Democracy in South Africa is in tatters. Or at least that’s the widespread view following President Jacob Zuma’s forced resignation on February 14, which ended his almost-nine-year tenure in office. Although South Africans are largely united in celebrating Zuma’s departure, a litany of scandals, allegations of corruption, and a perceived hollowing-out of institutions have led many to conclude that the post-apartheid project under the African National Congress (ANC) has gone rotten. From this vantage point, whereas under Nelson Mandela the country was a beacon of political inclusion and stability on the African continent, under Zuma, South Africa has become yet another “broken democracy.”
This judgement fits comfortably with the views of (typically white) critics who warned that under majority rule South Africa would follow the path of countries such as Zimbabwe, descending into personal rule, nepotism, and economic collapse. The narrative that South Africa’s institutions are failing also dovetails with claims about the decline of democracy around the world.
Yet Zuma’s resignation, and the events that led to it, signal just the opposite. Democracy does not guarantee the selection of honest or competent leaders. It does, however, provide mechanisms for societies to eject bad leaders, either through open elections or internal party processes. The political ouster of Zuma, who showed egregious disregard for the rule of law and an inclination to treat government offices as platforms for self-enrichment, suggests that South Africa’s democratic institutions are functioning as one would hope. Given the backdrop of increasing competition in the country’s local elections and the emergence of coherent opposition parties, the prospects for consolidated democratic rule in South Africa now appear quite good.
When Zuma ascended to the leadership of the ANC in 2007, and then to the presidency in 2009, few believed he would be a saintly leader. He was marred by numerous scandals, including allegations of tax evasion, the
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