Inequality as an Obstacle to True Democracy in South Africa

For the past century, South Africa has dealt with the shame of being one of the most unequal nations in the world. During apartheid, there was an overt effort to stifle Black advancement. Unequal and separate life became the promulgated and legal norm during white minority rule. Therefore, despite the many steps towards progress the Republic of South Africa has made in the past twenty years, the supreme obstacle of lasting economic inequalities, particularly along racial lines, hinders the complete integration of all into the democracy. As South Africa is often lauded as an example of inclusive democratic transitions of government on the African continent, it is essential that they present growth in terms of legitimacy and governing ability in the face of dramatic inequities.

South Africa has one of the highest Gini Coefficient rates in the world, at .69. As we know, this indicates a high rate of inequality in the nation. Therefore, despite an expansion of civil and political rights to all citizens, according to the renowned progressive nature of the South African Constitution, all citizens are not equal. Due to the unbalanced claim of wealth by historically privileged South Africans, not all individuals of the nation are able to enjoy social and economic rights comparably. This is hindering the nation from moving forward cohesively.

The post-apartheid legacy of stark inequalities has also kept political power shifts and progress stagnant (however, some attribute this to technological changes). The low level of economic power from a primarily Black and disadvantaged political base has allowed the African National Congress to maintain such a stronghold, under the guise of Mandela’s party of peaceful transition, without maintaining a high level of accountability on the ANC’s promises. There seems to be an inability to effectively redress and resolve the inequalities of the past. Thabang Motsohi brings up a great question on how the effect of these inequalities affects democratic state building and good governance, as “Is it possible to say that comprehensive democracy has been achieved if the political economic power relationships that existed during the apartheid period remain intact?”

Sustaining a peaceful and positive transition into a fully functional democratic state, from such a backwards governance regime, is an enormous undertaking. Perhaps the elections later this year will either force the ANC to work towards fulfilling their high fluting ideals without the safety net of Nelson Mandela’s legacy, or create the perfect window of opportunity for a new party to try its hand at democratization in South Africa.

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