Yale University

Losing the Liberation? Democratic Erosion in South Africa by Wabantu Hlophe @ Yale University

Since the transition to full democracy in 1994, South Africa has experienced limited democratic erosion, driven by extreme racial inequality, outsized policy influence from the private sector and sluggish economic development. The ruling African National Congress’s (ANC) hard neoliberal shift in 1996 and following use of weak re-distributive policies evidence democratic erosion; where accountability and responsiveness by an incumbent to voters’ policy demands are the standard. In the last decade, however; things have not seemed quite right with South Africa’s democracy in a qualitatively different sense. Increased numbers of labour strikes- some violent, most not- and protests against poor service delivery, a sputtering economic growth rate and highly controversial policy decisions have left many wondering if the young democracy is sliding more rapidly than before. In particular, recent scandals associated with state capture- where individuals or groups operating in the public and private sectors influence government policies for personal advantage- have led to president Jacob Zuma’s resignation.

However, little attention has been paid to whether Zuma’s tenure caused a qualitatively different form of democratic erosion, to that caused prior to his administration. Furthermore, few recognise that the same conditions that generated earlier democratic erosion played a key role in facilitating Zuma’s populist rise and subsequent abuse of power. Put differently, South Africa has experienced democratic erosion since the transition to full democracy in 1994. Zuma’s administration diverges from previous experiences because of the direct manner in which democratic institutions were assaulted and policy choices undermined the legitimacy of the incumbent ANC government. In short, whereas democratic erosion was once defined only by weakening accountability and responsiveness, Zuma’s tenure expanded it to include a weakening of democratic institutions and declining legitimacy of the incumbent government. Zuma achieved this through a variety of policy choices, actions and behaviours which seemed to break with established expectations of forbearance.

Jacob Zuma rose to power in May of 2009 on the back of significant popular support from voters and politicians alike. Having been removed as Vice-President of South Africa in 2005 amid allegations of rape and corruption, Zuma branded himself as a “people’s president,” diametrically opposed to the often aloof, intellectual incumbent president Thabo Mbeki. Though the parallels to the 2016 US election are apparent, they run even deeper as Zuma’s rise was dependent on Zulu nationalist sentiment and his personal charisma. Like other populists around the world, Zuma’s image as a man of the people was only heightened by controversies around him like allegations of corruption. This very popularity likely played a significant role in enabling his latter abuses of power and attempt to centralise power in his control. Many of his abuses of power would come in the form of corruption and misuse of state funds, such as the use of 246m Rand (40% of which was provided by the state) to upgrade his personal residence in Nkandla. Such abuses illustrated Zuma’s willingness not just to loot the state’s coffers, but abandon forbearance while doing so. However, with regard to democratic erosion, the most significant decisions made by Jacob Zuma related to policy.


A policy-based example of Zuma’s abandonment of forbearance was the 2013 “State Secrecy Bill.” The bill, which was passed into law among much controversy, was viewed by critics as both a direct attack on the freedom of the press and whistleblowers, as well as a break from the ANC’s identity as a liberation party. The primary fear associated with the bill was its ability to be used a tool to suppress whistleblowers and journalists who are key elements of an open democracy. Little evidence of that has since materialised, but the act of turning it into law suggested an abandonment of previous norms of forbearance with regard to the media. Similarly, in 2017, Zuma sought to question the legitimacy of the state capture report published by the Public Protector (Advocate Thuli Madonsela)- an institution designed to check the power of the executive- which laid out evidence of high-level corruption within the ANC. The public spat between the president and the public protector would be settled in court, but Zuma’s brazen attempt to undermine the functioning of a check against his own power evidenced a more troubling break from norms set by the preceding two administrations. Indeed, Zuma’s willingness to sacrifice the functioning of the ANC, state and in turn, the stability of the South African economy to protect himself- and getting away with it- was the clearest sign of an erosion of South Africa’s democracy.


In effect, Zuma had begun to make policy choices and behaved in a manner antithetical to what South Africa’s (largely) economically disenfranchised, black majority so desperately needed- economic growth and development. Having come to power promising to fundamentally re-shape South Africa’s political economy, the ANC increasingly found itself supporting choices that were directly impeding the fulfillment of that promise. As such, the ANC and state apparatus it controlled was rapidly losing legitimacy with voters. The loss of Johannesburg and Tshwane to opposition parties (two of South Africa’s largest cities), during the 2016 municipal elections demonstrated the damage Zuma had done to the still nationally dominant ANC. The chasm that opened up between the Zuma administration and the expectations of ordinary South Africans- and how long it took for the chasm to force Zuma’s resignation- suggest that democracy had suffered during his time in office. Importantly, however, while Zuma spurred on erosion, he proved unable to break democratic norms to the extent that the likes of Recep Erdogan or Hugo Chavez were. At virtually every turn, Zuma faced intense resistance from opposition parties, civil society, the private sector and from within the ANC itself. Altogether, this resistance evidences the survival of fundamental democratic institutions and norms which protected South Africa from a complete democratic breakdown.


The strength of South Africa’s democracy therefore, is cause for optimism in future as it was able to successfully, though slowly, unseat a personalist leader. Furthermore, for all of Zuma’s anti-democratic moves, he also refrained from questioning the legitimacy of the opposition to the extent of demonising them. Though he certainly levelled sharp criticisms against opposition parties and their leaders, including ridiculing them, he refrained from questioning their right to be an opposition to begin with. The maintenance of a norm of mutual toleration likely played a role in preventing further breakdown in South Africa’s democracy. Overall, the country still faces key challenges that have not been sufficiently wrested under control since 1994. Ranging from campaign finance laws (which are largely non-existent right now, allowing limitless, completely secret private funding from foreign and domestic sources for all parties and politicians), to high unemployment and extreme wealth inequality, threats to South Africa’s democracy abound. Whether South Africa is able to survive the next populist may well depend on steps taken to address these fundamental concerns in future.

Image by Jack Fisher, “Wealth Inequality,” Creative Commons Zero license

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