Since the beginning of the 21st century to mid-2000s, South Africa has been struggling with a disruption between their political institutions and economic inequality (Levy, 2021). The economic instability has affected the citizens’ faith in their government. South Africa is a constitutional democracy which is a government system that is governed by a constitution which means that there is a legal mechanism in place that sets the rules and regulations of what is generally accepted in society. The major political party is said to be the African National Congress which was founded in 1912 and the primary opposition party is the Democratic Alliance.
South Africa is having a hard time maintaining their democracy and is experiencing democratic erosion. Some of the factors leading to the democratic erosion of the South African government are the loss of trust in political leaders, increasing unemployment rate, inflation, low trust in institutions and representatives, inequality, lack of quality democracy, and more. With this being said, the legitimacy of the South African democracy is now in question. To employ legitimacy a government likely implements democratic reforms and employs rhetorics that invoke the rule of law, democracy, and constitutionalism (Varol, 1715). All of this has led people to opt out of the democratic process and has caused a dramatic drop in voter percentage.
Since 1994, voter turnout has dropped from 86.7% to 65.9% in 2019. The current unemployment rate in South Africa is 33.9%. Two of the most important features affecting the social conditions in South Africa is the increase in the unemployment rate for Black citizens and the wide disparity between Black and White income levels. In the early 21st century, the estimation of Black unemployment was higher than the unemployment rates of other minority groups as well as significantly higher than the unemployment rate for White citizens. Black citizens who were employed were generally in the lowest-paying and least-prestigious positions. The inflation rate, which is at a record high, is 7.8% as of August 2022. All of these things are other results in the lack of trust throughout South African leaders and institutions. “The latest Afrobarometer survey results for South Africa, released in November 2021 and published by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, mirror this observation and show that South Africans’ trust in nearly all institutions and representatives is low, and that only a minority say that they trust the president (38%) and parliament (27%) “somewhat” or “a lot”” (Teichmann, 2022). The high unemployment rate remains a challenge for the South African economy as their citizens continue to struggle to find sufficient and steady jobs that provide a sufficient income for them and their families. Also playing into the economic misfortune of South Africa is high poverty and inequality levels in the country. The lack of competing elites is leading to the democratic erosion of the country because of the lack of competition. “The World Bank noted that, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, with race playing a determining factor in a society where 10 percent of the population owns more than 80 percent of the wealth” (Key socio-economic challenges in South Africa, n.d.). This rate, including the other rates mentioned, will continue to increase as long as citizens continue to opt out of voting in elections. The reason for all of this is due to stealth authoritarianism.
Stealth authoritarianism refers to “the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends” (Varol, 1684). Stealth authoritarianism is something that can be seen happening in the South African government with the increase in the lack of trust in institutions and leaders, economic suffrage, and overall erosion of the democracy. It is said that, “stealth authoritarianism erodes mechanisms of accountability, weakens horizontal and vertical checks and balances, allows the incumbents to consolidate power, exacerbates the principal–agent problem by curtailing the public’s ability to monitor and sanction government policies, and paves the way for the creation of a dominant or one party state where the electoral field is uneven and the incumbent enjoys systematic advantages” (Varol, 1684). The judicial review of South Africa is suffering. Judicial review is to “be established to maintain control over the state’s often unwieldy administrative hierarchy and mitigate principal–agent problems that arise when the lower-level administrative agents fail to act in the best interests of the principal, the incumbent officeholders” (Varol, 1690). For example, Unfortunately for South Africa, after 28 years, “6 free and fair elections”, their democracy has fallen short of their expectations in each election. Democracies require negotiations, compromise, and concessions in order to stay afloat (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). The democratic erosion of a country does not necessarily have to be due to one particular event rather it can be due to a sequence of events which seems to be the case for South Africa. For example, data shows that only 43% of citizens, a minority of the country, express trust in their judicial system (Teichmann, 2022). All citizens in South Africa 18 years or older have the legal right to vote. When it comes to institutions, “despite the protections they offer, surveillance laws and institutions can also be employed for two primary anti-democratic purposes. First, surveillance can chill the exercise of civil liberties” (Varol, 1710). However, in order for the institutions to remain functioning there has to be trust between the citizens of the country and the leaders of the institution and in South Africa the trust from citizens is merely grasping at straws. References
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How democracies die. Crown.
Levy, B., Hirsch, A., Naidoo, V., & Nxele, M. (2021, March 18). South Africa: When
strong institutions and massive inequalities collide. Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from
Key socio-economic challenges in South Africa. Mahlako A Phahla Investments. (n.d.).
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Teichmann, C., Gumede, B., Stoltz, E., Mtshali, L., & Schoeman, K. (2022, September
16). The State of Democracy in South Africa is Cause for Concern. The Mail &
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Varol, O. O. (n.d.). Stealth Authoritarianism (dissertation). Iowa Law Review.