South African Democracy: Progression or Regression?

Author: Colin O’Brien, 2019.


“South Africa’s democracy was adopted before the country had addressed its development needs, making it an incredible feat to have sustained its core democratic principles since 1994. However, with enduring dire social and economic challenges amidst successive political instability and corruption, South Africa’s democracy appears to be on the brink of regression.”

Image from Pixabay. 


In the wake of the apartheid era, South Africa is presented with the dual task of development and democratization. Since the demise of the apartheid government in 1994, South Africa has emerged with a principally democratic constitution, reasonably robust autonomous institutions, and a strong commitment to political and civil liberties (Campbell 14). While democratic ideals have been enshrined in the constitution and increasingly adopted among civil society, enduring social problems and political turbulence threaten to bring South Africa’s emerging democracy to its knees (Campbell 13). South Africa is both developing and democratizing, making it particularly vulnerable to internal conflict and eventual regression of democracy (Snyder 126). This paper contends that South Africa must address its persisting social, economic, and political problems to preserve its increasingly unstable democracy. Specifically, this paper seeks to answer the question, can South Africa’s democracy continue to progress amid egregious economic inequality, a political culture mired in corruption and instability, and a deep racial rift in society? South Africa’s democracy was adopted before the country had addressed its development needs, making it an incredible feat to have sustained its core democratic principles since 1994. However, with enduring dire social and economic challenges amidst successive political instability and corruption, South Africa’s democracy appears to be on the brink of regression.


Historical Context for Democracy

In 1652, the Dutch established the Kaapstad settlement, the center of the first permanent European colony on the southern tip of Africa (Campbell 29). A creation of the Dutch East India Company, Kaapstad served as a waystation for travelers and merchants who navigated around the southern African coastline (Campbell 29). The Afrikaners, who are the descendants of the Dutch and various other European settlers who are often referred to as Boers, eventually formed the predominant white population with a perceived divine right to the Cape of Good Hope (Campbell 30). However, during the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century when modern day Cape Town was operating as a port for ships between Britain and India, control of the Cape shifted from the Dutch to the British (Campbell 31).

As the Boers began to move inland and with the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886, tension between the British and the Boers escalated (Terreblanche 38). Culminating in two Boer Wars, the British decisively defeated the Boers and established the Union of South Africa with white-centric political and economic systems of institutionalized dominance (Terreblanche 38). In 1919, during the peace talks which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles, the South African whites were granted dominion status—autonomous and self-governing member states—by the British (Terreblanche 38). Over a decade later in 1931, the Statute of Westminster designated South Africa as a “sovereign independent” under the British Commonwealth (Terreblanche 38). This marked the beginnings of South Africa’s white racial-democracy (Campbell 37).

In 1948, apartheid was officially adopted and administered in South Africa (Campbell 39). Designed as an institutionalized system of racial segregation and discrimination, apartheid literally means “separateness” in Afrikaans (Campbell 40). From 1948-1991, the apartheid government in South Africa deliberately divided the black ethnic populations using a system of territorial segregation (Campbell 40). Each citizen was classified by government-determined race, and the races were to remain separate. Under a thin veneer of “racial democracy” methodically crafted to favor whites, the black population was intentionally and institutionally disenfranchised politically, economically, and socially (Campbell 41). The African National Congress (ANC), the primary resistance coalition that organized social movements internally and externally against the apartheid regime, eventually toppled the government in 1991 (Campbell 48). Remarkably, under the initial leadership of Nelson Mandela, the country sprouted a new non-racial democracy without a major violent uprising or reprisal (Campbell 53).

In the shadow of the apartheid era, South Africa faced remarkably unique challenges to establishing a non-racial democracy (Campbell 57). Not only did South Africa need to establish a system of democratic governance that accommodated all of its citizens while engaging in the difficult task of nation building – a remarkably difficult feat for any country – it also had to do so in the spirit of reconciliation. In other words, on the one hand, South Africa needed to establish functional democratic norms, institutions, and systems of governance to meet the needs of its entire constituency, including the permanent white population (Campbell 58). On the other, South Africa faced extreme development issues surrounding poverty, health, education, and economics (Campbell 58). All the while, a volatile racial undercurrent lingered barely beneath the social surface. In short, South Africa faced the challenges to democratize, develop, and de-escalate tensions between racial groups, all simultaneously.


Development and Democracy

Since the end of the Cold War, it has largely been presumed that Marxist style modernization or development had been definitively squashed by the capitalist economic development model (Inglehart & Welzel 34). However, amongst the growing body of academic research on the relationship between development and democracy, the jury is still out on whether industrialization coupled with increased economic prosperity will inevitably lead to democracy (Inglehart & Welzel 34). For example, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George Downs cite Chinese authoritarianism and undemocratic rule, despite an ever-growing GDP, as a case in point (Bueno de Mesquita & Downs 78). Similarly, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel note with caution and a series of caveats, that pure economic development does not guarantee democratic transition (Inglehart & Welzel 37-39).

However, academics and scholars do not disagree that economic development is correlated with democracy. It is difficult to determine a causal link between economic development and democracy, especially given glaring examples such as China that suggest otherwise (Bueno de Mesquita & Downs 78). As Inglehart and Welzel observe, “modernization does not automatically lead to democracy” (Inglehart & Welzel 38). However, with that said, Inglehart and Welzel continue, “Rather, it, in the long run, brings social and cultural changes that make democratization increasingly probable” (Inglehart & Welzel 38). Put simply, despite a lack of direct causal evidence between economic development and democracy, there is evidence to suggest that down-the-line effects of economic development have real impacts on democracy formation in the long-term – perhaps not directly causal, but certainly correlated with some degree of certainty.

Clarifying this point, Inglehart and Welzel state, “supported by a large body of evidence,” the study of the capitalist economic development model and modernization theory “points to the conclusion that economic development is a basic driver of democratic change” (Inglehart & Welzel 47). Therefore, economic development might not definitively cause democratic transition, but it is likely a prerequisite indicator of readiness for democratic change. Without some degree of economic development and the subsequent wide array of social development benefits that researchers Inglehart and Welzel suggest often come with it, democratization or a sustained democracy are highly improbable (Inglehart & Welzel 38-39). Thus, though it may be possible for democracy to develop prior to industrialization or modernization, economic development and the consequent outcomes of social development increase the likelihood of democratization (Inglehart & Welzel 38).

Furthermore, Jack Snyder and Edward Mansfield contend that democracies in transition are highly susceptible to conflict, especially if they are in the process of developing (Snyder 125-127). According to Snyder and Mansfield, prerequisite conditions, whether economic, social, or cultural, must be in place before a push for democracy can be realized. Citing two examples, Snyder and Mansfield state, “Pushing unsettled Islamic societies and a nuclear-armed China to democratize is like spinning a roulette wheel: many of the possible outcomes are undesirable” (Snyder 126). Similar to Inglehart and Welzel, Snyder and Mansfield are wary of the long-term stability of forced democratic transitions, especially when the proper prerequisite conditions for democratization are not met, as it increases a country’s susceptibility to conflict and short-term instability. Snyder and Mansfield warn that “the international community should be realistic about the dangers of fomenting democratizations where conditions are unripe” (Snyder 126). Continuing, they add that “democratizing regimes are also disproportionately prone to internal conflict” (Snyder 126). In short, prerequisite economic, social, and cultural development need to have occurred before a push for democracy can be fully realized. Countries attempting to democratize without such conditions are highly susceptible to conflict and failure.


Threats to Democracy: Economic Inequality 

According to the most recent World Bank statistics, in 2016, South Africa maintained a GDP per capita of $5,246 United States Dollars (USD) (“World Development Indicators”). That same year, real GDP growth stagnated at 0.3 percent, while South Africa’s unemployment rate hit 26.7 percent, remaining relatively stable considering the previous 5-year unemployment average was 25 percent (“World Development Indicators”). In 2016, the youth unemployment rate grew a whopping 50 percent, while the country’s poverty level remained relatively stable over a five-year period from 16.6 percent in 2011 to 15.9 percent in 2016 (“Overview: South Africa”). In combination, South Africa’s stalling economy, high unemployment, and stagnant rate of poverty have contributed to South Africa’s continued status atop the list of most economically inequitable countries in the world.

The GINI coefficient, a baseline standard to measure economic inequality, scores countries between 0 and 1 and currently lists South Africa the most economically unequal country in the world (“World Development Indicators”). If a country scores a 0, all individuals or households in the country have the exact same income or wealth, depending on the metric used. If a country scores a 1, then one individual or household would take home all the income or retain all the country’s wealth. In 2016, South Africa scored a .65 when considering wealth distribution, while it scored .69 when considering income distribution (“Overview: South Africa”). These numbers represent the highest measurement of inequality in the world. To put that in perspective, according to the World Bank, “the poorest 20% of the South African population consume less than 3% of total expenditure, while the wealthiest 20% consume 65%” (“Overview: South Africa”).

As aforementioned, economic development is not necessarily a driver of democratization, but it likely brings about social and cultural development that is conducive to democracy formation; but in the case of South Africa, democratization was almost an inverse process (Inglehart & Welzel 38). South Africa transitioned from a racial to a non-racial democracy in only a few short years and economic development of the masses was not a driver (Campbell 55-56). Thus, South Africa confronts a particularly unique challenge of retroactively attempting to engage in economic development for the entire citizenry while maintaining its democracy. To be fair, the ANC has made vast strides to raise many South Africans out of poverty. According to the World Bank, “based on a poverty line of $1.90 per day at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), poverty fell from 33.8% in 1996 to 16.9% by 2008” (“Overview: South Africa”). Still, the problem extends beyond solely economics.

Though South Africa has clearly committed itself to reduction of poverty, it has not engaged in an honest effort to reduce economic inequality. This presents a long-term problem for democracy because a large portion of South Africa’s population has not experienced the down-the-line social and cultural effects economic development brings. As Inglehart and Welzel state, “a massive body of evidence suggests that modernization theory’s central premise was correct: economic development does tend to bring about important, roughly predictable changes in society, culture, and politics” (Inglehart & Welzel 37). South Africa is essentially divided into two economic worlds, a first world and a third world. The first world South Africa may have experienced such effects from economic development, but the third world South Africa certainly has not.

This dichotomy between a first and third world South Africa is untenable for a stable and abiding democracy. The effects of such an economically divided country arguably surface through statistics like the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI). A measure of a country’s health sector, educational attainment, and income per capita, the HDI ranked South Africa in the bottom 40 percent of countries in 2016, punching far lower than South Africa’s economic weight indicates (“World Development Indicators”). Until economic prosperity is more broadly realized or equally distributed, social problems surrounding health, education, land reform, and even race will persist, and their democracy will likely crumble.

Even worse, the inequitable distribution of wealth, along with the remaining effects of past and present social inequalities, can be traced along racial lines. In 2013, the average annual income among white individuals in South Africa was 199,726 ZAR, or approximately 15,000 USD (Campbell 93). Their black compatriots, on the other hand, averaged 26,594 ZAR, or approximately 2,100 USD (Campbell 93). Additionally, although South Africa has been lauded by the World Bank as one of the most effective countries in addressing poverty – nearly cutting its extreme poverty in half – the country remains highly unequal racially (Campbell 94). South Africa’s fiscal policy, such as its sales Value Added Tax – a flat tax that equally affects the rich and poor – has had little to no effect on reducing economic inequality. In fact, between 1993 and 2011, inequality of household consumption has worsened, when using race as a determining variable (Campbell 94).

Put simply, economic development and equality have not come to fruition in South Africa. The social and cultural developments that are conducive to democracy, as Inglehart and Welzel describe them, are absent. Consequently, South Africa remains divided into an economic first and third world with a social and racial hierarchical structure eerily resembling apartheid. As long as such extreme economic inequality persists, South Africa’s democracy will be vulnerable.


Threats to Democracy: Politics

With the dissolution of the apartheid government in the early 1990s, the classic mantra for many skeptical South Africans became, “one man, one vote, one time.” Although there were probably sprinklings of overt racism in those sentiments, these thoughts were not completely unfounded. One look north to Zimbabwe was an easy reminder of what a dictatorship in South Africa could look like. Yet, despite the odds, Nelson Mandela was elected for one term in 1994, followed by Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma in 1999 and 2009, respectively (Campbell 15). Today, however, the South African political system teeters between progression and regression. As Jacob Zuma faced his ninth vote of no confidence and ultimately stepped down in 2018, the future of the ANC and South Africa’s political system as a whole are unknown (“Jacob Zuma”). This is either an opportunity for South Africa to reawaken its commitment to the eradication of corrupt democratic leadership, or a threat of governmental consolidation into a one-party system on its way to oligarchic governance. This is a political test South Africa has initially passed with the ousting of Zuma but can still fail with poor choices in future leadership.

Luckily, South Africa has relatively strong institutions to weather a president like Zuma and sustain an interim period in which the political system is most vulnerable. According to the World Bank governance indicators, a reputable barometer of governance by country, South Africa is doing relatively well (“Worldwide Governance Indicators”). Particularly, South Africa scores well in voice and accountability, regulatory quality, and government effectiveness rankings (“Worldwide Governance Indicators”). However, as expected, it ranks disproportionately low for political stability. In 2016, when the political stability indicator was rendered, President Zuma had been accused of misappropriation of public funds and circumventing both the High Court of South Africa and the International Criminal Court (“Jacob Zuma”). That same year, there was discussion of reinstating 18 counts of corruption against Zuma (“Jacob Zuma”). In 2017, the Supreme Court of South Africa officially ruled in favor of reinstating the charges (“Jacob Zuma”). However, even in the lead up to his 2009 election, Zuma had been facing charges of corruption and rape (“Jacob Zuma”). It is no surprise that a shadow of doubt and healthy skepticism loomed over Zuma’s entire presidency.

Additionally, racial politics in South Africa are still incredibly strong, driving wedges between citizens along racial and ethnic lines (Steinberg). As John Campbell has noted, “Jacob Zuma and other ANC leaders sometimes resort to populist, anti-white, and anti-foreign appeals in the face of unaddressed poverty of its core constituency” (Campbell 74). In addition, more radical political parties like the Economic Freedom Front have recently emerged, speaking of dramatic land reform and income redistribution that is explicitly racial (“Jacob Zuma”). Apartheid has cast a long shadow over South Africa, the effects of which are both social and political (Steinberg).

In sum, though many may signal that Zuma’s exit vindicates the political system, the low governance ranking from the World Bank on political stability shows that the political landscape remains open to manipulation. There is still a real, and arguably higher, possibility that the government could be destabilized by unconstitutional or violent means. Additionally, racial politics continue to dominate South Africa’s political sphere, emphasizing South Africa’s need to change more than just one leader’s role in government (Steinberg). In the wake of Zuma’s exit, the resulting political stability, or lack thereof, will be a true test of South Africa’s democracy.


Counter Arguments

The two most obvious counterclaims are economic and political in nature. First, critics could claim that South Africa transitioned into democracy uniquely from a racial democracy and that economic inequality does not strike a fatal blow to its non-racial democracy like it would in other developing countries. Though an economic first and third world exist simultaneously in South Africa, the masses are moving upward economically and that inertia will eventually lead to broader large-scale social and cultural changes that are conducive to long-term democracy.

Second, critics may assert that Zuma’s removal from power is testament, in itself, to the successful implementation of democracy in South Africa. The fact that an unpopular leader has relinquished power can be seen as an indicator of a properly functioning democracy. Additionally, the emergence of the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has won majorities in the four largest South African cities, has offset the political domination of the one-party ANC (“Jacob Zuma”).



To some, it may appear that South Africa is on the eve of a great harvest, ready to reap the benefits of a realized democracy it has long awaited. However, this is an illusion. Alternatively, the idea that South Africa rests on a trajectory of absolute success or failure, teetering between the two extremes is, at best, misleading. South Africa is not inevitably destined for success or failure. The outcome for its democracy will require deliberate action. South Africa’s political culture, despite Zuma’s departure, will require an overhaul. South Africa’s social and economic problems will not disappear without deliberate and intentional public policy solutions, nor will a cohesive social fabric in South Africa miraculously emerge with racial animosity quelled and equality realized. These are clear impediments to a sustained democracy that need to be addressed. South Africa is the litmus test, poised to alter the future fate of democratic governments on the African continent. The epitaph of South Africa must not read, “the country that almost overcame racial, economic, and political threats to democracy.” The South African government must rise to its challenges, acknowledge its shortcomings, and make conscious efforts to safeguard and protect its increasingly fragile democracy. This eternal vigilance is the price of South Africa’s democracy and freedom.


Works Cited

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and George Downs. “Development and Democracy.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 5, 2005, pp. 77–86.

Campbell, John. Morning in South Africa. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

“Jacob Zuma – the survivor whose nine lives ran out.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Feb. 2018,

“Overview: South Africa” World Bank, 3 May 2017,

Ronald Inglehart, and Christian Welzel. “How Development Leads to Democracy – What We Know about Modernization.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 88, no. 2, 2009, pp. 33–48.

Snyder, Jack. Power and Progress: International Politics in Transition. Taylor and Francis, 2012, pp. 123-210.

Steinberg, Jonny. “What’s Distinctive About the Mess Jacob Zuma Has Made.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Feb. 2018,

Terreblanche, Sampie. “Constraints to democracy and public reasoning in the new South Africa.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 41, no. 1, 2014, pp. 37–45.

“Worldwide Governance Indicators | DataBank” World Bank, 2018,

“World Development Indicators | DataBank,” World Bank, 2018,


Works Consulted

February, Judith, and Neeta Misra-Dexter. Testing Democracy: Which Way is South Africa Going? IDASA, 2010.

Russell, Alec. Bring Me My Machine Gun: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa from Mandela to Zuma. Public Affairs, U S, 2010.

Southall, Roger. Opposition and democracy in South Africa. Taylor and Francis, 2014.

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