February 11, 1990 the release of Nelson Mandela was announced. It was the beginning of the dismantling of the Apartheid system. The hopes for a change for the majority of the black population were high at the time. The reconciliation between black and white people seemed on the right path, there was talk about a “rainbow” nation. What is the progress 30 years later? Pressenza met Raphaël Porteilla, a professor of Political Science at the University of Burgundy and a specialist in South Africa. Today we begin with the issue of democracy.
Olivier Flumian: Democracy seems to be working well since the first multiracial elections in 1994. What is the state of democracy in South Africa today?
Raphaël Porteilla: If democracy means free participation in elections, freedom of the press, pluralism and the functioning of institutions, then we can say that democracy in South Africa works well.
Elections have been taking place at regular intervals (every 5 years) since 1994, at national, provincial and local levels. Pluralism is effective, election campaigns are conducted satisfactorily (the media play an important role), even though there may be organizational difficulties like anywhere else.
The last national/provincial elections were held in 2019, recognized as free and transparent.
The balance of powers, as desired by the Constitution of 1996, is always valid (parliamentary government) and gives the President of the Republic, elected by the National Assembly, considerable power: he is at the same time head of state, head of government, as well as head of the parliamentary majority and the main party, the ANC. His responsibility is constitutional, but above all political especially within his own party which can lead him to resign, as happened to Thabo Mbeki in 2008 and to Jacob Zuma in 2018.
Constitutional institutions were created in 1994-96 to ensure the functioning of democracy.
In this way, the Constitutional Court has built up a solid reputation as a protector of the rule of law, in particular by means of the personalities who presided over it, because they have achieved independence from the President who appointed them. In addition, the quality of the decisions made it possible to stabilize the new law in formation and to gradually clean up the legislative residues of Apartheid.
There are also other more specific institutions in South Africa that help consolidate democracy: a mediator, a human rights commission, a commission for the promotion of cultural rights, for gender equality, for the media, etc. We must not forget the role of peacemaker played by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), chaired by Desmond Tutu between 1995 and 1998, which facilitated the political transition, making it possible to take note of the past, but without any amnesty. This period was crucial for the trust in emerging institutions and contributed to building the foundations shared by all South Africans.
The same territorial balance has been reconfigured, redesigning South Africa in nine provinces with powers provided by the Constitution and municipalities in charge of certain responsibilities. Uncertainties are to be found at the level of fiscal equalization, as the central government has considerable power to limit the autonomy and help the most disadvantaged provinces (especially in the north). However, corruption has plagued political life at all levels and efforts by central power to fight it are real, although they have been unsuccessful for too long.
Finally, in light of the terrible past of colonization and Apartheid, the democratic values of South Africa, placed as the first article of the Constitution (human dignity, equality, non-racism, non-sexism, rule of law), constitute the compass of the leaders and all political forces.
Olivier Flumian: For more than thirty years, political life has been dominated by the ANC (African National Congress), the historic party of the struggle against Apartheid. It can be seen that, election after election, the influence of the party tends to fail. Why is that? Is there an alternative to the ANC?
Raphaël Porteilla: Actually, the results of the 2019 legislative elections show a sudden slowdown for the ANC, because it was the first time since 1994 that the party did not get the 60% of the votes, or 230 seats, its worst score. Several factors contribute to this slow erosion of the ANC which, some say, has been much faster.
As in other contexts, the use of power is the first element. Since 1994, the ANC has won most of the national elections, has held almost all the levers of power, with the exception of one province (Western Cape) and some important municipalities since 2016. The ANC has not always managed to challenge itself, as internal struggles have often taken over political and economic programs. This is more evident at the local level than at the national level: the last municipal elections have seen several large cities give in to the opposition, more present on the territory than the ANC representatives, some of whom are also involved in corruption rings.
The second factor is to be found in the context of its economic policy which, after Mandela’s presidency ended, has become a delicate issue. Too neoliberal under Mbeki, this policy has increased socioeconomic inequalities and alienated a part of the traditional ANC electorate. Zuma has made the fight against poverty its top priority and although efforts have been made the changes have been difficult to observe, further pushing aside part of the electorate. It should be added that the Marikana massacre in summer 2012 (34 miners killed by police forces on orders from above) left their mark on public opinion. As a result, part of the workers’ sector has moved away from Cosatu (a union close to the ANC).
Furthermore, young South Africans born after 1994 (the so-called “born free” generation) are not as imbued with ANC culture as their parents and seem to either not vote, or vote for other parties (for example the Economic Freedom Fighters, EFF).
However, the ANC is the only South African party that has a strong territorial network (the party is structured in provinces and has a very active women’s sector, a dynamic youth sector and a powerful veteran sector) and can therefore stem this erosion, as seen in 2019.
The third factor that can explain this slow loss of influence is that the ANC has gradually become an upper-middle-class party, a party of elected officials, who too often overlooked its traditional base. C. Ramaphosa, elected in 2019, had the main task to regain the ANC electorate, tempted to look elsewhere.
Opposition is a factor that serves both to explain the loss of influence and to keep the ANC at a satisfactory level. In a very fragmented political landscape (48 parties competing for the 2019 national elections), for ten years a part of the opposition has been embodied in the Democratic Alliance, because it is the most structured party and benefits from a political audience on a large part of the territory, including large cities. However, this party has great difficulties in exceeding the threshold of 90 members elected in the National Assembly (84 in 2019), because we can see its presence only in some provinces and large cities. Furthermore, the alliance with other political forces does not seem possible due to the great divergence of the various political programs.
The other opposition force is the EFF, the result of a split between some young people of the ANC led by Julius Malema, which is struggling to overcome its original strongholds (south-west and north-east of South Africa).
However, with 44 seats (its best result) in 2019, this party almost doubled the number of its seats in 2014. It is a party that, within a few years, has attracted a sensitive public, especially for the hothead of their leader and his frequent aggressive stances in the National Assembly to the point of being evacuated with the use of military forces, but also for its political program openly in favor of the poorest and against inequalities, to the point of proposing the nationalization of some sectors or institutions.
The other political forces, which are therefore plethoric, are unable to play a role, having only a few seats in the National Assembly, in the provinces and in the municipalities. It is worth noting the score of the extreme right wing (Freedom Front Plus, FF+), a candidate party obtaining 10 seats until 2019, leaning both on the anger of the white peasants due to the policy of redistribution of the land, and on the electorate of the DA, whose leader was, for a few years, a black man.
Olivier Flumian: Since the presidency of Jacob Zuma, between 2009 and 2018, corruption has often been reported. Is there a justification? Is it just the legacy of the Zuma presidency?
Raphaël Porteilla: Corruption, as the act by which a political authority exploits its function to solicit or accept a gift, an offer or a promise to perform, delay or omit an act, already existed during the time of the Apartheid within the National Party in power, but it has gone silent in the official historiography. De Klerk’s rise to power took place in this context, a real shock to many white people of the time.
Since the beginning of democracy, corruption has faded into the background during Mandela’s tenure, remaining somewhat suspended by young democracy. On the other hand, under T. Mbeki, there have been many scandals revealed by the press (his role as an informer should be underlined here).
In fact, Zuma is at the center of episodes of corruption that marked part of his vice presidency in the 2000s, as well as his arrival at the top of the State since 2009. The ongoing trials have led him, not without difficulty, to testify before the Zondo Commission, created for this purpose to reduce if not even put an end to this plague. The so-called “Capture State” case in which the Gupta brothers, close to Zuma, were accused, highlighted the interaction between the political sphere and the business world, to the point that entire sections of the South African national companies were sold to the private sector. Ramaphosa has the task of solving this particularly delicate issue (South Africa ranked 73 in the Transparency International ranking in 2019) and the work of the Zondo Commission should lead to a cleanup of the practices.
Olivier Flumian: Mandela’s election as president symbolizes the definitive break with the Apartheid regime. What remains of Mandela’s legacy, beyond the symbol?
Raphaël Porteilla: The Mandela symbol will always remain attached to the notion of reconciliation. He was the one who shaped this period (1990-1998), managing to prevent the revenge thought by some from becoming a political creed. He has (had?) been able to deal with all forces, including the ANC, in order to promote this reconciliation as the only possible prospect for all South Africans. His speeches, his actions (the 1995 Rugby World Cup is an example), his charisma and his political will smoothed out many difficulties and allowed South Africa to establish itself as a model of peaceful political transition and reconciliation.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also played a significant role in this period. Chaired by D. Tutu, the Commission helped heal the wounds, without concessions or a general amnesty. This path of catharsis was necessary for all South Africans to regain their common history and expose the atrocities committed.
Mandela’s legacy will always remain tied to this symbolism, which has undoubtedly facilitated the transition from Apartheid to democracy.
However, in social and economic terms, this period did not live up to the stakes, but Mandela is not held responsible for this.
Translated from Italian by Ilaria Cuppone