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This article is taken from the December 2003 Phatlalatsa newsletter


A decade of democracy: South Africa in review Part One

A decade of democracy: South Africa in review  Part One imageDavid 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 East.

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 ; and
  • advancing the African Union agenda.

The Constitution

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 values:

  • 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 system.

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 and stability."

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, warned recently:

“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.


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