Can South Africa properly be called a ‘democracy’?

roodt_dan_wikiby Dan Roodt dan[at]

I find it interesting that professor Anthony Butler of UCT should point out potential tribal schisms within the ANC in Business Day. According to Stephen Ellis in his book External Mission: the ANC in exile 1960-1990 there had been a gun fight between Xhosa and Zulu members of MK in the Tanzanian camp, but this got buried under the avalanche of details concerning the heroic life of Nelson Mandela.

Many South African and British academics seriously analysed South African ethnicity using the Soviet term “the national question”. For years we were made to believe that, unlike the rest of Africa, this country had no real tribes, only artificial ethnic “divisions” imposed by the Nazi-like “apartheid regime”, at gunpoint as it were.

Likewise, the rise of the South African identity was more or less coterminous with the Book of Genesis, and everything else was just an “imagined community” or a “social construct” like race which would dissipate as people turned into global, brand-conscious consumers.

The uncomfortable truth is that South Africa is no different to any other multiethnic or multinational state where the most numerous group will capture the state through the ballot box and then use clientelism to retain power.

The current system was designed not to ensure efficient or accountable government, but to disenfranchise minorities, especially Afrikaners who do not even rule the tiniest rural municipality anymore.

Machiavelli’s dictum that the prince should be particularly generous in distributing largesse paid for by others will ensure that Afrikaner assets will be plundered to the last cent. Eventually the remaining family-owned farms of Afrikaners will have to go and South Africa will experience a Zimbabwean-style rural melt-down although it might not lead to hyperinflation as long as the mines keep earning foreign exchange. No-one in the City of London will even wince when it happens.

Xhosas and Zulus do not like each other, but they are locked into a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. Given current demographics, neither Kwazulu-Natal nor the Eastern Cape may rule the rest of the country without some degree of cooperation from its sister province on the East Coast.

Together, these two Nguni “dominant tribes” constitute 40% of SA’s population but their respective regions produce just over 20% of our GDP. So the benefits of power are obvious, especially to politicians from impoverished rural areas whose access to the state could turn them and their families into billionaires almost overnight.

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Many people scoffed at the term used by Dr. Piet Koornhof in the 1970s when he referred to the homeland system as a “plural democracy”. I suppose those same cynics are cackling today when they hear that South Africa is no longer a plural, but a “model democracy”.

Given the demographics of the current South Africa there is no way in which even an alliance of minority ethnic groups could ever outvote the ANC. Those opposition politicians, such as the DA, who are pretending otherwise, are not only deluding their supporters but also themselves. Even in the unlikely event that ANC support had to slip among ethnic Zulus and Xhosas, it would be inconceivable for South Africa to ge be governed by a coalition exluding the ANC.

First of all, the outbreak of violence and riots by ANC supporters would far surpass those which occurred in the aftermath of the Kenyan elections of December 2007. ANC potentates who have been treating the state as their private preserve would be very reluctant to leave office. The ruling party would not have to stage a coup because it has already erased any separation of party and state. In the unlikely event that it should ever lose power through the ballot box, it has maintained its militia known as Umkhonto we Sizwe which could be equipped from government military stockpiles. On the other hand, its militia commanders are already in control of the South African National Defense Force, so there would be no need for that.

In fact, the opposition coalition having triumphed at the ballot box would have to stage a coup just to assume office, or summon outside militarry intervention. Given the example of Zimbabwe where ZANU PF has held onto power through a spell of electoral weakness, the outcome seems predictable.

For all intents and purposes, South Africa is a one-party state or one-party dominant state ruled by the East Coast tribes. Event at the University of Cape Town with its British and quasi-British professors who have long denied the existence of ethnicity in South Africa, that reality is finally sinking in.

A shorter version of this column appeared as a letter in Business Day.