State of Play: How South Africa Became South Africa

Desmond Tutu’s gift for a finely turned phrase hasn’t dimmed with time. At the beginning of Connie Field’s recent seven-part documentary on the global struggle against apartheid,  Have You Heard from Johannesburg , he offers this little gem: “If miracles had to happen anywhere in the world they would have had to happen in South Africa. No other country that I know of has been prayed for quite as intensively, as fervently, and for as long as South Africa.”

Thus the retired archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Peace Prize laureate practically invokes the leitmotif of this year’s World Cup. In early June, South Africa took the helm as host of the planet’s biggest sporting event, and we’ve heard a lot about the “miracle” of apartheid’s fall and the coming of age of the rainbow nation that replaced it. Field’s overly long and overly earnest film stands at the politically correct extreme. In the South Africa she pictures, the saintly and now ruling African National Congress (ANC) defeated those dreary racist Afrikaners, and
the rest is a footnote.

On the safe assumption that the World Cup won’t all go according to plan, another less politically correct story line will invariably emerge—that of the miracle tarnished. Raging crime and AIDS epidemics, inept and authoritarian governance, neglected infrastructure and widespread graft have become the other hallmarks of this new South Africa, a country ushered by the ANC on the road toward Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Spooked or fed up, a million mostly but not exclusively white South Africans left the land of their birth for the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States since the turnover in 1994, taking their skills and capital with them.

So who’s right—the enthusiastists or the skeptics? Each have a point. In truth, South Africa doesn’t so much fall somewhere in between these contradictory visions as it reconciles them. This is a maturing democracy, free and dynamic—in spite  and, in some telling ways,  because  of its  dark side. That makes its transition from apartheid highly unusual. You could even say it’s a mystery, and one worth trying to unravel, not least for what it tells us about the tradecraft of democracy promotion.

In this democracy, only one party wins elections. The ANC holds the presidency, parliament, eight of nine provinces, and all large municipalities—and lords all of this over weakened opposition parties. This party monopoly oversees a state unable to protect its citizens from an onslaught of murder, rape, and disease. At its core the political system is dysfunctional, borderline rotten. Yet the fruit around this pit, so to speak, is healthy. For the reasons why, we must look beyond the immediate sphere of government, and beyond its capability to kill off hope. Here we’ll find the media, NGOs, the Church, and—probably most overlooked—an independent and thriving private sector that helps entrench political freedoms. These ingredients give hope that South Africa will be able to consolidate its still fragile democracy.


S omewhat like Turkey, South Africa is a sui generis country. South Africans of all races recognize its unusual provenance and character. In February 2008, I first met Jacob Zuma, who had just won control of the ANC and was then maneuvering to unseat his rival Thabo Mbeki from the country’s presidency. What upset him most was that outsiders thought him cut from the same cloth as Africa’s other “big man” politicians and saw South Africa as slowly turning into Zimbabwe. “That’s part of the problem with Europe,” he complained, “to think an African is just like another African.”

When, in April 1994, blacks, Indians, whites, and coloureds stood in line to cast their ballots in the first free multiracial elections, South Africa enjoyed advantages other upstart democracies could only envy: It inherited a robust court system, on the British model; the practice of democratic elections and debate was hardly alien to the place, just limited for decades to whites only; and it was, and remains, Africa’s richest economy. On top of that, South Africa’s civic society was forged in the “struggle,” as Poland’s was by the Solidarity decade. Legions of muckrakers and activists tumbled from the apartheid into the democratic era. Sometimes this transition proved jarring. Black reporters suddenly found themselves covering old comrades now in power. That they were soon among the toughest critics infuriated the ANC.

The other unusual feature: South Africa’s revolution had been negotiated—what political scientists call a “pacted transition.” Though the ANC’s mythmakers might prefer to pretend otherwise, their party did not oust the apartheid regime by force. The last white president, F. W. de Klerk, had been convinced to try to share power (failing to realize, then, that the National Party would end up losing it all). Afrikaners tired of sanctions. The fall of Communism in Europe somewhat lessened fears of the ANC functioning as a cat’s-paw for the Soviets. Unbeknownst to many, the National Party and business leaders in the 1980s had started to talk with the ANC in exile, as well as with Nelson Mandela in prison. One of more interesting movies on the apartheid period is last year’s Endgame, which portrays the secret meetings between Thabo Mbeki, an ANC leader in exile, and influential Afrikaners, including de Klerk’s brother, at a corporate retreat in England. These back-channel contacts opened the way to the ANC’s legalization as well as difficult constitutional talks with the ruling National Party.

Transitions to democracy achieved by grudging consensus, as opposed to war or revolution, tend to produce better results. The four years between Mandela’s release in 1990 and the first elections saw, to be sure, the worst violence in South Africa since the Boer War; a virtual civil war broke out in the Zulu lands between supporters of the ANC and the Inkatha movement of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The terms of the white government’s surrender, however, came about with talks rather than at the barrel of a gun. South Africa was lucky, in so many different ways, to get a leader of Mandela’s temperament. He embraced compromise to reassure the whites and other political blocs. Aware of how fragile the construct was, Mandela’s first and only term in the presidency focused predominantly on efforts at reconciliation. Probably his most memorable lines from the 1990s were “Compromise was the art of leadership” and “You do not compromise with a friend, you compromise with an enemy.”

On paper, this new South Africa looks good, too. The constitution is widely admired for establishing checks and balances, a two-term limit for the president, and a range of positive rights. The historian R. W. Johnson calls it “a great oddity and irony . . . a liberal document written by parties [the ANC and the National Party] which were both passionate opponents of liberalism.” It is the foundation stone of South African democracy and an important nation-building myth.

Yet institutional checks are only effective if the party with a locked-in two-thirds of the vote lets itself be checked by them. Although the ANC has resisted tampering with the constitution, the old liberation movement nevertheless suffers from one-party-itis. Symptoms include hubris, corruption, cronyism, incompetence, and contempt for anyone who points out any of this. There’s plenty to criticize. Violent crime has exploded on the ANC’s watch, as has AIDS. Two hundred and fifteen thousand people were murdered in the first decade of democracy. The second democratic president, Thabo Mbeki, promoted an “alternative theory” that HIV doesn’t necessarily cause AIDS. His government limited access to antiretroviral drugs and intimated that the use of condoms was a Western plot to demean African men. These policies cost tens of thousands of lives.

From the local police precinct to the ministries in Pretoria, South Africans encountered graft in their lives like never before. Even the ANC’s staunchest supporters have had to avert their eyes. “At least human temptation isn’t discriminatory,” the Nobel literature laureate and activist Nadine Gordimer wrote in her 2005 novel Get a Life. Corruption strains the fledgling democratic institutions as well. Some years ago, Andrew Feinstein, an idealistic young ANC deputy, was asked to lead the parliamentary investigation into an arms contract with the French company Thomson-CSF. Schabir Shaik, a close adviser to the ANC’s Jacob Zuma, was found guilty of asking them for a bribe on Zuma’s behalf. Prosecutors next turned their sights to the then deputy president and other leading ANC figures. As Feinstein recounts in his political memoir, After the Party, he was stifled and browbeaten by party leaders throughout the investigation. One of President Mbeki’s closest aides, Essop Pahad, blew up at him: “Who the fuck do you think you are, questioning the integrity of the government, the ministers, and the president?” Feinstein, who resigned and left South Africa for London, wrote that “a decline in morality and principle has dealt grievous blows” to the ANC, a party now marked by “excess, autocracy, arrogance, and deceit.” Soon after Zuma took over the ANC, parliament disbanded the country’s special anticorruption police unit, the Scorpions, which had investigated the arms deal and other high-profile cases. The Scorpions were an inconvenient check on ANC graft and paid the price.


J oseph Schumpeter once said that democracy’s main benefits are by-products of party competition for political office. By that standard, South Africa is politically impoverished. Parliament is a fully owned subsidiary of the ANC, which resembles Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) in its heyday; the opposition parties are spirited, but ultimately powerless, to hold the ruling party accountable. The country fails Samuel P. Huntington’s “two-turnover test” for democratic consolidation—having seen power change hands only once, in 1994, by peaceful means. Recent democratic reversals in Venezuela, Thailand, and Russia suggest the worst-case scenario for South Africa. Scholars Ethan B. Kapstein and Nathan Converse empirically examined the fate of one hundred and twenty-three democratizations from the 1960s through 2004: Of those, fifty-six—or just less than half—were “reversed,” i.e., they became authoritarian for at least a year. Sub-Saharan Africa’s record is worse; seventeen democratizations were sustained, twenty-nine reversed.

And yet South Africa’s democracy has in fact strengthened since 1994, regardless of the worst intentions of some of its leaders and the failing performance of the state in so many areas. Those pillars of civic society, from newspapers to unions to the clergy, stepped into the role played in other countries by a vibrant opposition, effectively becoming surrogate checks and balances to complement those that are ostensibly provided in the constitution but haven’t worked well enough in practice.

The Church is the oldest nongovernmental institution in South Africa. During apartheid, it was a gathering place for blacks. Its moral authority carries over to the new order. When Desmond Tutu upbraided the ANC for its coddling of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and failures on AIDS, for example, the criticism stung his old comrades.

South Africa’s lively and varied magazines and newspapers have thrived—even though their counterparts elsewhere in the world remain troubled—and proven the country’s most powerful media outlets, as measured by their ability to get under the thin skin of the South African political class. Zuma is a serial filer of libel suits, infuriated perhaps most of all by his depiction in the work of the country’s greatest political cartoonist, Zapiro. The president, a traditional Zulu polygamist who received little formal education, makes an easy target. In addition to the corruption charges, he was found not guilty of raping a friend’s daughter, who was HIV-positive. Zuma didn’t use a condom, but said he showered after the sex to avoid getting the disease. Zapiro portrays him with a shower head perched above his bald pate; sometimes he adds an “ACME Chastity Belt” to Zuma’s midsection. To the ANC’s credit, while sometimes hamfisted in its exercise of power, the state lets journalists do their jobs without an inordinate fear of harm or intimidation.

NGOs, too, fill the space created by state failure. Of the more than twenty-six thousand of them registered in the country, probably the best known and most effective is the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). Founded in late 1998, it pushes the government to provide affordable care for AIDS sufferers. (South Africa has the most HIV-positive cases of any country in the world.) In addition to intentionally embarrassing Mbeki, the organization also sued to force changes in policy. In March 2002, South Africa’s highest court agreed that the government acted unconstitutionally in refusing to make antiretrovirals available at state hospitals and ordered that pregnant women get access to treatment immediately. In a publicity coup, the retired President Mandela apologized for his own government’s weak response to AIDS and joined in the TAC’s efforts. Mbeki stopped taking Mandela’s phone calls. The TAC won the moral and political victory and the Zuma government firmly broke with Mbeki on AIDS.

In the outsized ability of the press or the Church to discipline freely elected but immature political leaders, South Africa isn’t all that dissimilar from, say, the former Communist states in Central Europe. But the role of business in this transition does set South Africa apart. Indeed the country is probably the best example we have that globalization is
good for democracy.


W alk around the Sandton business district in northern Johannesburg or drive on South Africa’s impressive highway system and the place feels like any boring developed economy. Its financial system is first-class and its corporate sector includes important multinational mining groups. This business class had a lot to lose—and gain—from the new South Africa. They were lucky to find, in Mbeki especially, someone who wanted to win their support, get their advice, and work together to build up a modern economy. Once in power, the ANC soon won a reputation abroad and at home for sound economic policy. Needless to say, this was a stunning turn of events.

For years, the ANC preached the Marxist dogma favored by its Soviet patrons. Upon his release from prison, Mandela “chilled white hearts with his affirmation that ‘nationalization of the mines, banks, and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable,’” writes William Gumede in a recent book on the ANC. Mandela may not have been properly briefed. In the years leading up to his release, the ANC had given assurances to the apartheid government, and separately to businesspeople, that they realized that times had changed. Property rights and fiscal discipline in time became the new dogma. The ANC had seen nearly all the other African liberation movements ruin the economies they took over by scaring away white capital. South Africa would be different.

The contacts with the private sector grew in intensity after the legalization of the ANC. A Consultative Business Movement was formed to help mediate between the ANC and the National Party. The outreach to foreign investors began quickly. Two years after his release, Mandela attended the World Economic Forum in Davos for the first time, and made good impressions on investors during his trips to the United States. “Contrary to what you might have heard or read, let me assure you that the ANC is not an enemy of private enterprise or the market system,” he said in a speech in Pittsburgh in late 1991. “The private sector must and will play the central and decisive role in the struggle to achieve many of the [transformation] objectives. We are aware that the investor will not invest unless the security of that investment is assured. The rates of economic growth we seek cannot be achieved without important inflows of foreign capital. We are determined to create the necessary climate that the foreign investor will find attractive.”

To its political base of mostly poor blacks, the ANC didn’t advertise that the white private sector played a significant role in advising and later drawing up economic policy. “The process whereby the ANC came to change its approach to economic policy from the avowedly socialist to the orthodox monetarist was a key time in the South African transition,” Andrew Feinstein writes in After the Party. “Engagement with corporate leaders, academics, and policymakers had profound impact on the economic thinking of some of the leadership.”

Once in power, the new government reached an impressive consensus on overall economic policy goals: a balanced budget, a far-reaching social and economic reconstruction and development program, and a national health strategy. Its electoral dominance freed it to err on the side of market-friendly policies without fear of losing power. For the first decade-plus of multiracial democracy, the private sector liked the idea of strong leadership led by an electorally dominant ANC. Caring little for niceties of multiparty democracy, they mostly hoped a monolithic ANC could resist the temptation to give handouts, or turn the rich white capitalists into political scapegoats. The breakup of the ANC—the sine qua non of South Africa’s democratic maturation—scares many of them. But their bigger concern with promoting policies that foster growth and macroeconomic stability turns out to be good in the long run for South Africa’s democracy.


T he fruits of this economic policy could be seen during the World Cup in the images of prosperous cities and well-appointed tournament sites. At the same time, many black areas lack indoor plumbing or good schools, and unemployment and poverty run deep; the powerful unions and the ANC’s hard left were enraged by the embrace of free market policies and did more than anyone to bring Mbeki down and Zuma in. But the bottom line is that in sixteen years, the ANC has done a better job on the economy than the National Party did in its last two decades in power. It inherited a debt-ridden state, a closed economy, and a strong but white-dominated private sector. In a few years, budgets were balanced, trade opened, the rand made convertible, and numerous state companies sold. The profile of the economy has changed fast as well. The share of mining in exports dropped from around three-quarters in 1990 to forty percent today, reflecting the strong growth of other industries. Before the onset of the global recession, growth had averaged five percent per year so far this century.

These economic changes carry social—and political—consequences. The private sector opened to all races, largely as a result of the opportunities offered by rising growth and partly by government fiat. In a country of forty-eight million, four-fifths of whom are black, some three million blacks are considered “middle class”—a small but growing portion of society with nearly half a million new entrants a year. This new middle class is an interest group with a stake in market-based democracy.

The same can be said about the new black super-rich. The ANC government has pushed an aggressive “Black Economic Empowerment” scheme that forces white-owned businesses to hand over equity stakes to blacks. The political rationale was obviously to change the look of the business elite in South Africa. But there was another one, expressed by Mbeki in 1999: “Ours is a capitalist society. It is therefore inevitable that, in part—and I repeat, in part—we must address this goal of deracialization within the context of the property relations characteristic of a capitalist economy. . . . As part of the realization of the aim to eradicate racism in our country, we must strive to create and strengthen a black capitalist class.” The biggest beneficiaries so far have been ANC bigwigs like Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale, who left politics for business. The country’s current deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, once complained this produced a “transfer” of wealth as opposed to a “transformation.”

Having done well out of the so-called new political dispensation, the white-dominated business can live with the cost of the world’s most far-reaching affirmative action program. By giving up to a quarter of their equity to “previously disadvantaged groups,” the banks, mining companies, and others are paying a price, a tax in effect, for their survival. The alternative might be nationalization or worse. “It’s a kind of sustainability imperative,” Jacko Maree, the CEO of Standard, the country’s largest banking group, once told me in Johannesburg. He supports Black Economic Empowerment “in the whole interest of nation-building.” If this South Africa is to have room for rich whites, in other words, it needs rich blacks too.

Incidentally, these fancy C-suites shore up democracy in another way. Fail in politics in South Africa and a lucrative board seat or three awaits you. Elsewhere in Africa, the state offers the surest way to steal a good living, a huge reason why single-party states tend to get stuck with one bunch until the next coup. Here, fortunes are best made outside government.

Mandela wooed capital before taking office and was better off for it. Surprising his own base on the left, Jacob Zuma did the same. Soon after he won the ANC’s presidency in late 2007, he made his maiden trip to Davos, then went on to reassure and court investors in London and New York. Back in South Africa, I once asked him why he bothered cultivating white businessmen who don’t vote for him. “They run the
economy,” he said.


T he bigger point here is that promoting economic pluralism, expanding opportunities, and putting in place the conditions for the growth of an entrepreneurial class helps entrench political freedoms. Dynamic economies produce voters who yearn for responsive government that won’t endanger their livelihoods. It is ironic perhaps that the ANC and its many Moscow-educated leaders seek out the approbation and support of international markets for their economic policies. By doing so, the party accepted a virtual check on economic populism, be it massive wealth transfers or Greek-like spending habits. It is also ironic that these policies sow the seeds of pluralistic politics that could endanger the ANC’s hold on power. A black electorate coming from different social classes will have diverse interests; as a big tent that housed the anti-apartheid coalition, the ANC can’t forever (one assumes) be all things to them. The story of South African democracy isn’t complete, but the spread of global capitalism has coincided with and helped democracy put down deeper roots in the continent’s leading power.

Last year around this time, however, the outlook for the economy and politics seemed bleak. Zuma and his sullied reputation were set to take over the presidency. The global downturn and falling commodity prices hurt South Africa, weakening the rand. As it turned out, the electoral season of 2009 brought an “accidental advance,” in the words of political analyst Steven Friedman. The catalyst was, somewhat inadvertently, Zuma himself. By challenging and defeating Mbeki for the leadership of the ANC in 2007, an unprecedented happening in that organization’s history, Zuma brought to the party internal democracy and exposed internal splits. These tensions led to the formation of a new splinter ANC party the following year, the Congress of the People. It fared less well than its leaders hoped, winning 7.4 percent of the vote. Still, in this fourth national election since the end of apartheid, the ANC lost ground in every province, except for KwaZulu Natal, Zuma’s home ground. Meanwhile the old white liberal party, the Democratic Alliance, continues to make gains under its leader, Helen Zille. In 2006, she was the first white politician to win a prominent mayor’s seat, in Cape Town. Last year her party captured the Western Cape, marking the first time since the turnover that someone other than the ANC has governed a province. This election, as Friedman notes in a recent essay in Journal of Democracy, “may have opened up previously stifled democratic potential.”

So politics may at last be slowly catching up to a country that thrives in so many other spheres. Whether South Africans see the new era as glorious or tarnished, most of them—of all races—are united by something that didn’t exist before 1994: An emerging national identity born out of pride in their achievement and rooted in the hard effort to perfect a multiracial democracy. They’ve done better than anyone expected in the days after Nelson Mandela walked to freedom out of the gates of Victor Verster Prison a little more than twenty years ago.

Call it a miracle.

Matthew Kaminski is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

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