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Isha Bekia

South Africa’s constitutional democracy holds fast

Jul 30, 2021 | Current Affairs, SA's democracy


As rioters and looters set parts of South Africa alight a few weeks ago, many wondered whether this was the end of Nelson Mandela’s ‘rainbow nation’.

Yet pundits who claim these protests are a sign of the country’s undoing are wrong. If anything, the events of the past few weeks highlight the resilience of South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

The riots erupted on July 8th after the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial authority, sent former president Jacob Zuma to 15 months in jail for contempt of court in his refusal to testify before a commission investigating allegations of corruption from his time as president, from 2009 until he was forced by his party to step down in 2018. 

Although the unrest began ostensibly in protest against his arrest – supporters in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal blocked major highways and burned about trucks – it quickly descended into a frenzy of violence and theft, spurred by grievances over the country’s poverty, sluggish, pandemic-battered economy and cripplingly high unemployment rate. Over 330 people died in the worst violence the country has seen since the end of apartheid.

There is little question that Zuma’s presidency was disastrous for South Africa. A self-serving leader in the crudest sense, his brazen attempts to enrich himself and his cronies through lucrative government positions and contracts introduced the phrase “state capture” into the national lexicon. 

But the country’s free press ultimately exposed Zuma’s schemes, and its independent judiciary and criminal justice system are working to hold him accountable for them. These developments reveal the strength of the country’s democratic institutions, which hold even the most powerful people to account. 

At the heart of South Africa’s democracy is its constitution. In 1994, after decades of conflict and racial oppression, the country’s liberation movement, led by Nelson Mandela, and the ruling apartheid government came together to introduce a new constitution based on equality and dignity for all, modelled on the vision of America’s founding fathers. South Africa’s constitution borrows heavily from the ideas of “The Federalist Papers” in which Alexander Hamilton and James Madison outlined a system of government answerable to its citizens through an array of checks and balances on power.

This template for democracy – created in America and embraced by South Africa – remains the most durable system of government. The combination of regular, free and fair elections, an inviolable constitution, and an independent judiciary provides a bulwark against tyranny and mechanisms for rectifying injustice, removing corrupt or ineffective leaders, and redirecting the country when it veers off path. 

Recent events in South Africa bear this out. What was once a fledgling constitutional democracy is now mature enough to withstand the severest pressure. Despite the unrest, Zuma remains in prison and the court has held firm. In a matter of days, police arrested over 2 500 people and restored calm, and our social feeds switched from scenes of destruction to signs of rebuilding. Tens of thousands of South Africans took to the streets to clean up the mess. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a new round of relief measures to help businesses and individuals recover from the riots and pandemic lockdowns.

More importantly, the unrest precipitated a robust public debate about the government’s failed economic policies and its often inadequate services. Guided by the revelations of the country’s free press, many in South Africa are now reckoning with the government’s failures and plotting a new way forward. If President Ramaphosa and his ruling African National Congress party fail to solve the problems of poverty and limited opportunity that inspired so many to take to the streets, voters will have the chance to elect new city mayors and councils at municipal elections taking place later this year, and then a new president and national parliament in 2024.

Decades on from South Africa’s first fully democratic election, the country is struggling to achieve Nelson Mandela’s hopes for the ‘rainbow nation’. But now is not the time to be discouraged. As America’s founding fathers well understood, a democracy can be a messy project. But when a country’s constitutional foundation remains firm, there is always hope for a brighter future.