the economy, see
Part Two). The tripartite alliance that is made up of the ANC and the more left-leaning
Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and South African Communist
Party (SACP) was beset by disputes over economic policy, which soon spilled
over into the public arena.
By 2003, however, the economy was growing and social spending rose, and in
his State of the Nation address, Mbeki highlighted the following "necessary
realistic tasks" for the year ahead:
- expanded service provision
- improvements in public service efficiency
- increased social and economic investment
- black economic empowerment
- attention to human resources development to help reduce unemployment
- improving the criminal justice system
- moral renewal
- expanding relations with the rest of the world
- accelerating formulation and implementation of the first NEPAD projects
- advancing the African Union agenda.
One of the most important achievements during the ANC's first term in power
was the adoption of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa in 1996.
The South Africa that emerged from the negotiation process, and which is enshrined
in the Constitution, is a sovereign, democratic state founded on the following
- human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human
rights and freedoms
- non-racialism and non-sexism
- supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law
- universal adult suffrage, a national common voters' roll, regular elections,
and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability,
responsiveness and openness.
The Constitution is considered one of the most progressive in the world, and
enshrines a wide range of socio-economic rights. The vast majority of South
Africans accept the legitimacy of the constitution-making process and the Constitution
itself, and more and more activists now use legal mechanisms in the struggle
to realise socio-economic rights. For example, commenting on a landmark judgement
in the Constitutional Court in a case between the Treatment Action Campaign
and government, Geoff Budlender of the Legal Resources Centre noted that:
"… the case also illustrates just why social and economic rights
are essential in a country such as ours. Rich people do not require these rights.
They can afford what they need… Social and economic rights are poor people's
rights. They balance the constitutional protection of existing rights with the
obligation on the state to transform our country so that the basic needs of
all its people are met. They compel the government to keep its focus on the
most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged... In a constitutional democracy,
the exercise of all power is accountable. The exercise of all public power must
conform to the Constitution…"
From 1994 onwards, a number of factors defined and drove South Africa's political
culture, particularly the following:
- a transition from the zero-sum political environment to one of negotiation
and mutual accommodation
- the public emergence of an imaginative cadre of political leadership across
the political spectrum
- the management and alteration of the stalemate and the balance of power
- the emergence and management of confidence-building mechanisms
- an essential attribute of leadership, at both macro and micro level, became
the management of difficult trade-offs
- the emerging human rights culture combined with the weakening of the justice
The ANC — regardless of its former image and status — is a social
democratic party, which has become the custodian of liberal values. The New
National Party has shifted from a custodian of apartheid values to a Christian
democratic party. The Democratic Alliance still contains a liberal core, and
is simultaneously the only mainstream party trusted by the right wing. At the
level of public office South Africa is ruled by an ANC-SACP-IFP-NNP coalition
government — put another way, communists, socialists, liberals, traditionalists
and monarchists are all working together in government. A further important
point to note is that "the electorate, one-fifth of whom are illiterate,
show mature voting behaviour that is another source of democratic consolidation
The ANC and democracy
While there is no doubt that the ANC will win the 2004 general election, it
is unclear whether it will increase its share of the vote from that of 1999,
a strong possibility given the fracturing of the opposition and the failure
of the DA to attract African voters.
Three aspects of ANC practice merit mention for their impact on democracy.
- The generation of ANC leaders of the 1950s and 1960s has retired by choice,
with the current top leadership drawn from the 1970s and 1980s generations
— in contrast with Zimbabwe's ZANU-PF and Namibia's SWAPO party, which
are still led by their founders, after 40 and 43 years respectively.
- South Africa boasts three ex-Presidents still alive, honoured with high
pensions and paid body-guards. This is normal in the old industrial democracies,
but still rare in Africa. Two of the three retired leaders presided during
the apartheid era.
- The third factor relates to the voting behaviour of ANC grassroots membership.
The National Executive Committee of the ANC is elected by secret ballot on
a one branch, one vote basis. The overwhelming majority of voting conference
delegates tend to be Africans in their 20s or 30s. At the 1994 and 1997 national
conferences, the top ten NEC members, with the highest number of votes, included
a significant number of white and Indian leaders, disproportionate to the
country's demography, and markedly disproportionate to the percentage of ANC
members from those groups. This suggests that the ANC core takes non-racialism
seriously, and avoids ethnic or racial bloc voting.
It is likely that in a second ANC term, the focus on meeting basic needs will
continue — government has already committed itself to an Expanded Public
Works Programme and similar measures seeking to create short-term employment
and provide useful infrastructure. However, government cannot continue to build
roads and dams and initiate development projects, and other interventions are
required, where direct foreign investment increases, and job creation becomes
a reality. The government's Skills Development Strategy has provided skills
training to over 15% of all workers in just 2-3 years. It has been accompanied,
however, by rising unemployment and widening inequality (to be discussed in
more detail in Part Two) and for government to significantly change this, South
Africa must be taken to a new economic and developmental plane within a decade.
South Africa is a multi-party democratic state with a progressive Constitution,
and general knowledge of the Constitution appears high. A recent survey indicated
that almost three-quarters of adult South Africans had a good knowledge of the
Constitution, while over half of respondents in a recent national survey of
adults had heard of the Bill of Rights.
While generic knowledge of South Africa's political system appears high, engagement
with the political process appears to be waning. In the recent Municipal Elections
of 2000, national voter turnout was only 48%. While this may be high when compared
to local government election turnout in countries such as the United Kingdom
or United States, the trend is distinctly downward from the first democratic
election in 1994.
It is commonly accepted that a strong opposition is a necessary part of consolidating
democracy. Given the ANC's electoral power and the limited formal opposition,
some commentators highlight the dangers of what they characterise as a de facto
one-party state in South Africa. While the electoral and political dominance
of the ANC is likely to remain intact for some time to come, it also reflects
the quality of opposition parties in South Africa. The ANC has an alliance with
the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) nationally and in KwaZulu-Natal. During 2002
it negotiated an alliance with the New National Party, which allowed it to oust
the Democratic Alliance as the Western Cape provincial government.
Opposition parties have not been successful in forming robust alliances among
themselves, even where there are apparent ideological congruencies. The parties
that grew out of the black consciousness movement remain small and separate,
as do those representing sections of the white population. In part this reflects
the skill of the ANC leaders in political manoeuvring. At a deeper level, opposition
parties have failed to articulate their ideological differences with the ANC
or to develop a significant support base among African voters.
The question is whether countervailing power exists in South Africa; where
it is located; how much power it has; and how to nurture it. There is general
agreement that while countervailing power exists, it is limited; and also that
opposition parties are not a source of strong countervailing power; their value
seems to lie in serving as a repository for political identities rather than
playing a more active or interventionist role. This is not ideal: the political
system should furnish a robust and sizeable parliamentary opposition that can
win broad-based (and predominantly African) support, but this seems unlikely
to happen until an opposition party emerges from the Congress tradition and
provides a left alternative to the ANC. It is important to note that much countervailing
power resides within the tripartite alliance.
It is often issue-based, but can be powerful, signalled for example by Mbeki
publicly withdrawing from the public debate on HIV/AIDS generated by his apparent
support for AIDS dissidents and their views.
President Mbeki lies at the centre of a culture of suspicion and hostility
that has been nurtured by a number of critics who regard themselves to the left
of the ANC, accusing Mbeki of ‘systematic dishonesty’ which they
extend to cover his key ministers and advisors. As a result, Mbeki's own words
are disregarded by former sympathisers and others who see ANC policy shifts
in negative terms and seem unwilling to accept any other motive than mendacity.
As if the damnation of former friends were not enough, a former advisor to the
apartheid presidency recently accused "…a new 'distributive coalition'
… forged over the past decade between the old white elite and the new
black elite" of ensuring that "a comprehensive redistribution programme
on behalf of the poor is not possible.”
Despite the way in which Mbeki is portrayed by critics, he commonly provides
more eloquent arguments about the problems of poverty eradication than either
the movement he leads or its critics. He has spoken about the restricted sphere
of movement available to developing countries, also true of the ANC during negotiations
and in government. He has described the way in which the rules of the game “serve
the purposes of our rich global neighbours”; the impossibility of autarky;
and his wariness of market forces.
This does not mean that all criticism is misplaced: the Mbeki presidency has
been marked by a strong degree of centralism, including structural changes,
the diminution of the National Council of Provinces (the second chamber) and
portfolio committees, and so on; and a dislike of criticism coupled with attempts
to stifle debate, often accompanied by stinging attacks on enemies both real
and imagined. Despite privately expressed opposition, for example, few Cabinet
ministers are prepared publicly to express the most mildly dissenting view,
even on key issues such as HIV/AIDS.
The negative tendencies of the ‘authoritarian clique’ in the ANC
leadership have been criticised in many quarters. COSATU, with the most organised
constituency in the alliance, has been at the receiving end of a number of attacks
from senior ministers over its opposition to GEAR, its national strike called
in opposition to privatisation, its views on HIV/AIDS, and other issues. It
has noted that "Government seems particularly angry about popular mobilisation,
irrespective of the cause or source". In a shrill speech, COSATU and the
SACP were accused by Mbeki (and subsequently by ministers) of housing 'ultra-leftists'
intent on breaking the alliance and wresting power. COSATU replied that "an
ultra left exists [but] it does not pose a threat to our people or our movement."
The gap between COSATU's sober assessment and the President's apparent sighting
of enemies partly explains the increasing wariness of and concern about Mbeki
since he assumed power.
The real concern in many quarters is about a general stifling of debate by
Mbeki's 'henchmen', coupled with attacks on left-wing elements within the ANC
and the tripartite alliance more broadly. This seems unnecessary, given both
Mbeki and the ANC's grip on power. COSATU, having described the 'conspiratorial
and military' style of a clique of Mbeki-supporting former exiles in the ANC,
“There can be no question that the majority of ANC leaders find [their]
tactics distasteful. Nonetheless, the influence of this grouping is on the rise.
Its divisive tendencies will do more to weaken the democratic movement than
any amount of disagreement over economic policies. If members of this group
win more power, we can say goodbye to the NDR [National Democratic Revolution],
the alliance, the ANC traditions of openness and serving the poor, and indeed
to our democratic victory.”
COSATU has nonetheless committed itself to remaining in the alliance. In part
this is the result of circumstance and limited choice: beyond the ANC, "the
predominantly black parties", COSATU has noted, "have no clear programme
except to gain power". It should be added that few if any of those parties
have any sympathy for the union body's avowed socialism. But COSATU is no weak
hanger-on in the tripartite alliance. It clearly exerts not inconsiderable influence,
despite locking horns with some of Mbeki's main supporters whom COSATU terms
an "authoritarian clique".
Part Two of this essay will look at foreign affairs, the social and economic
costs of violence and conflict, the widening gap between those who have and
those who do not, and examine the economy and GEAR.
Part Three will consider social movements, constitutional democracy and socio-economic
rights, and delivery.