South Africa Two Decades after Transition: From Apartheid to a Thriving Multi-Party Democracy

Students and representatives from the University of Cape Town, protest outside the South African Parliament building against government announcement of student fee increases in Cape Town, South Africa on September 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

Allister Sparks wrote in his 2016 memoir that, “South Africa is still a much better place than it was under apartheid.” Sparks, one of South Africa’s most distinguished journalists, died on September 19 at the age of 83 after a 66-year career covering the difficult and violent nearly half century of dejure apartheid under Afrikaner rule. He clashed openly with the apartheid regime, narrating the imposition of forceful racial segregation including massive displacements and prohibitions of mixed marriages and the regime’s repeated use of the army and police to clamp down on the black opposition.

Sparks courageously disclosed the cover-up of the regime’s many secret actions, including the arrest and violent repression of leading black opponents, most notably Steve Biko’s violent death in police captivity in 1977. As editor of The Rand Daily Mail, he exposed secret government efforts to use a slush fund to establish a government-friendly newspaper The Citizen (thousands of copies were thrown away daily to hide the paper’s limited circulation) leading to the resignation of President John Vorster in 1979.

Over decades of reporting, at times to the displeasure of the paper’s owners, Sparks championed the promotion of non-racial democracy and covered the complex events leading to the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first democratically elected president in 1994. He continued to cover the difficulties and challenges which the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has encountered as the country transitioned from the apartheid regime to a young multi-party democracy.

His passing is not only a loss to journalism in South Africa, but provides an opportunity to revisit South Africa’s ongoing transition and unpack the recent student protests, local elections, and state of the country today.

South Africa as a Democracy

The current ruling party, the ANC, grew to power under the leadership of some of South Africa’s icons including Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Chris Hani, and eventually succeeded in liberating the country from the apartheid government. The party easily secured victory in the first democratic election held in South Africa in 1994 with 62.7% of the votes, and Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president. For most of the last two decades, the ANC has been regarded as the unquestioned leader of the country. Over the years, however, the gap between rich and poor has grown, and the ruling party finds itself facing rising disgruntlement from the population and growing political challenges from strengthened opposition parties from the established Democratic Alliance (DA) to the young Economic Freedom Front (EFF).

It was perhaps inevitable that the ANC’s optimistic goal of lifting the nation’s black majority out of poverty in a decade or two was unattainable. Mandela’s charisma, viewed internationally as bringing about a near miraculous transformation of the country without widely predicted civil war, could not be passed on to his successors. In his writings, Sparks noted that in the long years of exile, its leaders had done nothing to prepare themselves to become a government; their ideological studies at the Lenin Institute in Moscow had left them unprepared to deal with the world of globalization and the “Washington consensus.” This situation is one we have seen play out many times before in African countries and typifies the struggles liberation parties have faced when becoming ruling parties.

In his single term in office— from 1994-1999—Mandela’s accomplishments were more symbolic than real. Given his age and frailty after 27 years in prison, much of day-to-day work of the government passed to his Vice President, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela was able to unite a country, calming black anger as well as avoiding an exodus of the white population and much of the economic power of the time. Further, Mandela was able to re-introduce South Africa to the world, attracting much-needed investment and kick start the growth process.

However, his successors—first Thabo Mbeki and then Jacob Zuma— lacked Mandela’s unifying charisma and uplifting rhetoric. Each had quite different skills. Mbeki was a renowned international statesman who raised the status of South Africa in Africa and Africa in the world, and later helped to broker peace agreements in Cote d’Ivoire and Darfur; Zuma was seen as more relatable to the majority of the population and rallied the Zulu tribe to a national aspiration.

Neither, though, were able to provide the essential qualities of leadership, and instead contributed to an ever more divided ANC. Mbeki lost the support of the majority of the nation and even parts of the world as he accepted the fallacious argument of a small minority of “scientists” who denied that AIDS was caused by HIV and instituted policies denying antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients. This was a fatal error directly contributing to the rapid growth of the disease in South Africa in the early 2000s, while next door in Botswana, thousands of lives were saved by the government’s acknowledgment of the disease and acceptance of these same drugs. The fall of Mbeki was too similar to a coup for the comfort of South Africans, and perhaps was the first serious indication of the decline of the ANC.

Zuma, building off Mbeki’s aloof personality, gained widespread support as the peoples’ leader who was seen as relatable by his dancing during speeches and interactions with those isolated by Mbeki’s intellectual rhetoric. Quickly, however, Zuma took advantage of his power, and used public funds to build an excessively lavish compound in Nkandla, one of the poorest areas in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. He also boasted of his sexual prowess and engaged in legal maneuvers and blatant abuse of power to avoid any responsibility or repayment for his egregious lifestyle, all while the country’s economy began to spiral down. Adding to his decline were his controversial relations with the Gupta family, a prominent wealthy family in Kwa-Zulu Natal seen to influence many of Zuma’s decisions; and the removal of several excellent politicians, mostly recently South Africa’s finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2016 when he was seen as challenging Zuma. It was not surprising that a new opposition party, Economic Freedom Front (EFF), led by former ANC Youth League President, Julius Malema, is rising in power as it openly defies the ANC in raucous parliamentary confrontations.

South Africa in Transition    

What is remarkable is not that this political shake up is happening, but that the country seems to be in a better position to deal peacefully with this dramatic change than some neighbors experiencing similar outcomes such as Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland. The country’s inner strengths, Sparks argued in his last memoir The Sword and the Pen, include the Constitution of South Africa, which has been praised as one of the most inclusive in the world; the courts especially the Constitutional Court; the provincial legislatures; and a robust civil society supported by a free media.

How has this come about? Sparks himself and other courageous journalists deserve much of the credit for bringing the nation forward, breaking ground by establishing an open reporting culture in the face of considerable financial and physical threats. As editor of the Rand Daily Mail from 1977-1981, he reported on and stood up to the apartheid regime’s use of violence and dirty tricks to thwart and block the black majority’s political aspirations for open democratic rule. In 1990, FW DeKlerk, who succeeded PW Botha as president after the latter’s stroke, saw the handwriting on the wall. He paved the way to the transformation by releasing Mandela from Victor Verster prison, allowing the ANC to participate openly in a national election.

Government opposition is still alive in South Africa and over the last two years there has been a rising movement akin to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. A new and vibrant civil society emerged in the wake of Mandela’s electoral victory, and, now with help from social media and the internet, they are demanding accountability from the government and fulfillment of promises made. Most recently, students have been standing up against the fee increase of 8% for the next academic year. These are not new protests in South Africa, but have grown in intensity over the past year, with arguments for transformation in curriculum and the student and teaching body. Attending university is steadily becoming financially inaccessible to the vast majority of the population, thus replicating the challenges of the advantages of the past. The #feesmustfall movement is an excellent indication of the dynamic energy of the youth in South Africa and an example of the freedom of protest permitted in the country; a fundamental freedom of any successful democracy.

Civil society has been moving to hold government accountable at a national and international level. In July 2015, the South African Litigation Centre successfully took the South African government to court for its failure to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during his visit to South Africa for the African Union Heads of State Summit in June 2015. The South African Supreme Court ruled against the government stating that it was “disgraceful conduct” to allow Bashir to leave the country without arresting him, Bashir now must be arrested if he returns to South Africa. More significantly, though, was the ruling in March 2016 by the Constitutional Court against President Zuma on the issue of refunding money used on installing non-security upgrades at his private residence. This ruling was based on the 2015 report from Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, which stipulated that Zuma has abused public funds in the building of his private home and is required to pay back a reasonable portion of the money spent.

The indication of a thriving democracy, which encourages those who are dissatisfied to use the voting polls to voice their opinion, can be seen with the recent local election results. These were the worst for the ANC since taking power. The ANC received only a slim majority, with 53.9% of the votes; it lost two major municipalities to the DA- Nelson Mandela Bay and Tswane (the home of the executive). The DA already holds the majority in the Western Cape. These elections were free and fair, and the only violence was in ANC strongholds in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Most significant was the ANC loss of control in Nkandla, home of Zuma’s extravagant home, to long-time rival the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), illustrating perhaps the most blatant dissatisfaction with Zuma.

What does this means for a young democracy like South Africa? There may be challenges, as all young countries face, but the spirit of democracy is alive and kicking. The opposition is challenging Zuma on every step and casting doubt on his ability to lead— doubt which was reflected in the recent polls. Despite the fact that the next general election is only in 2019, the ANC National Convention will be held in December 2016 and offers a prime opportunity for the party to act in line with the demands of the people and replace Zuma as head of the party. A move like this would signal that the ANC is still the party that John Langalibalele Dube created in 1912; a party that listens to those it governs, and has best interests at heart, living up to the ideals that many fought so adamantly for.

In the words of Sparks, there is “hope that we shall have a soft passage through our second transition into the fulfillment of the rainbow nation’s dream, which is of a nation of great diversity that can live together in harmony and periodically change its government peacefully.”