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  • Reconstituting South Africa
  • Frederik van Zyl Slabbert (bio)
A Democratic South Africa? Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society by Donald L. Horowitz. University of California Press, 1991. 293 pp.

Donald Horowitz, a noted student of constitutions and voting systems the world over, ends his new book on South Africa's political future with the discouraging observation that "democracy is possible, but improbable in South Africa." Having already squandered too many opportunities for orderly change, South Africa will soon find itself forced to make decisions in an atmosphere of crisis. Pressed by circumstances, the country is in danger of settling for short-term expediency, rather than long-term substance. Negotiators representing the major political forces will probably grasp at the illusion of "absolute guarantees" and will fail to install the kinds of enduring incentives that are needed to sustain democratic government.

Horowitz further points out that there has been no peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another in Africa since 1967. And in South Africa during the 1980s especially, people have become "accustomed to local tyrannies." "No matter how we frame the question," he concludes, "South Africa appears to be another case in which there are more rewards for politicians to pursue both conflict and hegemony than to pursue accommodation and democracy." This is hardly uplifting stuff for his intended audience of "democratic innovators" and "constitutional engineers" caught up in the dynamics of transition in South Africa.

And yet, the task that Horowitz has set himself is to show how South Africa can sustain democratic government after the transition away from [End Page 107] domination and apartheid. This is an important and provocative book, written in an intellectually uncompromising and lucid manner. It has the virtue of flushing out all the ideological shibboleths that figure in political debates on South Africa, while the author candidly professes his own—that after white domination is eliminated, ethnic differences among Africans will take on great political importance. Horowitz sees South Africa as a deeply divided plural society. Though it has some distinctive problems of its own, it shares many others with similarly divided plural societies. It is in discussing this second set of difficulties that Horowitz has the most to offer, for he can draw on extensive comparative knowledge of democratic experience in other divided societies.

It would be facile to dismiss Horowitz as a "primordialist" who reifies race and ethnicity. Yet he is aware of how hard it is to achieve an accurate description of the South African situation, and spends the first three chapters of the book surveying the obstacles that confront democratic reform. At the heart of these lies what he calls "a profound dissensus about how South African society should be understood and transformed." This dissensus is revealed in contending proposals for a democratic South Africa, and helps to explain why many solutions that appear apt are not acceptable, while many that appear acceptable are not apt. But if inclusive democracy is improbable in South Africa, that is neither remarkable nor cause for despair: "Not only is democracy unusual in Africa, but it is also rare in ethnically and racially divided societies more generally. Such societies need special precautions if they are not to be overtaken by authoritarianism."

The rest of the book concerns these precautions. One need not share Horowitz's emphasis on ethnicity and race (I do not) to take these "special precautions" seriously. Not least among the merits of Horowitz's work is that he takes the actual process of transition seriously and attempts to relate it to a possible post-transitional democratic South Africa. This alone should make it required reading for those "democratic innovators" both inside and outside government in South Africa who speak so confidently of the beneficent effects of "multiparty conferences," "interim governments," and "constituent assemblies" on democratic processes and outcomes in South Africa. Horowitz warns that if things start off badly, it will be virtually impossible to undo the damage later. The key, then, is to "think clearly about the matter at the beginning, to urge apt institutions on the designers and indeed to urge maximum incentives for accommodation . . . at every level, but not to persuade the designers...


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pp. 107-111
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