An Imperfect Democracy: The Case of South Africa

By Leon, Tony | Harvard International Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

An Imperfect Democracy: The Case of South Africa


Leon, Tony, Harvard International Review


South Africa has been regarded as a hopeful example of moving past a racially divided and ethnically cleaved world. In my 13 years as the leader of South Africa's principal opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), I have thought long about racial identity and its impact on politics as well as the attempt to transcend racial boundaries. South Africa's democratic constitution, finalized in 1996, was premised on impeccable claims and commitments to non-racism, with the goal of establishing full and equal democratic order. However, South Africa's transition from the epoch of apartheid racial chauvinism to a non-racial democracy has not been entirely complete.

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In parallel to South Africa's history of racial politics, US politics has also been characterized by inequality. The US 2008 presidential campaign offers an alternative, and perhaps better, way to attempt to break with this tradition. The campaign of presidential hopeful Barack Obama represents the first genuine possibility in US history of a minority being elected president. While his African-American ethnicity is certainly quite visible, he does not use this fact to solicit votes by emphasizing racial politics. In contrast, while South Africa has all the appurtenances and appearances of a race-transcending constitutional order, in many ways it remains firmly racialized. The South African elections, since 1994, have confined themselves to a form of ethnic head-counting.

An Election of Change

A case in point was the 2004 general election campaign, which was the last occasion on which South Africans went to the polls to elect a new parliament. During the campaign, the Democratic Alliance attempted not simply to hold on to the minority constituencies that formed the core of the party's political support; it also tried to reach out to the majority black constituency. This constituency has been firmly in the hands of the majority governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), since the advent of democracy in 1994.

In designing the DA campaign to appeal to the broad black electorate, a detailed and renovated policy program was wrapped into a package of offers aimed to meet the most urgent and important needs of the majority. The introduction discussed the best and the worst of South Africa's first democratic decade, while the ANC government's own assessment was largely self-congratulatory and located its failures in "the legacy of apartheid." There were certain incontestable facts and stark statistics: since 1994 one million jobs had been lost; one-quarter of a million citizens had been murdered; and five million South Africans were sick, or dying, of HIV/AIDS. The DA therefore campaigned on a real message of change, including boosting economic growth with reforms to the rigid labor market, and pledging to provide free antiretroviral drugs. Constitutionally, it pledged to roll back the "creeping authoritarianism of the ANC."

While each pledge was backed by the neccessary background research, none of the contentions was seriously challenged. As the election unfolded, the manifesto did not electrify the electorate or the media. Essentially, the reason for this was that the campaign on the ground could have come from the pages of George Orwell's Animal Farm. To dismiss chronic delivery failures, the ruling party resorted to the South African equivalent of the pig's retort, "You don't want Farmer Jones back."

The election results proved that the DA consolidated its position as the dominant opposition force in the country with over 1.9 million votes (at 12.37 percent of the total, an increase by some 400,000 votes over DA's 1999 performance). The DA now had 50 MPs in parliament compared to the 28 of the third party in parliament, the Inkatha Freedom Party.

While the results confirmed our dominance on the opposition terrain, the DA was still dwarfed by the ANC's 69.69 percent of the vote and 266 MPs netted. …

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