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South Africa’s apartheid regime ended 25 years ago

Democracy has taken root with substantial success.

- April 26, 2019

It was 25 years ago today when South Africans of all races went to the polls to mark the end of apartheid government and over three centuries of institutionalized white supremacy. In 2019, with democracy under threat in various countries around the world, South Africa offers a surprising counterpoint: Once mired in bitter conflict, democracy has taken root with substantial success.

Understandably, many contemporary analysts focus on what’s gone wrong. South Africa is still reeling from the disastrous presidency of Jacob Zuma, who served from 2009 until his resignation in February 2018. There have been corruption scandals, power outages, problems with education — along with unemployment and low economic growth.

Where is South Africa today?

These are all serious and troubling everyday realities of life in contemporary South Africa. But in the context of a collapsing Venezuela, an Arab Spring that sputtered, and the rise of right-wing populists in Europe and the Americas — not to mention South Africa’s pre-1994 history — how does post-apartheid South Africa rate?

After almost three decades of return visits and research, following an initial trip to South Africa in 1991, I remain impressed by a series of quite significant accomplishments, indicative of the value of democracy writ large. The persistence of deep-seated problems should not surprise us in the wake of the country’s troubling history. And in certain cases, perceptions of problems, such as crime, may be worse than the realities.

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We must recall the perilous nature of South Africa’s initial political transition. In February 1990, State President FW de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela, signifying that the old regime was coming to an end. This political opening did not, however, provide clarity about what the future would bring, or if South Africa could forge a stable democratic settlement.

In those days, virtually every office building required that visitors pass through a metal detector, as hundreds of people had been killed in more than 20 politically motivated attacks between February 1990 and June 1991.

A few hundred miles to the north, also 25 years ago, the Rwandan genocide revealed what can happen when a country fails to address severe racial conflict.

The April 1994 election was largely peaceful

South Africa’s April 27, 1994 election — which led to Mandela’s inauguration as the country’s first black president — was a storied success, largely calm and peaceful.

Since then, South Africans have held four additional national elections plus five local elections. Freedom House and other international organizations continue to give the country top scores for upholding high democratic standards. Pundits once predicted South Africa would become an uncontested one-party state, taking the path of Mexico’s ruling PRI party. In fact, Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party has lost significant political power in recent elections and will be fighting its toughest battle ever when citizens go to the polls for the sixth national election on May 8.

South Africa remains a violent country for citizens, and politics is still a perilously dangerous job. But there is no serious threat of (another) civil war.

It was a different story 25 years ago

In 1991, when I visited squatter camps outside Cape Town and townships around Johannesburg, I found nothing but squalor: Most black South Africans lived in shacks without basic services. Countrywide, less than half of all households had access to piped water, and less than 60 percent lived in “formal” dwellings or had access to electricity. The poverty contrasted sharply with the wealth and comfort of white South Africa.

Cape Town still has water — for now. This may take political solutions as well as technical fixes.

Inequality and poverty persist. But townships, such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town, are markedly changed, with roads, basic infrastructure and services that were virtually absent in the early 1990s. Moreover, about 78 percent of South Africans now live in formal structures, including millions of units built by the government since 1994. Additionally, 85 percent have access to electricity, and 90 percent have piped water.

South Africa has become a global leader in the protection of human rights, and the courts have served as an important political vehicle for citizens to challenge a government when it fails to meet its constitutional obligations. Through democratic pressures, the government switched course from one of the most delinquent responses to AIDS, to one of the most ambitious treatment programs on the planet.

Yes, the racial divide remains wide

Just like in America, more than 50 years after the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, race-based inequality, racism and racial resentment are still rife. But the landscape has changed radically from just 30 years ago, when much of South Africa remained officially segregated. Before the 1994 election, millions of black South Africans were assigned to be citizens of sham “homeland” governments, and none could vote for the leadership of the South African government.

Many white South Africans today complain of a “reverse discrimination” and of lack of security. But the country maintains a white population the size of Denmark that is largely prosperous and enjoys standards of living comparable to that in the world’s wealthiest countries.

South Africans want better lives

Democratic politics offer hope for more equality and needed change, and the upcoming election highlights the valuable pressures of democratic competition.

Trying to stem a tide of political losses in the 2016 local elections, ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa, in his February State of the Nation Address conceded many government failures, especially corruption. Unlike his counterparts in Tanzania and Uganda, he has not repressed the opposition or sought to muzzle the media or social media.

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Instead, Ramaphosa has tried to convince voters that the ANC can do better. He has proposed concrete solutions, including a renewed effort to attract foreign investment. The ANC’s main challengers, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, along with several other parties, are offering important alternatives on election day.

Open airing and debate of a country’s problems and aspirations are the lifeblood of democratic politics. Nonetheless, the remarkable case of post-apartheid South Africa also warrants attention for its substantial social, political and material advances.

Evan Lieberman (@evlieb) is the Total professor of political science and contemporary Africa at MIT and a senior democracy fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is working on a book about democracy in post-apartheid South Africa.