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  • The New South AfricaRenewing Civil Society
  • Wilmot James (bio) and Daria Caliguire (bio)

South Africa is fast approaching the beginning of its third year of democratic rule. Against a background of intractable conflict spawned by apartheid and the uncertainty and fragility of the preelection negotiation period, the democratic transition that the country has undergone over the past two years has been remarkable—even miraculous. The 1995 edition of the Human Rights Watch World Report refers to South Africa’s transition to democratic rule as “the magnificent outcome of [a] long and costly struggle.” 1 Indeed, the end of apartheid and the installation of Nelson Mandela as president of a new government led by the African National Congress (ANC) was one of the great historic moments of the twentieth century. For South Africans of all races, the nationwide balloting of April 1994 was more than an election; it was a celebration.

Although the party is not quite over, South Africa has already settled sufficiently into a new pattern of politics to permit us to ask some important questions: What kind of democracy is it that South Africans have crafted? And what are the long-term prospects for the new political arrangements? These are difficult questions to answer, both because the process of democratization remains relatively open and undefined and because there is little agreement in the analytic community as to the necessary conditions for democratic sustainability.

Accounting for much of the uncertainty is the absence of a permanent constitution. South Africans went to the polls in April 1994 with the understanding that the elected government would form a Constituent Assembly, one of whose tasks would be to fine-tune the interim [End Page 56] constitution adopted by the outgoing parliament at the end of 1993. Still unsettled are several major issues of institutional design, such as the degree of federalism that will characterize South Africa and the nature of the country’s electoral system.

There are also deeper questions. For example, what kinds of strains will the country’s inherited social and economic conditions place on the political system? To what extent will the nation’s vibrant—and, in some respects, uniquely configured—civil society, which was shaped by the antiapartheid struggle, be able to meet the numerous challenges it now faces and help institutionalize the new democratic regime?

Terms of the Transition

South Africa’s transition to democracy was not a revolution in the classic, radical sense in which the term is used by Theda Skocpol—that is, a transformation of the structures of both state and society. 2 Rather, it was a negotiated settlement among opposing parties that resulted in representative government based on universal franchise. Such an agreement had come to be perceived by all parties as the only viable exit from a situation of stalemate.

Under the terms of the settlement, some key institutions of the state—including the military, the police, and the civil service—were left intact, but the legislative and executive branches of government were redesigned so that those who governed South Africa would represent the entire citizenry. New institutions, such as a Constitutional Court, were created in order to complete the separation of powers. Preexisting patterns of ownership and control of property were protected, so that the racial composition of the different socioeconomic classes remained unchanged.

A government of national unity would emerge as the institutional manifestation of the settlement among the parties. An extremely inclusive system of proportional representation was adopted for the national elections, with no minimum threshold required for entry into parliament. In addition, all parties that received more than 5 percent of the national vote gained representation in the executive cabinet; the threshold required for representation in the nine provincial cabinets was 10 percent. In the April 1994 elections, the ANC received 62.6 percent of the national vote, the National Party (NP), 20.4 percent, and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), 10.5 percent. All the other parties, including the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), received less than the minimum threshold both nationally and in each province and are therefore without representation in national and provincial cabinets. In the spirit of accommodation and inclusiveness, Mandela has appointed representatives...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 56-66
Launched on MUSE
1996-01-01
Open Access
No
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