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  • The More Things Change … South Africa's Democracy and the Burden of the Past
  • Steven Friedman (bio)

a quarter century after south africa's negotiated settlement produced a democracy that won the country and its first president, Nelson Mandela, admiration around the globe, it has become trite to point out that the new order has fallen short of many of the expectations placed upon it. What is—or should be—fiercely contested is why this fall from grace has come to pass.

The standard explanation will be familiar to anyone who has followed the postindependence path of African societies. In this account, the democratic constitution—adopted in 1993 and refined in 1996 by the first parliament elected by universal franchise in 1994—ended the problem of racial domination that was central to pre-democratic South Africa. It created an inclusive democracy in which all enjoy equal rights, and its much-admired constitution created a framework that allows citizens and their representatives to use its levers to create a fairer, more prosperous society. But politicians—particularly the country's fourth president, Jacob Zuma, who was elected in 2009 and governed until he was forced to resign in early 2018—misused the new order to enrich themselves and damage the institutions created by the constitution. And so the brave new order that the world celebrated is now forever tarnished. [End Page 279]

This article takes issue with that account. It argues that South African democracy has exceeded expectations. A quarter century on, democratic institutions—parliament, regular elections, an independent judiciary and media, and a vocal civil society—are all operating as democratic theory requires; among their achievements is Zuma's removal from office. It agrees that the country's progress in addressing poverty and inequality and in healing its divisions has been limited at best. But this has happened not because the problems of the past were solved and politicians then took advantage of the ensuing solution; rather, those problems persisted because the negotiated settlement failed to alter the economic patterns that exclude millions from the economy's benefits, and the cultural patterns that preserve the power relationships created by colonization. The problem is not that too much has changed but that not nearly enough has.


Misgivings about South Africa's democracy are largely the product of Zuma's period in office. Zuma defeated Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, in a contest for leadership of the governing African National Congress (ANC) in late 2007 and became president after the general election of 2009. His period in office is widely viewed as one in which the president and his faction within the ANC used public office to acquire wealth and spread it among supporters—and cleared their way by eroding government institutions. The wealth they acquired was not only derived from the public coffers. Some businesses and businesspeople were accused of "buying" politicians in Zuma's term—lavishing money on people in government in return for access to government decisions that affect them and their business interests. Chief among these in the public imagination were the Gupta brothers, who arrived in South Africa from India with the initial purpose of selling computers. They forged links with Zuma, offered commercial opportunities to his son, and used their access to his government to branch out into mining, media, and other industries. [End Page 280]

For the South African public debate, Zuma's term is best summed up by the widely used phrase "state capture," a term that was publicized (although not coined) by a report produced in 2016 by Thuli Madonsela, the then-public protector, an ombud office created by the constitution to check government corruption (Public Protector 2016). To gain some flavor of what this entailed, consider the watershed moment that occurred in the state capture project in late 2015 when—thwarted by a finance minister who refused to approve a nuclear deal with Russia that would have boosted the Guptas' mining interests—the Guptas allegedly offered the then deputy minister R600 million (US$42.6 million at today's rates) if he would take over the ministry and do their bidding (Bezuidenhout 2018). Zuma is alleged to have...