South Africa–A Return to the Apartheid-era Polarization?
Polarization becomes detrimental to democracy when it divides the people into two mutually distrustful parties. Suppose the process of polarization is not channeled through an explicit democracy-building program. In that case, it creates a vicious cycle: it leads political actors to sacrifice democratic principles rather than lose power.[i] To change this vicious cycle into a virtuous one requires responding to the underlying grievances and deficiencies that made societies open to polarizing tactics.
Before 1993, South Africa was one of the countries that was the most polarized in the world. The people used to describe and particularize politics in a dichotomy: “Us” versus “Them.” However, at the emergence of democracy in 1994, it held its first democratic elections. What made South Africa different for two or more decades after 1993 was that it embraced “us-ness” instead of “otherness.” The political polarization began to recede as it transitioned into an era of national reconciliation. Nevertheless, it began moving towards “otherness” again, which soon became part of its political narrative.
After the apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) became the dominant voice for Black Africans, resulting in the increase of a party determined to do corruption. However, despite the ANC’s control of government, there was still white domination in the higher education institutes and the public sphere. The government of Zuma began to tend towards authoritarianism. It began to become hegemonic and curtail the liberties of the citizens.
Previously, political polarization was measured in terms of the Left-Right ideological scale. However, in today’s world, there are more underlying divisions that define polarization: “globalist/cosmopolitan versus nationalist; religious versus secular; urban versus rural; traditional versus modern cultural values; and participatory versus representative democratic models.”[ii]
The most common polarizing rhetoric today is the people versus the elite, accused of hindering the people’s interests. This rhetoric was the post-apartheid rhetoric of South Africa that led it again towards polarization. The Zuma government, the elite, began to obstruct the interests of the public and made the country polarized once more.
During the 2016 academic year, student demonstrations arose across the country’s universities. A student of the University of Cape Town, who demanded that the statue of the colonial symbol, Cecil Rhodes, be taken down triggered these protests. The underlying factor of the protest was a rise in education fees. Thus, the protest spread like wildfire across the universities, with the hashtag trending on social media, “#Fees must Fall!” and “#Rhodes must fall.” This student demonstration was in protest of the postcolonial power by a white elite.
Consequently, Jaboc Zuma’s party concluded that due to the rising economic crisis, it needed to radically reform the country’s financial system. However, Zuma was forced to resign from the presidency by Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa, an uncorrupt, politically astute man, was seen as the savior of South Africa from Zuma era’s corruption so he could restore the economic growth and democracy in the country.
After coming into power, Ramaphosa cast aside the Zuma fanatics in the cabinet and gave priority to merit and competence. Ramaphosa set up a judicial inquiry to prosecute individuals for corruption. His strategies were based on “active-depolarizing”[iii] strategies that aid the country in becoming more resilient to autocratizing pressures. Hence, Ramaphosa’s reformist agenda has somewhat succeeded in spurring economic growth, reducing crime, attempting to diffuse political polarization, and enhancing the legitimacy of democracy in the country.
Thus, political polarization in South Africa has only been partially defused because the post-apartheid democratic settlement rested upon stable socio-economic inequalities. These inequalities provided a constant possibility for political mobilization. This points in two directions outlined by McCoy, Rahman, and Somer. The first direction is that “a failure to address the public’s concerns may mobilize antisystem support by dissatisfied political elites, threatening the established democratic order”. The other direction is that the serving political elites take a constructive approach to the risks of polarization. They address “social inequalities, seek support across opposing political blocs, and reinforce the validity of democracy.”
Political polarization aids democracy by organizing political involvement, making “political choice” easier for voters, and fortifying the parties. However, in today’s world, “severe polarization threatens both governability and social cohesion,” and sequentially, supports democracy in advanced and developing democracies alike.[iv]
Despite the formal end of apartheid in 1993, South Africa remains one of the world’s countries with socio-economic inequalities. Two decades after the fall of apartheid, the country is still battling against the social and economic hierarchies bestowed during apartheid. Inequality provokes tension between the rich and the poor, racial groups, urban metropoles and former motherlands, and farm owners and their workforces. Economic growth has not brought greater equality and cohesion in South Africa, the essential element of inclusive growth. Thus, despite Ramaphosa’s attempts at forging the country’s socio-economic situation, South Africa runs the risk of falling back to the apartheid era polarization that threatens democracy.
[i] Mccoy, Jennifer, and Murat Somer. “Overcoming Polarization.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 32, no. 1 (2021): 8. doi:10.1353/jod.2021.0012.
[ii] Ibid., 20.
[iii] Murat Somer, Jennifer L. McCoy and Russell E. Luke. “Pernicious Polarization, Autocratization and Opposition Strategies.” Democratization, vol. 28, no. 5 (2021): 13. doi:10.1080/13510347.2020.1865316.
[iv] McCoy et al., “Overcoming Polarization.” 17.