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South Africa's report card on democracy gets worse

South Africa ranks fifth for governance in Africa, but its scores have consistently declined over the past five years, with diminished press freedoms and rule of law, writes guest blogger Karl Beck.

By Karl BeckGuest blogger / March 30, 2012

•  A version of this post appeared on the blog "Freedom at Issue." The views expressed are the author's own.

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After a smooth start in the early post-apartheid period, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), is increasingly afflicted by contradictions between its idealistic principles and the baser behaviors of many of its officeholders. These behaviors currently include threats to institute tighter controls over the judiciary and the ANC’s civil society critics, especially the independent media. A discernable trend toward intolerance of judicial brakes on executive power, and also toward a general aversion to any criticism of executive policies and actions, raises troubling questions about the future of democratic governance in South Africa.

 The South Africa chapter of Human Rights Watch’s 2012 World Report states that the country “continues to grapple with corruption, growing social and economic inequalities, and the weakening of state institutions by partisan appointments and one-party dominance.” The 2011 Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance shows that although South Africa ranks fifth overall among African governments, its scores have consistently declined over the past five years, with a significant reduction in scores for rule of law, accountability, and participation. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report downgraded South Africa from Free to Partly Free status in 2010. With the recent passage in the National Assembly of a bill aimed at prohibiting public access to information about many decisions and acts of government officials, the downward trajectory appears set to continue. In South Africa and elsewhere, many people who were inspired by the liberation of the country from apartheid are asking with concern, “What’s happening?”

Unfortunately, nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africans’ racial differences continue to define their politics. In terms of high political philosophy and statements directed to foreign audiences, the ANC represents itself as multiracial and committed to the “Rainbow Nation.” However, party leaders demand unwavering support from black South Africans, routinely reminding such voters who liberated them from white domination. Indeed, the sufferings of the liberators in apartheid-era jails and foreign refugee camps have been likened to the Crucifixion, and President Jacob Zuma is fond of saying that the ANC will govern “until Jesus comes.” The ANC’s sense of historical entitlement to perpetual rule, and acquiescence to this conceit by a majority of the 80 percent of South Africans who are black, keep the ANC in power and constitute major obstacles to the development of a mature South African democracy. With no real chance of losing power, elected and appointed officeholders too often ignore the obligations of public service and accountability. Regrettably, many ANC leaders seem to view the operation of get-rich-quick schemes for themselves and their allies as the key role of successful politicians.


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