I was 25 when I and the rest of black South Africa were eligible to vote for the first time. South Africa celebrated the tenth anniversary of that event this April.
For many observers of the past decade, South Africa has come to epitomize successful “democratic transition.” They marvel at what is perceived as the wholesale transformation of South Africa’s political and social foundation and the apparent consensus achieved between whites and blacks. This is what has come to be known as the “South African miracle.”
The miracle fable goes something like this: Starting in February 1990, the last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, lifted the ban on liberation movements, most notably the African National Congress, released ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison and reluctantly began negotiations for a new political system. On April 27, 1994, millions of South Africans of all races went to the polls for the first time, for an election that to the surprise of many went ahead peacefully. The results gave the ANC a comfortable majority. Consensus-style rule in a Government of National Unity (GNU) followed during the early phase of democratic rule. Two years later the legislature passed a new Constitution–one of the most liberal in the world, recognizing abortion rights, same-sex unions and the responsibility of the state to poor citizens–as well as a number of institutions that “strengthen constitutional democracy” such as a Human Rights Commission and a Commission for Gender Equality. Finally, in one of the most cathartic episodes in postapartheid history, South African human rights offenders and their victims spoke openly of their experiences before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which put past atrocities on record “to a degree unequalled by any other post-conflict inquiry,” as Allister Sparks, a leading South African journalist, puts it in his new book, Beyond the Miracle.
Even when de Klerk’s National Party left the GNU shortly after the new Constitution was established, the aura did not fade, perhaps because of the hopes invested in it. The ANC government, especially then-President Nelson Mandela, worked hard to foster a climate of “reconciliation.” In a pointed departure from the practice of many leaders on the African continent, Mandela stood down after one term, making way for South Africa’s current president, Thabo Mbeki. Despite the imposing shadow Mandela cast over his successor, the new president initially cut an impressive figure. Mbeki charmed whites and business elites, and took popular and symbolically resonant steps toward ending South Africa’s longstanding isolation from the continent. Two further sets of elections followed peacefully and freely. Moreover, civil society institutions proliferated, ready to guard against abuses by the state.
Resilient and attractive as the myth of the miracle is, it tends to obscure some significant continuities in South African society. According to COSATU, the ANC-affiliated trade union, South Africa today ranks third among the most unequal societies in the world (after Brazil and Guatemala). Most estimates put poverty at 45 to 55 percent of the population. Unemployment stands at approximately 40 percent. Sixty percent of “Africans” (to use the terminology that apartheid has left tragically relevant) are poor, as compared with one in every hundred whites. Early on, the ANC flirted with redistributive policies. Within two years of the transition, however, the government–under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and threatened with capital flight–settled on the “Growth, Employment and Redistribution” (GEAR) policy, a neoliberal macroeconomic plan that promotes an “open economy” with relaxed exchange controls, foreign investment and privatization as motors of growth.