Apartheid’s Long Shadow

How Racial Divides Distort South Africa’s Democracy

Last April, South Africa celebrated the 20th anniversary of its first democratic elections, which brought to power the African National Congress (ANC) and its leader, Nelson Mandela, who had led the antiapartheid movement for decades. Many had long believed that civil war was the only way that the apartheid state would fall, and South Africa’s mostly peaceful transition from a racist authoritarian state to a multiracial democracy stands as one of the most surprising political developments of the twentieth century. The shift has not been without its problems, but few would contest South Africa’s credentials as a democracy—perhaps the most democratic state in Africa.

Still, democracy is no guarantor of stability or prosperity. And for all its political progress, South Africa faces a daunting array of social and economic challenges, many rooted in inequalities that neither democratization nor economic growth has managed to reduce. Around 47 percent of South Africans live in poverty, a proportion that is actually slightly higher than it was in 1994. The unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent. South Africa’s Gini coefficient—a measure of economic inequality in which zero represents absolute equality and one represents absolute inequality—is 0.63, making 
it one of the most unequal countries 
in the world. And the country continues to struggle with high levels of violent crime.

This article appears in the March/April 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs. Check back next week for the full issue.

Even in a more homogeneous country without a very recent history of racial oppression, such factors would create significant pressure on democratic governance. Heterogeneous countries such as South Africa face a tougher road in building a democratic state, since racial and ethnic diversity can make it harder to foster social cohesion. And South Africa is extremely heterogeneous: the country has 11 official languages and four major racial groups, each of which contains ethnic and linguistic subgroups.

The future of South Africa’s multiracial democracy depends heavily on minimizing animosity and hostility among these groups. Lurking behind the country’s pressing day-to-day problems is a basic question: Can South Africans of different races continue to get

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