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  • Consolidation and Public Opinion in South Africa
  • Robert Mattes (bio) and Hermann Thiel (bio)

As recently as January 1990, almost all observers would have agreed that the odds were stacked heavily against a successful transition to democracy in South Africa. In the aftermath of the “miracle election” of April 1994, however, the odds might appear, at first glance, to favor a successful consolidation of South African democracy. For the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s citizens, long deprived of self-government and common citizenship on the basis of race, a return to the old regime of apartheid obviously is not an option. Democracy, rather than vengeance or group power, has long been a cherished goal for black South Africans and was the mantra of the African National Congress (ANC) and the bulk of those involved in the grassroots struggle against apartheid. Moreover, while white South Africans benefited from apartheid, they have had long experience with competitive elections and Westminster-style parliamentary politics, albeit based on exclusionary and racially defined citizenship.

Yet there are several structural, institutional, and attitudinal factors that point to a much more sober view of the future of democracy in South Africa. In contrast to what might be expected, surveys demonstrate that citizens do not yet feel a widespread attitudinal commitment to democracy. 1 Nor do prospects for creating such a commitment appear bright, given the continuing consequences of the country’s history, economy, and present institutional arrangements.

At its core, consolidation has to do with the probability of sustaining [End Page 95] democratic processes (defined minimally as free, fair, and regular elections plus all the freedoms—of opposition, association, speech, and the media—that necessarily go with such elections). This conception of consolidation is basically the same as the notion of “democratic endurance” that Adam Przeworski and his three coauthors used in their seminal cross-national and longitudinal study, which appeared in the January 1996 issue of the Journal of Democracy. 2 We regard a consolidated democracy as one with a very high probability of endurance.

Any analysis of democratic prospects in South Africa needs to take into account the key structural correlates of democratic endurance identified by Przeworski and his coauthors: national wealth, economic growth, economic equality, parliamentary government, and favorable international and regional contexts. As we will discuss below, South Africa’s prospects appear somewhat dim on a number of these fronts. At the same time, a purely structural analysis of consolidation in South Africa or any other new democracy would have several limitations. In the first place, the relationships between structural factors and democratic outcomes are matters of probability, not certainty, and they are complex. Some states that are poor, that fail to grow, that fail to reduce inequality, that have presidential regimes, or that have undergone violent transitions to democracy nonetheless do sustain democracies. Second, as Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan argue, structural factors in and of themselves do not bring about consolidation. Rather, leaders and citizens must act purposefully to preserve or destroy a democratic regime. 3 Thus structural conditions need to be linked to democratic consolidation through purposeful actions and the attitudes that inform such actions.

We argue that democratic commitment is the key factor that links structural background conditions and democratic consolidation. The level of elite and citizen commitment to democratic processes is the single direct determinant of the probability of democratic endurance or consolidation. A very high level of commitment is what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan refer to as “legitimation.” 4 As Larry Diamond argues, when democracy “becomes so broadly and profoundly legitimate among its citizens, it is very unlikely to break down for internal reasons.” 5

While legitimation is not a necessary condition for a democratic transition, it is necessary for democratic consolidation. Democracy can be destroyed only by purposeful actors, motivated at least in part by a belief that democracy is not “the only game in town,” that it is not the best form of government available, or that it is no better than all the alternatives. While uncommitted elites may play the electoral game as long as it suits them, or as long as international norms dictate, they are likely to challenge a democratic...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 95-110
Launched on MUSE
1998-01-01
Open Access
No
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