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Reflections on Africa: South Africa and The Birth Pains of Democracy

Benjamin Franklin once observed that democracy may be the most humane and egalitarian form of government, but it is the most difficult to manage and maintain. Working out the democratic equation, suggested Franklin, is a difficult task, there are no guarantees for success, and failure is always a possibility.

On April 27, 1994 South Africa had its first free election and voted in Nelson Mandela as its President. Archbishop Desmond Tutu dubbed this new democratic society, based on the rule of law, The Rainbow Nation. It was a nation of eleven official languages, a wide spectrum of skin tones, ethnic groups, nationalities, and tribes—all celebrating their joint commitment to freedom. A noble sentiment, a virtuous goal, but no easy task.

Today, eighteen years after the Revolution, the philosophical and political question that yet remains in South Africa is—can its people, its economic, and its cultural institutions overcome the long term lingering after effects of Apartheid? Is South Africa still stuck in a pre-1994 mental enclave of white against black, rich against poor, empowered against the disenfranchised?

South Africa has a population of 55.5 million. Of these 79% are African, 9% are of mixed race, 9% are white, and 2.5% are Indian. The official unemployment rate is 25%, and if you include in this number those who have stopped looking for work, the figure is 36%. Eighty six percent of all unemployed South Africans are black. Forty eight percent of the population lives below the poverty line ($2 a day). The poorest 40% of the population receives 7% of the national income. The richest 20% of the population receives 70% of the national income. Working white people earn an average income that is 6 to 7 times greater than the personal incomes of black Africans.

The real issues here are not just the numbers and the money. According to Helen Zille, former mayor of Cape Town, these numbers really reflect the fact that genuine reconciliation in a post-Apartheid era has not fully occurred. The gulf between blacks and whites may no longer be the ballot box, said Mayor Zille, but a great chasm remains in regard to—wealth, political influence, education, and socio-economic opportunity.

According to former mayor Zille, “we have won the Revolution, but we have not yet achieved our goals.” As an outside observer, I believe that as a nation, South Africans are beginning to recognize that democracy is a continuous process, an unending journey and task, and not just a single destination or event.

  • By Tim Schroeder on 10.9.2012 at 5:29 pm

    Mayor Zille brings up a valid point, democracy is not something that can be achieved overnight, or once it is achieved, it will not solve anything over night. Democracy is a means to an unattainable end, but an end nonetheless. America is a prime example for all things democratic, but look at the state the US is in currently, or where it was four years ago. Democracy is will to bring about change, but that change will constantly evolve, and people must be willing to evolve with those changes. South Africa made greatest stride when they adapted democracy into their governing power, but they have not yet made the stride to let it live up to its full potential.

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