A nation’s economy contracts by 51% in three months. Blatant corruption severely undermines the legitimacy of a country’s most prominent political party. Racial unrest and an increasingly fraught relationship between law enforcement and the civilian population threatens to escalate into full-blown conflict.
Independently, any one of those factors might hinder a democratic nation’s ability to govern. Collectively, they pose an existential threat to the democracy itself. Such an amalgamation of woes is not merely some apocalyptic hypothetical, however.
That is the situation currently facing South Africa.
But how does that turmoil jeopardize South African democracy? According to a recent empirical study on democratic backsliding, which utilized information from the Democratic Erosion Event Dataset, several “events” emerged as reliable precursors to most cases of democratic erosion. Among the events most likely to incite democratic backsliding: economic shocks, corruption, party weakness, polarization, economic inequality, and state-sponsored abuses. The prevalence of those factors in contemporary South Africa suggests a nation standing at the precipice of democracy.
Distracted by domestic fights against COVID-19, the international community has remained largely idle as Africa’s most developed economy has devolved to the point where nearly 50% of the country lacks the ability to pay for food. Over one-quarter of South Africa’s workforce lost their primary income in April 2020 alone. Unlike many countries however, South Africa’s economic turmoil predates the current pandemic. In 2019, the World Bank, along with two major American ratings agencies, considerably downgraded their projections for economic growth in the country; citing a decline in productivity and rising debt, those new assessments began a months-long devaluation of South African holdings and exports, a decline that has been substantially expedited by the onset of COVID-19. The government’s inability to prevent the rapid economic downturn could foster a precipitous decline in public support for democracy; economist Paul Krugman argues democratic backsliding is most prevalent in countries with severely depressed economies, an apt characterization of South Africa’s present situation. And that’s just the first of the country’s many issues.
The African National Congress (ANC), the party made famous by former South African President Nelson Mandela, has remained the nation’s primary political party since the dissolution of apartheid in 1994. In 2018, South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, arrived in office following the tumultuous presidency of Jacob Zuma. Zuma, and many prominent members of his cabinet, were embroiled in corruption scandals throughout much of his tenure. Many South Africans hoped Ramaphosa, who is widely considered an able negotiator and political strategist, would help restore the legitimacy of the ANC, which had been so undermined by Zuma’s cronyism. However, Ramaphosa has faced continuous accusations of malpractice and has seen his personal wealth increase considerably while the country faces the grimmest economic outlook in over a century. The delegitimization of the ANC could provide an opportunity for a rapid consolidation of power by an untested opposition party. Having been denied previous opportunities to govern, the incentive to exert undemocratic authority would be far greater for an unrepresented group than it would be for a successive ANC administration.
Historically, South Africa’s record of racial equality has been abysmal. The extreme segregation codified by the nation’s aforementioned apartheid system remained in effect until 1994. Nelson Mandela’s tactful leadership and promise of a “Rainbow Nation” temporarily pacified race relations in a nation that could easily have slipped into an ethnic conflict. While the blatant oppression of the 20th Century has dissipated, the level of racial inequality in modern South Africa is astounding. Two-thirds of the country’s black population, who constitute 80% of the general population, live in poverty. Conversely, estimates regarding the white population generally place the poverty rate at around 1% and, as of 2019, white South Africans own 72% of all private land. In a testament to the severity of the nation’s economic and social divisions, the World Bank recently declared South Africa the world’s most unequal country. Like a failing economy, wealth inequality can denigrate perceptions of democracy amongst citizens. With a significant portion of South Africa’s population living below the poverty line, the importance of successful economic policies may begin to outweigh the importance of maintaining democratic institutions. It is not unreasonable to think that an undemocratic regime would be tolerated by many South Africans so long as it generated much-needed economic productivity.
In recent months, those racial and economic disparities have compounded with a growing distrust of law enforcement. South Africa’s murder rate remains one of the highest on Earth: between March 2019 and March 2020, the country recorded over 21,000 homicides. Much of the civilian population lacks confidence in the police’s ability to maintain order. An even greater source of contention for critics is the excessive violence perpetrated by law enforcement. In that same twelve-month period between 2019 and 2020, over three-hundred investigations were launched into deaths caused by the South African police, in incidents that occurred while on patrol or while in custody. The recent police killing of a teenager with Down Syndrome has ignited the underlying tensions between South Africa’s civilians and law enforcement personnel. An unbridled law enforcement system undermines the legitimacy of the country’s judicial system and constitutes the sort of state-sponsored abuses normally found in weak or backsliding democracies.
The writing is on the wall. South African democracy, which seemed so steady just one year ago, is now in serious danger of dissolving. It is critical to acknowledge that the implications of democratic backsliding in South Africa would extend far beyond the nation’s borders. As a continental powerbroker, an undemocratic South Africa could effectively terminate the country’s status as a vital diplomatic conduit between other African nations. It seems unlikely that the international community would consent to South African diplomatic mediation without the legitimacy currently derived from their democratic status. On a purely symbolic level, the dismantling of Africa’s strongest democracy would be a significant blow to a continent where similar regime types have struggled to emerge or persist.
Economically, the full effects of a South African democratic failure are harder to gauge. A glimpse at South Africa’s primary trading partners (The United States, Saudi Arabia, China, India, and the European Union) suggests that a transition away from democracy might not be particularly volatile to the nation’s GDP. Based on precedent, China, India, and Saudi Arabia would almost certainly uphold their existing economic partnerships. Conversely, the United States and EU’s continued partnership could be contingent on an exhibited mitigation of human rights violations, although both entities boast long histories of trading with particularly unsavory regimes so perhaps no such humanitarian guidelines would be implemented.
While South Africa’s prognosis seems grim, it is not a democratic death sentence. Several components of South Africa’s governmental structure and civil society could prove to be a failsafe for the nation’s democracy. Citizens still enjoy unfettered access to diversified and independent media outlets. The preservation of a free press is of paramount importance to holding regimes accountable and stemming the symptoms of backsliding when they appear. Additionally, South Africans own smartphones at rates considerably higher than other populations in the region. As exemplified during the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, social media has emerged as a powerful tool for organized resistance; if long-established autocrats such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali were toppled through Twitter, it seems likely that a tech-savvy population accustomed to a certain degree of freedoms would utilize technology to prevent the establishment of an autocratic apparatus.
But is that enough?
It’s too early to say conclusively. It is safe to say, however, that South Africa’s democratic future is now inextricably linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. How quickly economic recovery can be implemented will largely determine the immediate trajectory of racial unrest and the fate of the ANC. A failure to reinstate lost jobs could prompt widespread organized violence, furthering the divide between law enforcement and civilians, and usher in the rapid ascension of untested opposition parties.
It appears there is only one certainty in South Africa today: Democracy is in danger.
 Christopher Hill et al., “Democratic Erosion: An Empirical Approach” (Diss., Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, 2018), June 2018, |PAGE|, https://democraticeros.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Event-Dataset-on-Democratic-Erosion_Final.pdf.
 Elliot Smith, “Facing Slowing Growth and Credit Downgrades, South Africa’s Economy Is Stuck in the Mire,” CNBC, October 10, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/10/south-africas-economy-struggles-as-world-bank-downgrades-forecast.html.
 Ariel Levy, William Finnegan, and Antwaun Sargent, “Who Owns South Africa?” The New Yorker, May 6, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/13/who-owns-south-africa.
 Aaisha Dadi Patel and Gabriele Steinhauser, “Fatal Police Shooting of South African Teen With Down Syndrome Sparks Protests,” The Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/fatal-police-shooting-of-south-african-teen-with-down-syndrome-sparks-protests-11598654294.
 Patel and Steinhauser, “Fatal Police Shooting of South African Teen With Down Syndrome Sparks Protests”.
 S. O’Dea, “South Africa Smartphone Penetration (Share of Population) 2015-2023,” Statista, February 27, 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/625448/smartphone-user-penetration-in-south-africa/.
Beaubien, Jason. “The Country with The World’s Worst Inequality Is …” NPR. April 02, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/04/02/598864666/the-country-with-the-worlds-worst-inequality-is.
Hill, Christopher, Kyle Rueschhoff, Silvio Simonetti Neto, Joanne Teng, and Bryce Watson. “Democratic Erosion: An Empirical Approach.” Diss., Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, 2018. June 2018. https://democraticeros.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Event-Dataset-on-Democratic-Erosion_Final.pdf.
Krugman, Paul. “Depression and Democracy.” The New York Times. December 12, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/opinion/krugman-depression-and-democracy.html.
Levy, Ariel, William Finnegan, and Antwaun Sargent. “Who Owns South Africa?” The New Yorker. May 6, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/13/who-owns-south-africa.
O’Dea, S. “South Africa Smartphone Penetration (Share of Population) 2015-2023.” Statista. February 27, 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/625448/smartphone-user-penetration-in-south-africa/.
Patel, Aaisha Dadi, and Gabriele Steinhauser. “Fatal Police Shooting of South African Teen with Down Syndrome Sparks Protests.” The Wall Street Journal. August 28, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/fatal-police-shooting-of-south-african-teen-with-down-syndrome-sparks-protests-11598654294.
Patel, Aaisha Dadi, and Gabriele Steinhauser. “South Africa’s Economy Shrinks 51% as Lockdown Restrictions Hurt Businesses.” The Wall Street Journal. September 08, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/south-africas-economy-shrinks-51-as-lockdown-restrictions-hurt-businesses-11599563965.
Smith, Elliot. “Facing Slowing Growth and Credit Downgrades, South Africa’s Economy Is Stuck in the Mire.” CNBC. October 10, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/10/south-africas-economy-struggles-as-world-bank-downgrades-forecast.html.
Steinhauser, Gabriele, Aaisha Dadi Patel, and Samantha Reinders. “South Africa’s Promise of Racial Equality Falters Under Pandemic.” The Wall Street Journal. September 25, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/south-africas-promise-of-racial-equality-falters-under-pandemic-11601031600.
Vecchiatto, Paul, and Michael Cohen. “South Africa News: Cyril Ramaphosa Strengthens Hold Over Ruling Party ANC.” Bloomberg.com. August 31, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-31/ramaphosa-strengthens-hold-over-south-africa-s-ruling-party.