South Africa: Settler Colonialism and the Failures of Liberal Democracy; South Africa's Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of Politics

In This Review

South Africa: Settler Colonialism and the Failures of Liberal Democracy
By Thiven Reddy
Zed Books, 2015
192 pp.
South Africa's Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of Politics
By Julian Brown
Zed Books, 2015
176 pp.

In these books, two South African academics examine their country’s increasingly contentious politics. The optimism inspired by the release of Nelson Mandela from prison a quarter of a century ago and the end of apartheid soon after has been replaced by a deep sense of foreboding. Increasing corruption, persistently high levels of violent crime, and an unsteady economy have lent South Africa the distinction of being both the slowest-growing country in sub-Saharan Africa that is not engaged in a civil war and the country with the region’s highest level of income inequality.

Reddy’s study is the more ambitious of the two. Harnessing sophisticated scholarly literature on the subject, he argues that South Africa’s past as a settler colony ruled for decades by authoritarian white supremacists has made its transition to liberal democracy particularly difficult. Oppressed for so long by systematic violence at the hands of the white-ruled state, the black majority is divided into two parts: a nationalist bourgeoisie intent on enriching itself and an alienated lower class that has been ill served by the transition to democracy. Reddy goes beyond pessimism: he sees the country’s future as bleak and offers no better way forward.

Brown’s book features a similar diagnosis of what ails South Africa. Nonetheless, his focus on the growing mass mobilization of citizens through various civic associations, unions, and protest movements leads him to a cautious optimism about the future. He argues that the country’s current moment “of protest and insurgent citizenship, of disruptive politics and intermittent repression,” is hopeful because it offers new mechanisms for poor citizens to contest the inequities that undermine South African democracy and in the process forge more democratic institutions and a more meaningful form of political participation. He recognizes the risks posed by the country’s growing fractiousness but believes that it is necessary in order for the country to consolidate and deepen the democratic transition.

It is difficult to know the extent to which South Africa will remain a prisoner of its past, unable to forge ahead. Low-level political unrest will almost certainly continue for the foreseeable future and will likely create both opportunities for and constraints on positive change. Both Reddy and Brown probably underestimate the role that economics has played in the rise of discontent and will continue to play in determining the prospects for democracy: a lack of growth has made it harder to spread the wealth and has eroded the legitimacy othe ruling party, the African National Congress. 

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