The resignation earlier this month of South African President Jacob Zuma reminded me -- a once student of politics and now an occasional instructor of the same -- of the often unheralded success story of South Africa’s transition from a colonial apartheid state to a resilient democracy.
It is a rare, perhaps almost unique, tale amongst its peers. Where Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, and almost of all of Latin America failed, South Africa succeeded in going from a para-colonial regime to one of sustainable liberal democracy.
Mr Zuma, a larger than life figure of the long struggle against apartheid, could not outwit the strong democratic institutions that had been laid at the foundation of South Africa’s democracy in the early 1990s. Despite the overwhelming popularity and dominance of the African National Congress (ANC) party, which led the struggle against apartheid, the founding fathers of the new South Africa made a break from the sad trajectory seen in too many post-colonial countries, and decided to make a commitment to democracy over personality cults.
That commitment was put into a concrete edifice -- again a departure from nice abstractions that left up implementation to politicians in places as diverse as Zambia and Bangladesh -- by constitutionally creating strong, independent, mutually balancing institutions of the republic.
So, at the get-go, the new South Africa had independent public organs dealing with policing, prosecution, human rights, conduct of elections, dispensation of justice, legislation, and executive administration.
Additionally, constitutional safeguards were put into place -- again in concrete terms rather than abstractions -- to protect the freedom of conscience, press, and assembly. The ANC itself set an example for these checks and balances not only by demarcating the party leadership from state leadership, but also by instituting strong internal leadership bodies where party elections, rather than rubber-stamped decisions from the chief executive, decide the composition of the various party councils.
The result, fortunately for South Africa, has been a representative democracy where, despite its political dominance, the ruling party has to follow the law and where institutions cannot be subsumed under the cult of a personality for merely historical, legacy, or genealogical reasons.
Unfortunately for Jacob Zuma, this has meant that his position at the pinnacle of state power and his long association with the late Nelson Mandela was simply not enough to shield him from the workings of South Africa’s resilient democratic institutions.
As to why South Africa, in stark contrast with its other similarly situated neighbours in Africa and Asia, was able to pull off this miracle of strong democratic institutions is a question that will have to be decisively evaluated by theorists and PhD scholars in the coming years. Nonetheless, several hypotheses come to mind for this observer, student, and teacher of comparative politics.
Where Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, and almost of all of Latin America failed, South Africa succeeded in going from a para-colonial regime to one of sustainable liberal democracy
One, the ANC leadership that took the reins of South Africa at the dawn of its post-apartheid era in the 1990s was far more soaked in the struggle for democratic institutions than the relatively shorter lived struggles in the rest of Africa and Asia.
During these struggles, often the only amelioration of the brutality of the apartheid regime was provided by the last vestiges of an independent judiciary, non-government civic organizations, and independent newspapers in South Africa. No less a person than Nelson Mandela expressed his appreciation for such institutions which, even as they were choked to the limit by the National Party white minority rule, reserved some semblance of autonomy.
Two, many of the ANC leaders, over the course of their long political struggle, were engaged with democratic civic movements in England, continental Europe, and Canada, and gained a greater appreciation of the inbuilt checks and balances that come with independent institutions.
Though some of them were hard code leftists and often appreciative of the support of leftist one-party dictatorships, they seemed to have realized that one-party dictatorships and sustainable democracies are mutually exclusive.
Three, the eyes of the world have been on South Africa with a focus that has rarely been on any other country that transitioned from some version of colonialism to true self-governance (with the possible exception of India in 1947).
The scrutiny, in turn, seems to have provided an inbuilt protocol of accountability for the new regime to behave itself with restraint in regards to democratic governance and human rights.
Of course, all this is hypothetical. It very well could be that the individuals who were/are the founding fathers of the new South Africa were simply a “cut above” than their contemporaries in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Argentina, or South Korea. But given how the innate nature of humanity is, I suspect it was something more.
And whatever the factors that have led South Africa to have a unique experience of democratic sustainability from its new beginning in the 1990s, her citizens can thank their stars that they live in a country where even a sitting president or prime minister has to submit to rules and laws and the constitution.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.