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South Africa at 27

Today marks 27 years since Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

May 10, 2021 marks 27 years since Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Mandela spent the same number of years of his life in prison fighting to end white minority rule and replace it with a nonracial democracy.

What are we to make of the Land of Mandela today? The news paints a picture of a democratic project in retreat, social cohesion in tatters, and a political leadership rotted to the core. But South Africa is a complex place, and it’s always best to view it through a long lens. 

There are useful parallels between South Africa and the United States. Observers of South Africa would do well to remember that the U.S. too has been marked by conflict over national rights and equal opportunity since the Declaration of Independence in 1776. From Gettysburg to Selma to George Floyd, the fight has mostly been about whose rights are recognized, and whose are not; who can easily vote, and who cannot. Yet today, it is no small measure of progress that fewer people believe that rights and equal opportunity are the preserve of the few. In fact, the much talked about diversity at many U.S. institutions is essentially a demand that the transformational changes that have taken place over the past 250 years, and which find expression in aspects of American life, be fully reflected in current institutional culture.   

Still, the protests last summer sparked by police violence are a vivid reminder that the struggle for equality in the U.S., a society deeply marked by chattel slavery and its aftermath, remains a work in progress.

South Africa has a different history, but there are similarities. It is a history of colonial conquest, of land dispossession, and of a system of social and economic oppression that had much in common with Jim Crow segregation. In fact, apartheid was Jim Crow fully realized in its most vile expression.

Like the U.S., South Africans also fought for many decades to achieve democracy. Mandela summed it up this way during his inaugural address in May 1994:

“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation ... We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity — a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Yet winning a democratic republic was the easy part. The past 27 years have seen a complex process unfolding to build a just, nonracial society. This has involved four phases. 

The first phase was a period of national reconciliation and cementing democratic rule. Mandela’s term of office ushered in a new constitution, fostered national cohesion through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (with all its limitations), and began a program of reconstruction and development.

The second phase, under former president Thabo Mbeki, saw institution building and the deliberate creation of a large post-apartheid nonracial middle class through affirmative action and black economic empowerment policies.

The third phase is what we now refer to as state capture. It was marked by the personal efforts of former president Jacob Zuma, supported by much of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), to undo constitutional checks and balances by consciously weakening state institutions to line the pockets of the president and his supporters within the political class. This project was brought to heel by courageous journalists and vocal citizens who took to the streets in protest.  

The current phase is what President Cyril Ramaphosa refers to as a moment of renewal. He says it is about rebuilding state institutions and reaffirming the supremacy of the constitutional order. Time will tell if “renewal” marks a reversal of state capture, or a continued unraveling of the state.

The reality is that the ruling ANC—the party of Mandela, and the party of Zuma—is in steep political decline. Its internal instability has become the biggest threat to South Africa’s historic democratic project. Its factions have been at war with one another over access to state resources for much of the past 27 years. Ramaphosa is in a race against time to try and regain total control of the ANC ship.

The weakened state is unable to respond effectively to the country’s often volatile fault lines. These manifest in racialized inequality, violent crime, and the violence of poverty (whose victims are poor Black people and Black women in particular), and fraying social cohesion. All this is fertile ground for those who seek to carve up society based on racial and tribal identities, stepping away from Mandela’s nonracial legacy.

South Africa has been at “close to midnight” several times before, but the 27-year-old democracy has a firm foundation. Its people will not easily yield democratic space. These are the values that can help move the clock in the opposite direction. 

Palesa Morudu is a South African writer based in Washington, D.C., and a Director at Clarity Global Strategic Communications (Washington and Cape Town).

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Palesa Morudu

South African Writer and, Director, Clarity Global Strategic Communications (Washington, D.C. and Cape Town).
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.–Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our blog Africa Up Close, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more