What is the liberal prognosis for South Africas future? This is an important question, and not just for self-described liberals. The liberal tradition has given to modern politics some of its key features – some of its finest features, I would say – that have an appeal among millions who would generally not identify as liberals.  

To speak of the liberal prognosis for South Africa’s future is to speak of liberal democracy. While the etymology of the word democracy defines it as a system in which ‘the people’  ̶  or shall we say, the broad mass of the population – is in a position to exercise political power, liberal democracy gives a particular emphasis to freedom, to civil liberties and to the protection of the individual. It stresses processes, probity and limits to the exercise and abuse of power. 

As William Galston has written:

We can now venture a more precise characterization of liberal democracy. This type of political order rests on the republican principle, takes constitutional form, and incorporates the civic egalitarianism and majoritarian principles of democracy. At the same time, it accepts and enforces the liberal principle that the legitimate scope of public power is limited, which entails some constraints on or divergences from majoritarian decision making. A liberal order can use devices such as supermajority requirements or even unanimity rules to limit the majoritys power, or it can deploy constitutional courts insulated from direct public pressure to police the perimeter beyond which even supermajorities may not go.

South Africa has a difficult relationship with liberal democracy. In large part, this is because although the political order that exists exhibits numerous characteristics of a liberal democratic worldview – in particular the Constitutional form of governance and the extensive scope for civil freedom – it was the product of a political settlement between opposing forces that were themselves hardly liberally inclined. The compromise that was ultimately reached has a generally liberal form to it, offering sufficient protection from possible abuse and enough scope for transformative policy to satisfy most of the participants.  

And thus came the national branding of democracy as part of South Africa’s identity. And as part of this package, South Africa drew up ‘the best constitution in the world’,  ̶  at least, that was the claim.

But it is hardly an original or contentious point to make that under times of stress and desperation, old certainties may be questioned, and the unthinkable may become thinkable. 

And stress and desperation are something that South Africa has in abundance. World Bank estimates put the proportion of the country’s population living in poverty at over 55%. Unemployment sits at a near-incomprehensible 35.3%. The Institute for Security Studies reports 1 123 violent protests in 2021.  Police statistics put the number of people murdered in 2020/21 at 19 972. Latest available figures put the level of investment at a paltry 13% of GDP. Some R1.5 trillion is estimated to have been stolen through state capture. And Treasury projects average annual growth of less than 2% in the coming years.

This describes a country trapped in an incredibly deep malaise. The riots that shook the country in July last year should be a warning of what awaits us.

Rising challenges

South Africa has not been alone in this. The promise of the post-Cold War world – expanding prosperity under conditions of democratic governance – has been unevenly delivered. In countries from the United States to the Philippines, the legitimacy and efficacy of the institutions essential to liberal democracy have come under criticism. Indeed, so have the very doctrines that legitimate them.

Perhaps no-one has put this better than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who advances the idea of ‘illiberal democracy’. Democracy in the sense of electoral competition is not abolished, but the restraints on state action, and the protections enjoyed by people and institutions, are progressively weakened.

This is in essence the populist impulse. Populism is not merely a case of striving for popularity. Populism is a mode of politics – or what the Dutch scholar Cas Mudde calls a ‘thin-centred ideology’  ̶ that posits a Manichean distinction between irreconcilable groups, the mass and the elite, for example. Throwing off restraints is, in this formulation, justified to enable the mandate of ‘the people’ to be executed. It is a majoritarian principle, buttressed by the sense that liberal values are alien, unpatriotic or condescending to ordinary folk.

Populism invariably calls into question the belonging or legitimacy of the opposition or ‘out groups’. This undermines the ideal of common citizenship. It represents a particularly serious threat to any democracy – and strikes at the heart of liberal democracy. 

Running alongside the populist impulse is what I would term an identitarian one. It is an interesting phenomenon of our age that modernity has not always reduced the salience of communitarianism. Indeed, the desire to be part of a community is quite natural, and in many ways positive. But divisions based on ascriptive identities have posed an enduring challenge for democracies. Where such sentiments are politicised and weaponised, they have the potential of reducing political contestation to an irreconcilable, zero-sum game. Group membership based on race, ethnicity, geography or religion provides enclaves into which people feeling threatened can retreat. 

To some extent, these notions have actively been encouraged, as illustrated by the so-called ‘culture wars’ in the US – on the left and right of the political spectrum. 

If populism and communitarianism pressure liberal democracy from within, it is important to note that assertive authoritarianism attempts to do so from without. This has taken the form of direct attempts to influence public sentiment and the institutional integrity of democratic societies, as well as the demonstration effect of ‘developmental authoritarianism’. 

Authoritarian regimes such as China offer a vision of society in which personal freedom is rejected in deference to the common good, where the untidiness of liberty is traded for the security that state-directed development (purportedly) provides. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin has taken this further, speaking in a language not unfamiliar to populist critics, that liberal democracy is ‘obsolete’, and that it stands in opposition to the aspirations of ordinary people. ‘Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that. But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population’, he said in an interview.

In their book How Democracies Fail, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify four markers of democratic – more specifically, liberal democratic – failing. These are:

  • Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game;
  • Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents;
  • Toleration or encouragement of violence; and
  • Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

What lessons does this hold for South Africa?

Is (liberal) democracy failing?

In 1996, Kader and Louise Asmal and Ronald Suresh Roberts wrote gamely of South Africa’s ‘obviously thriving non-racial democracy.’ It is doubtful that this exuberance would find an echo today. Frustration at the state of the country is duly described in numerous opinion polls. Concerns about the state of the country typically centre round those numbers set out earlier, joblessness, stressed living standards, corruption and malfeasance in public life, endemic crime.

As I write this, a controversy has erupted over what looks like eThekwini city officials having literally attempted to steal goods donated to a private initiative in support of relief workers. If this is true – and it says something that it is widely believed to be true – it describes a society in which pathologies have become the guiding principle. 

Yet this is hardly new. And not just in the sense of the theft of resources. This has become so much a part of life that we’re as good as inured to it. Corruption in South Africa needs to be understood for the damage it has done to the institutions on which constitutional governance rests. Etymology is again useful here: ‘corruption’ was once used to denote decay or putrification. 

The seminal development occurred in the 1990s with the ANC’s conscious decision to politicise the state through an illegal and constitutionally delinquent programme of cadre deployment. Those who know my work will know that I refer to this often. This is with good reason, for it was this more than anything else that ensured South Africa’s state would not become the professional and meritocratic set of institutions that the Constitution envisioned, and that a modern economy needed. 

The National Planning Commission commented in a review published last year: ‘A significant challenge and contradiction that goes against the developmental state aspiration of South Africa identified [sic] is the rejection of meritocracy in the country’s public service.’

Think about it: a state body refers to a ‘rejection’ – active voice here, a choice, not something prevented by circumstances or incompetence – of meritocracy. And in the offices of state, we are paying a steep price for it.

Start perhaps with the ANC’s self-conception, the ‘liberation movement’ mystique, a political formation with unique rights and entitlements not only to rule the country, but to set its ideological and political course. Anthony Butler wrote some years ago of the ANC’s worldview: ‘A philosophy dominated by historical inevitability, in which the scientific knowledge of the party is the key to understanding human affairs, can have a profoundly undemocratic influence on political leaders.’

Equally disturbing is the persistence of ‘revolutionary’ discourse in which enemies rather than opponents contend for power and influence, in which media are lambasted for supposed vindictiveness, and in which a militarised vocabulary is freely wielded. 

This was common in the 1990s, the so-called ‘counter-revolutionary’ narrative in which apartheid operatives were lurking behind every doorframe and in every dark corner to reinstate the old order. Perhaps this was to be expected at that point. 

But in 2007, thirteen years into democracy, the ANC’s online newsletter would publish a series of articles entitled ‘A Fundamental Revolutionary Lesson: The Enemy Manoeuvres, but it Remains the Enemy’.  Its title was revealing, its content frightening. It mused on the ‘revolution’ and its malcontents and at least left open the question as to whether it was ‘wise’ not to employ ‘revolutionary force’ to suppress its enemies. 

The following year, then Cosatu President Zwelinzima Vavi ramped this up by saying that he was prepared to ‘shoot and kill’ for Jacob Zuma. When this was taken to the Human Rights Commission, his response was quite remarkable. ‘I was merely stating a principle that comrades should be ready to defend one another and when necessary that may involve killing.’ All in a day’s work. That statement was issued jointly with the SAHRC, which declared that it considered the matter closed.

This was hardly a stand-alone comment. Even now President Ramaphosa has indulged in this sort of talk. In 2013 he warned a crowd darkly that if they failed to vote, ‘the Boers will come back to control us.’ Not opponents with misguided policies, nor fellow citizens with different views, but oppressors who need to be kept at bay.

(Those South Africans who decried Donald Trump’s rhetoric – correctly in my view – should remember what takes place at home.)

It is hardly surprising that these attitudes to the legitimacy of opposition would come to be focused on the institutions of democracy themselves – especially where they showed some independence of thought and action. Indeed, over the past decades the Constitution itself has been damned as a foreign imposition, a bulwark against socio-economic upliftment and a foreign imposition. As senior ANC member Ngoako Ramatlhodi once eloquently put it: ‘We thus have a Constitution that reflects the great compromise, a compromise tilted heavily in favour of forces against change.’

Much more of this has followed in the past few months.

And lest anyone believe this to be the province of a marginal ‘RET faction’, remember that the signature policy drive of the Ramaphosa presidency – the one dedicated to ‘reform’ and a ‘New Dawn’ ̶ has been to diminish property rights: the Expropriation without Compensation initiative, not least through the first attack on the Bill of Rights. In announcing that the ANC would demand a constitutional amendment to Section 25 – even before the public consultation processes had come to a conclusion – the President said that in its current form the Constitution permitted EWC. I’m undecided as to which is more disturbing: changing a provision in the Bill of Rights to grant the state greater latitude to confiscate people’s property or doing so merely to make a point. Neither shows a great commitment to constitutionalism, and in the event, I think both goals were being pursued.

A great deal has been written in recent weeks about the ruling party’s affinity with Russia. President Putin’s words on liberal democracy might underline this connection. 

Can the line be held?

One of the more intriguing elements of my work is looking at popular sentiment. The IRR undertakes polling of its own, which – contrary to uninformed claims – returns results on values that are not hugely different from that conducted by other outfits, such as Afrobarometer and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Here there may be some reason for optimism.

Overall, South Africa’s people evince what might be described as ‘moderate’ attitudes. Majorities reject racism and report relatively little experience of it. They are committed to cross-boundary harmony and amity. They want accountability from their leaders, and for the latter to be held to account by courts if necessary. They have a preference for democracy as a form of governance.

These are eminently positive attributes for anyone concerned with the endurance of a liberal democratic system. Many who espouse them would not identify as liberals. And that is encouraging. 

On the other hand, Afrobarometer finds that close to two thirds of South Africans – 62% in 2018 – would be amenable to living under a non-democratic government that could deliver socio-economic goods such as jobs and housing. 

Perhaps of greater concern are the findings of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, which indicate that 8.3% had ‘used force or violence for a political cause’, and 14.3% would potentially do so if necessary.

This is worrying for the country and relates directly to another indisputable finding from polling (and the assumption behind just about every state economic plan), that South Africans’ priorities are overwhelmingly economic and material in nature. Above all, South Africans want to work. Questions of status, esteem and group identity do not figure as prominently among mass opinion as much of the commentariat assumes. And as long as South Africans’ material aspirations remain unfulfilled, and as the prospects for these recede – not least when seen against the background of government incompetence, venality and indifference – we cannot assume the durability of the liberal order.

Allow me to quote something that I have previously written:

Finally, let me say that while the evidence suggests that South Africans are clearly focused on their material upliftment rather than on issues of esteem and ideology, we should not dismiss the threat posed by racial or ethnic tensions. We can confidently expect that a poorer economy and collapsing state will spur conflict, and among those dimensions may well be the racial or ethnic.

But the converse does not necessarily hold true. Neither the general moderation of ordinary people nor the prospect of material prosperity – assuming we can achieve it – are a foolproof prophylactic against the possibility of their being inflamed and manipulated.

A relatively small part of a polity can constitute an extremely dangerous and disruptive force, and we should not be blind to the fact that opinion polling shows that there are certainly people who report real or perceived racism, and also those who see no need for amity among the countrys people. A minority to be sure, but a presence. And let us remember too that it is all too often the relatively educated and upwardly mobile who see their interests served by divisive racial and ethnic entrepreneurship.

Where to from here?

South Africa’s intertwined crises of deficient governance, pathological politics and retarded economics throw a pall over the country’s prospects. 

Liberals meanwhile will in all likelihood remain a minority, and internally divided by differences of emphasis. On the big questions, however, it is important that all remain committed to the broad liberal cause, defending the institutions on which liberal democracy depends and passionately and steadily arguing for the values that guide them, and being willing to accept the inevitable hostility of their opponents.

And as in the 1990s, liberals may not be in a position to wield state power, but they can win important debates. Key to these will be preserving constitutionalism and offering solutions to the cloying socio-economic dysfunction that afflicts the country. It is on this ground, the Battle of Ideas, that South African liberalism should – and I believe will – make its stand.

If I have communicated anything here, it is that while liberalism has a particular investment in the survival of liberal democracy, the latter should be a concern felt well beyond the ‘liberal’ community. Those uncomfortable with the descriptor ‘liberal’ might reflect on the nature of the challenges and threats facing South Africa’s future as a ‘free society’ and as a ‘constitutional state’. I take some reassurance from knowing that liberals will not in all instances be without allies in this – and I wouldn’t miss it!

In conclusion, allow me to borrow the conclusion to an IRR presidential address some decades ago: ‘What a time to be a liberal!’

[Photo: Sibonelo Zungu via Reuters]

This contribution is based on a presentation delivered at a webinar held jointly by the IRR and the University of Free State Department of Political Studies and Governance on 20 April 2022. A recording of the webinar can be found here (download the MP4 file): https://acrobat.adobe.com/link/track?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:717fa757-89b0-4735-a50a-b41964b19a5d 

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.