Democracy Lab

South Africa, Unequal by Design

How Nelson Mandela's legacy is holding South Africa back.

South Africa is not happy. Not only has the country lost its first black president, Nelson Mandela, but it is now facing its deepest crisis since its democratic transition in 1994. A host of challenges face the country in the new year: protests and strikes continue to hobble key industries; gold prices (and, concomitantly, the value of the rand) are projected to fall; and economists have cut their forecast for economic growth due to high unemployment and a lack of foreign investment.

Adding to this cloudy forecast for 2014, inequality in the country has remained sky-high, despite two decades of African National Congress (ANC) power. With a Gini index above 63, it is the third most unequal place on earth, after Comoros and Namibia. The mining sector, which is one of the country's chief economic engines, is in turmoil. The government has responded to demands for better pay and working conditions from miners and other laborers with a nationwide crackdown, not an invitation to the negotiating table. (In the photo above, South Africans take part in a "service delivery protest" in Cape Town on Oct. 30.) Corruption, cronyism, and political favoritism abound. As a result, so does cynicism.

These problems were brought into sharp relief following the death of Mandela. President Jacob Zuma was vociferously booed by thousands while eulogizing the country's beloved founding father. And, revealing South Africa's deep-rooted corruption, the signer for the deaf at the Mandela memorial was a fraud who made up gestures while standing behind foreign dignitaries like U.S. President Barack Obama. It turned out that he worked for a flimsy shell company contracted by the ANC. Nobody bothered to vet his credentials. The supposed head of the company is nowhere to be found.

These are all unfortunate symptoms of a deep institutional rot that can be traced back to the founding of South Africa's democracy. As in the cases of Chile and Turkey, its transition was guided by a constitutional framework that gave outgoing oligarchs -- in this case, apartheid leaders -- an upper hand in new democratic life. A complicated institutional arrangement gave outgoing elites veto power over policies that threatened their political and economic interests. Though apartheid leaders have faded into the background, the legacy of their transition bargain with the ANC still haunts South Africa's democracy.

Mandela was fully aware of the tradeoffs implied by the bargain he and the ANC struck with the Apartheid regime. The inequality was by design. In fact, his willingness to tolerate patently undemocratic features of a new South African democracy was what made him the ideal person to head the South African transition. One of Mandela's chief strengths is that he was a temperate and prudent leader who had come to understand how critical it was to build trust and proceed cautiously. Had he agitated for wholesale, radical reform, it is unlikely that the apartheid regime would have been willing to hand over power to begin with. Instead, he tolerated compromises such as the creation of political enclaves of white elite dominance.

Mandela captured this sentiment perfectly during his first presidential campaign when he said, "Just as we told the people what we would do, I felt we must also tell them what we could not do. Many people felt life would change overnight after a free and democratic election, but that would be far from the case. Often, I said to crowds ... 'life will not change dramatically, except that you will have increased your self-esteem and become a citizen in your land. You must have patience.'"

South Africans now feel they have waited long enough. The promise that there would be steady progress, even if tainted by the perpetuation of white privilege, has given way to hopelessness in the face of the ANC's growing monopolization of power. A nascent black elite has begun to replace the former apartheid-era oligarchy. These new elites are more intent on guarding their newfound status and wealth than on ushering in a new era of shared prosperity. Indeed, the country has become infamous for its excessively lavish parties, in which business men, investors, and public officials comingle in posh hotels and mansions. And, to add insult to injury, the successor party to the apartheid regime has merged with Mandela's own ANC.

What must South Africa do to forge a new, more equitable and enduring social contract? First and foremost, it needs to uproot the laws and institutions that grant the rich and well-connected disproportionate political power. In Chile, for example, incoming president Michelle Bachelet has promised to do away with the country's heavily biased binomial electoral system that favors the wealthy, one of the most consequential legacies of former dictator Augusto Pinochet's 1980 constitution, which continues to guide the country today.

Reform might not be as easy in South Africa as it is in Chile, however. Chile has a longer history of democratic government, albeit one that was brutally interrupted by Pinochet, and its citizens are wealthier and better educated. Inequality is also declining, and there is a stronger consensus around political pluralism and the rule of law. And crucially, a more robust party system in Chile gives voice to a wider range of political preferences than in South Africa. Despite healthy pluralism, citizen preferences in Chile are now aligned in favor of reforming the underlying institutional architecture that underpinned its first two decades of post-Pinochet democracy.

The ANC has indeed proposed some promising solutions to the country's longstanding problems. A market-assisted land reform program, though slow and still too small in scale, began in 1994 and has transferred millions of hectares of land to black farmers. The ANC is now attempting to speed up land reform. Reforms of the criminal justice system have made the police force more professional and representative, despite some lingering problems. And social assistance grants from the Department of Social Development have kept many citizens out of poverty.

Yet the ruling party itself is a key obstacle to deeper change. On the one hand, key players in the ANC have leveraged the culture of impunity inherited from the authoritarian era, the result of a devil's pact with many of the apartheid regime's former elites, to line their own pockets. South African institutions therefore continue to shield powerful politicians, though many of them are now black. This creates incentives that favor cronyism and nepotism, instead of pluralism and redistribution. And although the ANC's monopoly on power is checked by the judiciary, judges have also been blamed for coddling oligarchs and stifling land reform.

What South Africa needs most is more vigorous democratic competition to undercut the hegemony of the ANC and push it to act on behalf of all South Africans. But the irony is that the prospects for real change lie with a party that is opposed to Mandela's ANC and, therefore, much of his legacy: the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). If the DA can find a way to discipline the ANC without threatening policies that benefit the poor and disenfranchised, then Mandela's true legacy might be realized. The DA currently has 67 of 400 seats in the National Assembly, and is growing in popularity. In concert with other opposition parties, the ANC is now a few seats short of the two-thirds majority it needs to unilaterally amend the constitution. Yet, the DA's 17 percent of seats is nowhere close to the numbers it would need to block legislation.

However, staking the hope for South Africa's future on the DA, or any other opposition party, for that matter, is risky. The opposition's 2013 gains were modest, and the ANC is still the most powerful party by a wide margin. The best check against entrenched autocratic legacies, corruption, and the monopolization of power by the ANC is a political culture and institutions that can help keep the powerful in check. This will depend on the ability of South Africans to move beyond the lionization of the democracy's founding figures and to develop values and practices that encourage a free media and healthy civil society. Indeed, South Africa appears to be moving in this direction: the past year has been characterized by a host of protests and strikes against ANC policies and the state of the economy. This mirrors the experiences of other young democracies in highly unequal countries with strong authoritarian legacies, such as Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. The ANC must heed the calls for reform if it wants South Africa to flourish as a democracy in the future.



Return of the Basket Case

On the eve of a fundamentally flawed election, Bangladesh teeters on the edge of the precipice.

Bangladesh rarely registers in the minds of most Americans, but U.S. policymakers would be well advised to devote some urgent attention to the country. As things stand now, general elections scheduled for Jan. 5 look virtually guaranteed to leave a trail of bitter division, wide-scale violence, and chaos in their wake. That's a surefire recipe for disaster -- especially in the world's third most populous Muslim-majority nation.

Born of civil war in 1971, Bangladesh's early history was plagued by cycles of political violence and heavy-handed military intervention. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once derisively labeled it the "basket case" of South Asia. But while chronic instability continues to plague other poor countries, Bangladesh over the past 25 years has made remarkable progress in establishing civil government and democratic norms. One of the keys to its success was the creation of an institution known as the poll-time caretaker government -- a neutral cabinet of technocrats seated 90 days before national elections with the sole purpose of ensuring a free and fair ballot. Under this system, Bangladesh witnessed multiple democratic transitions over two decades, while turning itself into a center of low-cost global manufacturing where living standards have steadily risen, infant mortality has fallen, and the status of women has improved dramatically.

Now, however, that progress has been put at great peril. Kissinger's basket case looks set to return. The cause, not surprisingly, is politics -- particularly, the aftermath of the unilateral decision in 2011 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League (AL) party to abolish the caretaker government system from the Constitution. The reckless maneuver has created a violent impasse between the Awami League and its main political opposition about how to hold credible elections, prompting statements of concern in recent weeks from Washington, the European Union, the United Nations, even China -- which almost never takes a position on the internal politics of other states.

Hasina has ignored the expressions of worry and refused to relinquish power to a neutral government to oversee the Jan. 5 elections. Instead, she formed an "all-party" election-time government in late November that is comprised mostly of members of her immediate past cabinet. AL losses in local elections since 2011 gave Hasina a strong incentive to retain control over the national ballot to ensure her party emerges victorious over more conservative and Islamist foes.

Fearing the AL will rig the 2014 vote, opposition parties have responded with huge protests. Ensuing clashes with security forces have triggered Bangladesh's worst pre-election turmoil in almost two decades, leaving more than 100 protesters dead and the main opposition party's leader under virtual house arrest. This past weekend, the government shut down transportation into Bangladesh's capital and arrested hundreds, including senior opposition leaders, as part of a wider coordinated effort to block an opposition rally from being held.

Further stoking tensions, the government has orchestrated war crimes trials against leaders of Bangladesh's main Islamist party and its allies for sins allegedly committed 40 years ago during the country's founding. Seven opposition leaders have been sentenced to death or executed as part of a campaign that international observers have criticized for lacking due process. During the 1971 war of independence, heinous crimes were committed against the Bangladeshi people. Local collaborators should stand trial as is appropriate for any war criminal throughout the world, but not by a kangaroo court that makes a mockery of the judicial system. The precedent set by the lack of internationally acceptable judicial process in these trials means there is no telling what will come next in the AL government's push against its political opponents.

The country's largest opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), has announced that it will boycott the elections. It has also rejected participation in the all-party interim government under Hasina's control -- condemning it as a wholly inadequate substitute for a caretaker government, designed with the sole purpose of providing political cover for the AL's manipulation of the balloting.

Without the BNP's participation, the elections are almost certain to be viewed as a sham, lacking all legitimacy. Indeed, a survey of Bangladeshis had projected an overwhelming defeat for the AL if elections were held freely with all parties participating. Instead, Bangladesh has now been treated to the farce of 154 candidates already being officially certified as victors because they're running unopposed -- securing an AL majority in the 300-seat parliament even before a single vote has been cast. Not surprisingly, in their own vote of no confidence, both the United States and the European Union have declined to send election observers.

This is a slow-motion train wreck that everyone can see coming. The democratic process is about to take a major hit in one of the world's largest Muslim-majority countries, where poverty remains endemic and radical Islamists lurk in the wings to exploit any opportunities that may arise. A fuse has been lit -- and if it's allowed to go off it will almost certainly result in an explosion of ever-worsening protests, violence, and instability.

In an effort to avert the coming disaster, the United States, European Union, and United Nations have repeatedly encouraged the AL and BNP to engage in dialogue to resolve the crisis. Yet they have consistently stopped short of calling for the establishment of a neutral poll-time government -- the only vehicle with a proven track record of ensuring sustainable elections. Officials in Washington may fear that voicing support for a caretaker government would be seen as an endorsement of the BNP, and could hurt relations with an AL-led government if it prevails. But this wait-and-see approach has forfeited significant international leverage to shape a peaceful, credible electoral process that is capable of garnering legitimacy both in Bangladesh and abroad.

Though very late in the game, it's time for the international community to voice support for a clear and proven method for continuing Bangladesh's democratic elections. The world must denounce the coming electoral travesty in Bangladesh and call for the immediate installation of a neutral poll-time government that can ensure free, fair, credible, and inclusive elections. Bangladeshis themselves are calling out for this: a survey shows that almost 80 percent of the public supports elections administered by the non-political caretaker system, far more than the 28 percent who planned to vote for the AL that rejected the neutral poll-time government.

Time is running dangerously short. But aggressive diplomacy, led by Washington, still stands a chance of avoiding the worst-case outcome and helping Bangladesh's citizens salvage the legitimacy of a democratic process that they've struggled hard to achieve. Though success is by no means guaranteed, the alternative to trying appears grim, indeed. If ever there was a time to exhaust the capacity for preventive diplomacy, this is it. With so much of the rest of the Islamic world descending into turmoil, now is not the time to stand on the sidelines as one of the world's largest Muslim countries slips inexorably into chaos.