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The Promise of South African Democracy

Although South Africans' increasing frustration with their government is borne out in public polling, critics who describe the country as a failed state completely miss the mark. Considering where South Africa started in 1994, its progress has been nothing short of remarkable.

BOSTON – At a time when many democracies are under threat, it is important to highlight the success stories. South Africa may not be the first country that comes to mind as a model democracy, but it should be. In the 28 years since apartheid ended in 1994, South Africa has developed a multiracial, pluralistic form of government that includes a multiparty parliament, independent judiciary, free press, robust civil society, and a broad social safety net.

One could easily assume the opposite. International press coverage of South Africa is often dominated by stories of violent crime and government corruption, giving much of the world a warped view of the country. And some local observers have gone so far as to label South Africa a “failed state.” But while South Africa certainly has its problems, the country looks nothing like actual failed states. Moreover, we would do well to remember where the country started almost 30 years ago.

Between modern South Africa’s founding in 1909 and Nelson Mandela’s election as president in 1994, a racial minority maintained political supremacy by legal force and violence. The economy boomed for white people, but the black majority remained overwhelmingly poor, deprived of equal education and opportunities to work. The government restricted black people’s movement and lives even more thoroughly than the American South did under Jim Crow segregation.