Kafkaesque–How South Africa’s Democracy Is Still Hamstrung By Apartheid

When building a new country, it’s imperative that the foundation on which the country stands, is strong enough to withstand all kinds of storms. The foundation could be in the form of values, beliefs and way of life. In essence, the people must set out clearly who they are and what they stand for. In addition, they should set out how they intend to govern themselves with regards to exercise of power and accountability.

By Maximilian Lion

Once accountability is established usually through separation of powers, the country needs to formulate a plan on how to build a sound economic system. An economic system that gives its people a fair chance of making a decent life. Such a system is desirable than a system that empowers a few at the expense of the many. Hence every country whether successful or a failed state, reflects its leaders’ thinking.

But there are countries that have not followed this natural course of action through no fault of their own. Some through duress. Others, through malicious advice and an element of ignorance. Most African countries started building their countries from a position of weakness after taking power from colonial masters. The negotiations they engaged in left their countries at a disadvantage. It’s not a secret that corruption is a massive problem in Africa. This is made worse by incompetent leaders who are out of touch with reality. However, many African countries were set up to fail.

What they agitated for and went to war for did not materialise when they became free. Throughout Africa, the economic power hardly shifted from colonial powers to the natives.  The impact of this artificial freedom is seen in failed democracies that are struggling to meet the aspirations of their people.

For instance, there are more than 7 countries in West and North Africa that are effectively French territories. Only last year, the French parliament signed and ratified a law which stopped African countries from depositing their taxpayer money in the French Central Bank. This should have stopped in the 1960s when colonisation was coming to an end. It’s difficult to see how these countries could have developed without control of their money. In addition, they had to pay colonial tax. These African countries have been economically hamstrung for a very long time. It would be impossible to have democracy with a sound economic system under such circumstances.

In the last few weeks, South Africa displayed how it is hamstrung by its past. More than 330 people died in the riots and looting after former president Jacob Zuma, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court. The sentence is seen as disproportionate considering former apartheid president W.P Botha was fined R175 000 for refusing to appear before The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He paid R50 bail for contempt of court and went back to his care home.

It would be wrong to attribute the protests and looting strictly to Jacob Zuma’s prison sentence. There is something big and more serious at play. South Africans have always protested, it’s in their DNA. But this time it’s different. It’s on a scale never seen before. The protests and looting are driven by the deep social inequality that continued after apartheid.  No democracy can fulfil its objectives with an economy grounded in an apartheid system.

The examination needed to establish why an apartheid economic system is still in place makes for uncomfortable reading. It brings into spotlight the handling of the transition from apartheid to democracy. One cannot fully comprehend the problems at hand without appreciating what unfolded in that transition. ANC has been in power for almost 30 years but it hasn’t delivered on its promise to eradicate poverty. There is still privatisation of education, health, housing and access to essential infrastructure.

In building the rainbow nation, they should have addressed the pain suffered by black people under the legacy of apartheid oppression. It was paramount to highlight structural racism, the implications of segregation and discrimination of black people. A dialogue would have made people understand the magnitude of these problems and outline expected behaviour going forward. The omission of this crucial element from the nation building process implies there is no demand or expectation to change behaviour.

Nelson Mandela’s experience in apartheid jail for 27 years and his ability to forgive, elevates him to a class of his own. This was captured perfectly when he said “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

This unique Mandela spirit was behind the truth and reconciliation which was designed to put the evils of the past behind. What a noble idea this was for history shows that such matters are normally resolved after the obliteration of one side through war. South Africa is unique in that no war was needed to resolve its democracy although the apartheid system killed millions of black people. It could only have been done with Nelson Mandela’s fortitude.

It’s interesting however that a former apartheid president was made Nelson Mandela’s Vice President. It was exceedingly generous. It would be absurd to expect De Klerk to advocate for justice needed for atrocities committed under apartheid. There is a feeling among South Africans that the transition from apartheid to democracy whitewashed the pain suffered by black people.

It’s difficult not to draw comparisons between Hitler and apartheid. Hitler and his country conducted themselves in an outrageous manner that their acts had to be accounted for. The Nuremberg trials were held under international law for the “prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, Judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany who participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes.” Most of them were found guilty and Germany had to pay reparations. It caused frightening levels of inflation. It was humbled. Its economy was destroyed. It took a long time to recover. A precedent was set which demonstrated that breach of international law is unacceptable.

But in South Africa, it seems no lessons were learnt and no reparations were paid for how the apartheid system operated. The Truth and Reconciliation was a good start but what has it achieved by way of addressing racial problems, inequality and democracy? There isn’t anything tangible to refer to and this void is materialising at the detriment of South Africa.

In Germany, students are taught about the implications of their country’s past. South Africa could have benefited from a similar approach by highlighting the perils of apartheid. You cannot address a problem that you do not acknowledge. ANC is rightly getting blamed for its leadership but most of the problems flow from unresolved problems under apartheid.

The rainbow nation was meant to accommodate people from all walks of life. It could have done more on substance. But it focused more on appearances. Awarding a joint Nobel Peace prize to Nelson Mandela and F.W de Klerk for the “peaceful termination of the apartheid regime,” was counterproductive. This was not well thought out. FW de Klerk acquired undeserved political capital by standing next to an Icon like Nelson Mandela. Again, this implied everything was going well but the reality on the ground was completely the opposite.

The looting and devastation of the economy that happened after Jacob Zuma’s prison sentence was caused by people living in extreme poverty. Those left behind. The forgotten. Those receiving grants from the government. The lower class. The unemployed. The marginalised. Those cut off from the democratic process. Those who lost faith in the system. Those dismissed as criminals in order to divert attention from real problems. Those who say they are still under an apartheid economic system.

There is no avoiding that the root cause of South Africa’s problems is still apartheid. It must be addressed. One hopes that a new generation can pick up where Mandela left and embrace the privilege of shaping their country’s destiny. It requires sober heads. It must be done in a manner that unites the country for it’s a delicate matter. The sooner it is done the better.