Just because a new government ‘checks all the boxes’ of a democracy doesn’t mean it’s going to run smoothly. The conditions under which a democratic society is born have lasting impacts on the quality of democracy. In the case of South Africa, decades of racial segregation prior to democratization have caused the de facto dominance of a single party, despite mediocre governance.
Since the transition from the apartheid system to universal suffrage in 1994, South African politics have been indisputably dominated by the African National Congress (ANC). At the time of publication, the party of Nelson Mandela has won every single post-apartheid presidential race, and the majority of parliamentary seats in every general election. Monopoly of politics by a single party goes against Schumpeter’s baseline for democracy, and is ostensibly a threat to democratic integrity. Without a competitive struggle for the people’s vote, a ruling party loses the incentive to better voters’ lives. Furthermore, dissatisfied voters lose their political voice in the face of a single-party hegemony. As this article will demonstrate, this sort of democratic erosion is indeed taking place in South Africa, and stems directly from racial divides that existed before and during the struggle to establish democracy in the first place.
In many cases, the existence of a dominant-party system implies that the incumbent party rose to the top by illegitimate means, such as electoral manipulation or writing its authority into the law. Examples of this include Hungary’s Fidesz and the Chinese Communist Party. In the case of South Africa however, dominance has been achieved lawfully via free and fair elections, and the government is not a one-party state (i.e. other parties are still allowed to exist). In fact, the South African model of governance cleanly fits the procedural definition of democracy outlined by Dahl, and would almost fit Przeworski’s framework if it weren’t for the ANC’s unbroken incumbency. Theoretically, this means that the ANC is not guaranteed continued support, and cannot ignore the opposition or assume victory at every election. It also means the party must still engage in competitive political strategy, with both the electorate and the opposition, in order to win the majority of votes. As Heidi Brooks puts it, they are still bound by the “democratic rules of the game,” which include any number of checks and balances to prevent power abuse, depending on the nation. And yet, they have consistently retained power for the last 25 years of ‘true’ democracy.
That being said, history has stacked the cards in the ANC’s favor. Aside from already being the incumbent party, the ANC is also the former liberation movement that led the charge against apartheid under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. This affords them a great deal of legitimacy among the nation’s majority black population, as well as strong historical symbolism and a perceived moral and normative authority, all of which went a very long way in early post-apartheid elections. The ANC also founded and oversees Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), the country’s nationwide affirmative action program, which has allowed for the development of a middle class that is just over 50% Black. Thus, any potential opposition to the ANC faces an uphill battle, as dissent from a party once near-synonymous with a modern, democratic South Africa can be easily dismissed as “opposing the national project”. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Black votes still go to the ANC.
Rather than compete for those votes, the Democratic Alliance (DA), the ANC’s primary opposition, gains momentum by appealing to the White minority, many of whom are slower to embrace the identity politics of the ex-revolutionary ANC. This has made it difficult for the DA to reconcile the interests of their existing base and those of the black voters they need to sway in order to be competitive.
DA supporters have argued in the past that this happens simply because of “historical affiliations,” which is a politically correct way of suggesting that Black people blindly vote for the ANC because they are the ‘black party’. However, Mattes et al. disagree. Instead, they contest that race simply informs South African voters’ values and concerns, which in turn reflect in their party allegiance. In a 2019 survey by the University of Johannesburg, two thirds of Black ANC voters cited higher prospects of government benefits as a key influence. The same survey also indicated that citizens already receiving government assistance (e.g. affirmative action) were much more likely to vote ANC.
The DA and its support base on the other hand, have a history of colorblind ideology that rejects ideas of affirmative action or transitional justice. Mattes found that in 2004, the DA itself was perceived by black voters as “non-inclusive and non-credible”. This seems to still be an issue in 2020, with the DA very recently coming under fire for deciding to remove considerations of race from all policy decisions going forward. Many criticize the DA for staunchly upholding their non-racialist politics despite the reality that most South Africans do view race as an axis of inequality. Interestingly, a recent study even suggests that so-called ‘historical affiliations’ actually spur White citizens to arbitrarily vote along racial lines (i.e against Black parties) more often than Black citizens.
In these ways, the divisive legacy of apartheid has directly contributed not only to the dominance of the ANC, but to the stagnancy of the opposition as well. Since the ANC remains the only competitive party in favor of affirmative action campaigns and the like, many Black voters are ‘locked’ into their partisanship for fear of losing more than they gain by alternating power. At the same time, growth of the primary opposition is impeded by the exclusionary ideologies held by their minority base. Thus, a natural transition to competitive democracy is prolonged by the scars of segregation.
And the cracks are beginning to show. 25 years of unbroken incumbency has indeed left the ANC corrupt and neglectful of promises it makes to the public year after year. Earlier this October, longtime ANC advisor Neil de Beer renounced his party membership, claiming that Nelson Mandela himself would switch parties if he were still alive. A 2019 survey showed that over 60% of South Africans are unsatisfied with the ruling party’s performance. This is a drastic shift from 2013, when about the same number of people believed the exact opposite. Even as socio-economic inequality ravages the mostly-poor populace, 77% of voters believe poor people to be the most neglected group by the government.
The decline in quality of governance is accompanied by a parallel decline in voter turnout, which dropped from 73% in 2014 to 65% in 2019. Given that in the 2019 election, the ANC’s share of the votes also dropped below 60% for the first time since 1994 (a symbolically significant figure), it would seem that some of these disillusioned voters were ANC supporters. Giliomee and Simkins write that citizens generally choose to abstain from voting when they are both dissatisfied with the incumbent party and lacking in viable opposition parties, which appears to have been the case for much of this young democracy’s lifetime.
South Africa’s segregated history has left behind an ideologically opposed majority and minority that struggle to compromise on issues of race. This polarization extends far beyond the nation’s rebirth 26 years ago, and continues to negatively affect its party politics today. An entire generation grows increasingly disillusioned and apathetic towards the project of democracy despite enjoying free, fair elections for a quarter-century. While the youngest voters, those who never saw apartheid, seem to be backing a new horse in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters, only time will tell if this fledgling democracy can overcome its deep historic wounds.