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Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002) 22-36

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South Africa: Democracy Without the People?

Robert Mattes

Perhaps more than any other democratizing country, South Africa generates widely differing assessments of the present state and likely future prospects of its democracy. If one takes the long view--comparing South Africa today to where it was just 12 years ago--it is difficult not to be enthusiastic about its accomplishments and its future. South Africa successfully emerged from the shadow of apparently irreconcilable conflict and unavoidable racial civil war to create a common nation. It has negotiated two democratic constitutions and has held four successful nationwide elections for national and local government. On the economic front, it has avoided the triple-digit inflation that many feared would accompany a populist economic strategy of redistribution and government intervention. It has stabilized the expanding debt and reversed the double-digit inflation inherited from the apartheid-era government. There have been impressive gains in employment opportunities and income for the growing black middle class, and poor blacks have seen unprecedented improvements in access to basic necessities.

Yet if one looks at South Africa's new democracy in a comparative perspective, one's enthusiasm is greatly tempered, if not altogether removed. Crossnational analysis has highlighted three broad sets of factors crucial to democratic consolidation: a growing economy that steadily reduces inequality; stable and predictable political institutions; and a supportive political culture. In terms of these factors, an analysis [End Page 22] of South Africa yields, at best, some reasons for guarded optimism and, at worst, many grounds for serious concern.

In each area, today's South Africa presents a paradox. In terms of political culture, South African society played a key role in achieving democracy through its widespread opposition to the apartheid regime. The country's numerous and diverse civil society organizations range from community grassroots groups to national trade unions and non-governmental organizations. Yet citizens are not particularly supportive of democratic rule and now display low levels of community and political participation. Economically, macroeconomic stability, fiscal discipline, and low inflation sit alongside weak business confidence, low growth, massive unemployment, and rising intraracial inequality. Politically, an internationally praised constitution designed to promote multiparty competition and individual rights is overshadowed by one-party dominance and limited governmental accountability. Thus, seven years into its new dispensation, South Africa's democracy in form appears to be relatively healthy, but in substance shows signs of early decay.

Economic Development

South Africa's economic policy makers should be proud of a number of accomplishments. The national budget deficit has shrunk from 8 percent to around 2 percent of GDP. Public and private affirmative-action initiatives in education, business ownership, and hiring have created a sizeable black middle class. 1 Since 1995, more than a million low-cost houses have been built, and the poor now have access to free medicine and more than 700 additional healthcare clinics. More than 5 million needy children now get a fifth to a quarter of their daily nutritional needs through school-based programs. More than 2 million people have received access to electricity and 7 million to water. 2 Relatively low inflation, around 6 percent, means that working South Africans are able to keep up with the cost of living.

Yet the sluggish economy has actually shed 500,000 formal jobs over this period and deprived hundreds of thousands of households of the income needed to make ends meet. Broadly defined, unemployment now stands at 36 percent. 3 A lack of business confidence has stifled both domestic and foreign investment, thereby hampering growth. While growth has been running at approximately 3 percent annually since 1995, the government sees growth of 6 to 7 percent as a prerequisite to cutting unemployment and reducing inequality.

Interracial inequalities have been reduced as a result of increasing black incomes and the redistributive effects of government spending, but inequality within all race groups has increased. Among blacks the top one-fifth of all households have made impressive strides while the bottom two-fifths have moved backwards. 4 [End Page 23]



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