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The Consent of the Governed: Country Studies - South Africa

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 2 Political Rights, 2 Civil Liberties (Free)


South Africa is a republic and a constitutional democracy, with a president chosen by the popularly elected lower house of the bicameral legislature. The previous system of apartheid, in which a white minority oppressed a large majority consisting of blacks, the so-called Coloured (mixed-race people), and Asians, was largely abolished by 1991, after decades of peaceful resistance, armed struggle, and international pressure.

South Africa
An interim constitution was adopted by consensus of all political parties in 1993, and a permanent constitution was adopted in 1996. Since the end of apartheid, three national elections have been held.

South Africa is the 25th-largest country in the world (1,219,000 square kilometers), bordered by the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts to the east, south, and west.It is bordered to the north by Namibia, Botswana (see Country Study in "Accountability and Transparency", Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland. Lesotho is an independent country entirely surrounded by South Africa in the northeast. South Africa has 47 million people, of whom roughly 79 percent are black, 10 percent are white, 8.5 percent are Coloured, and 2.5 percent are Asian (mostly of Indian origin). The black population is itself diverse, with major ethnic groups including the Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, and Ndebele. The white population is mainly Afrikaner (descended from Dutch settlers), speaking its own language, but also includes a sizable community of English descent. There are 11 recognized official languages, with English generally serving as the lingua franca. Population growth is negative due to the enormous rate of HIV infection (12 percent).

South Africa's economy is among the most dynamic on the continent, with growth averaging roughly 5 percent over the last decade. Despite this growth and the emergence of a sizable black middle class, there remains a large disparity between black and white, and the overall unemployment rate is about 27 percent. Thus, while nominal gross domestic product (GDP) ranked a healthy 27th in the world for 2006 (at $255 billion), the gross national income (GNI) per capita was 84th ($5,390). The same two rankings by PPP (purchasing power parity), which incorporates inflation and differences in local prices to get a more accurate picture of living standards, were 22nd ($567 billion) and 77th ($11,710) in the world, respectively.



South Africa's black population is made up mostly of Bantu peoples, who originally migrated from parts of Africa to the north, and San tribes (known to white settlers as Bushmen). Pastoral, agricultural, and hunter-gatherer groups developed into large communities and kingdoms over time, with their own spoken languages, but the region did not enter the written histories of the European world until the first Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

Colonization and the Great Trek

Following a series of abortive attempts by the Portuguese to colonize the area, the Dutch East India Company established the first successful settlement on the Cape in 1652. As the Dutch expanded their settlement, they battled with Africans, especially the Xhosa people, in the Cape Frontier Wars. Because of African resistance, the Dutch imported slaves to satisfy labor needs, mainly Malays and others expelled from Dutch colonies in what is now Indonesia. Indigenous people remained in control of most of the land of southern Africa.

The British seized the Cape colony in 1795 as part of their conflict with revolutionary France, since the Netherlands had fallen to French forces. After briefly ceding control to the French-backed Dutch state (1803–06), the British gained sovereignty over the colony in 1814. The Dutch settlers stayed, but chafed at British rule. They began migrating in larger numbers to areas northeast of the Cape colony and forging a new identity as an "indigenous" African nation of Trekboers (Wandering Farmers), or simply Boers. Britain's abolition of slavery throughout its empire in 1833 spurred the Boers, who were strict believers in white racial superiority and separatism, to migrate to new territories. Called the Great Trek, the migration northeast into the interior led to the establishment of two states, later called Transvaal and the Orange Free State, in a vast area that had only just been devastated by a military campaign of the nearby Zulu kingdom. (The Zulu forces had driven out peoples who later established the kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland.)

The Boer Wars

During the 19th century, the British consolidated their control over what is now South Africa, conquering Zululand in 1879. Britain had already seized diamond mines located in disputed Boer areas and, in 1877, annexed Transvaal. However, the Transvaal Boers revolted in 1880, in what became known as the First Boer War, and inflicted a quick and decisive defeat on British forces by February 1881. Transvaal, also known as the South African Republic (SAR), regained its independence.

The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand precipitated the Second Boer War. A flood of non-Boer white prospectors and other newcomers migrated to the area, threatening Boer identity and independence. The SAR rejected British demands to give foreign whites the vote, and fighting broke out in 1899. This time the British won, in part by adopting brutal tactics including concentration camps and a scorched-earth campaign that undermined support for the empire at home. A treaty signed in 1902 forced Transvaal and the Orange Free State to recognize British sovereignty.

The Union of South Africa

After the war, the British continued to pursue plans of federation. In 1910, they created a Union of South Africa, consisting of Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and the British-dominated Cape Colony and Natal (Zululand). The Boers, or Afrikaners, gained effective home rule. Blacks remained without voting rights in all four states and suffered from uniformly discriminatory laws. Facing a labor shortage, the British imported Chinese workers and imposed onerous taxes on blacks to force them into wage employment, leading to protests that were crushed by the authorities. In one uprising, the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion, an estimated 4,000 Zulus were killed.

The Union of South Africa had the status of a self-governing dominion within the British system, similar to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Despite the previous conflicts, the Afrikaner-led government became a key ally of the British in World War I, driving the Germans from their colony of South West Africa (Namibia) among other contributions. In 1939, Jan Smuts regained leadership of the ruling United Party from an anti-British and pro-Nazi faction and joined the British effort in World War II, becoming a member of the British war cabinet.


In the 1948 elections, an anti-British backlash brought the pro-Nazi and avowedly racist National Party and Afrikaner Party to power. The coalition government of Prime Minister D. F. Malan began instituting apartheid, meaning "separateness" in Afrikaans. In part, this was a formalization and extension of existing British pass laws and South African land acts that kept blacks from traveling freely, obtaining employment, and owning land. The apartheid laws, however, brought a new level of racial discrimination, instituting strict separation in all areas of life. The system was designed to strengthen the Afrikaners' economic position against the British, placing most significant assets in Afrikaner hands. While the white minority enjoyed democracy and general freedom, blacks, Coloureds, and Indians lived in a fierce police state that suppressed all opposition to the apartheid system. Blacks suffered the greatest discrimination and lived in mounting misery and social isolation.

Opposition to Apartheid

There is a long history of opposition to colonization, segregation, and apartheid. Xhosa, Zulu, and other nations resisted encroachment on their territories over the course of two centuries. The British takeover of Zululand in 1879 came at a heavy cost, including the worst colonial defeat in British history at the battle of Isandlwana.

At the turn of the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi (later known as Mahatma), who was then living in South Africa, emerged as one of the most notable activists against discrimination.

Mahatma Gandhi
As a young lawyer, Gandhi helped organize the South African Indian Congress and began practicing the pacifist philosophy of satyagraha (holding to the truth). He organized his first campaigns of civil resistance and was arrested 20 times in efforts to reverse discriminatory laws, at first those aimed more at Indians but then generally. Inspired by the Indian Congress, prominent leaders of the black community including tribal chiefs organized the South African Native National Congress (later renamed the African National Congress, or ANC) in 1912 to oppose the imposition of racist laws by the new Union of South Africa. In 1944, Nelson Mandela and others organized a youth wing dedicated to massive civil resistance based on Gandhi's initial campaigns and subsequent successes in India.

Armed and Peaceful Resistance

After peaceful protest efforts were brutally suppressed, the ANC decided to take up armed resistance for the first time in 1961. As the first leader of the ANC's military wing, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life on Robben Island. Over time, armed resistance proved ineffective, and internal civil resistance, especially by new black trade unions and student organizations, regained strength. Mandela later testified that in the end it was the Gandhian tradition that was more important than armed, liberal, or socialist strategies for overthrowing apartheid.

Also in 1961, the National Party government withdrew South Africa from the British Commonwealth, which opposed apartheid, and declared the country a republic. Beginning in the 1960s, an international campaign to pressure South Africa to end apartheid—through sanctions, disinvestment, and other means—isolated the regime. With the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union, the South African government lost its last shreds of international support, which had been based on its role as a bulwark against communism. The combination of growing internal resistance and mounting international pressure led President F. W. de Klerk, a relative moderate, to free Nelson Mandela in 1990, lift the ban on the ANC and other organizations, and declare an end to the last apartheid laws in 1991. De Klerk led negotiations for a new interim constitution that was adopted in 1993.

Consent of the Governed

In South Africa, the majority's lack of consent was ignored on account of race, during colonial rule as well as under the self-governing Union of South Africa and the postwar apartheid regime.

Nelson Mandela
Under apartheid, a white Afrikaner minority imposed a harsh, race-based authoritarian rule that denied human rights to blacks, Coloureds, and Asians, with particular discrimination against blacks. Since the dismantlement of apartheid, the country has been a constitutional republic that represents all citizens through democratic elections and institutions and guarantees human rights to all races.

Establishment of Democracy

The 1993 interim constitution established the foundation for a multiracial democracy, allowing all citizens to participate. The first free, multiracial elections were held on April 27, 1994 (later proclaimed South Africa's Freedom Day). The ANC won 62 percent of the vote in legislative elections, with the National Party taking 20 percent and the Inkatha Freedom Party (an ethnic Zulu party) 10 percent. Mandela, who had spent 27 years in jail before being freed, won the presidency in a landslide vote by the lower house of Parliament.

Under apartheid, a white Afrikaner minority imposed a harsh, race-based authoritarian rule that denied human rights to blacks, Coloureds, and Asians, with particular discrimination against blacks.

In 1996, Parliament sat as a constitutional assembly to draft a permanent constitution. A first draft was returned by the Constitutional Court for revision, to make its provisions consistent with acknowledged constitutional principles. The final draft was accepted by the court and adopted overwhelmingly, coming into effect in 1997. It includes a sweeping bill of rights that guarantees equal rights to all races, while allowing affirmative action to redress previous racial disadvantages.

South Africans can now change their government democratically. Two national elections have been held since 1994, one in 1999 and the most recent in 2004. In each, the ANC increased its percentage, reaching 69 percent in 2004. The liberal Democratic Party supplanted the New National Party as the principal opposition in 1999 and won 12.3 percent of the vote in 2004. The Inkatha Freedom Party dropped to 7 percent. Deputy President Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as ANC leader in 1997 and as president of South Africa in 1999. He won reelection in 2004.

Current Issues

The dominance of the ANC—and its coalition of organizations, trade unions, and parties that were central to the anti-apartheid struggle—has led some to question South Africa's democratic character. The ANC has little electoral competition, and the wealth of some of its leaders has raised corruption concerns. There is also concern that Mbeki will lead the country in a more racially based direction, in contrast with Mandela's vision of a "rainbow nation." However, dominance by a coalition that was central to the overthrow of authoritarian rule is not unusual in new democracies (see, for example, Country Study of Chile in "Freedom of Association". The constitution has established stable democratic institutions, the rule of law, and a federal system of local self-government, while a vibrant civil society has emerged from the period of civil resistance to actively check abuse of power and lobby for policy changes. Right-leaning and left-leaning factions within the ANC have vied openly, raising the possibility that it may split.

Since democracy was established, blacks have gained greater access to higher education and professions and increased their level of property ownership and involvement in social and economic sectors. But the gains are small compared with their overall percentage in the population, and the white minority has kept its economically privileged status. The legacy of apartheid thus remains, especially in the distribution of economic power, the level of entrenched poverty, the lack of jobs for blacks, and continued de facto segregation in most areas of life. The most urgent issue facing South Africa is the HIV infection rate, the highest in the world at approximately 12 percent of the population. In 2003, South Africa had an estimated 370,000 AIDS-related deaths. International health organizations predict that the epidemic will not peak until 2012. Mbeki's government contributed to the crisis by refusing to accept scientific data on how the disease is spread, insisting that it was a disease of "poverty" requiring "an economic approach." In 2003, the Treatment Action Campaign, including former president Mandela, succeeded in lobbying the government to change its policies, but it still does not engage in significant education and treatment efforts.

In 1995, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, providing amnesty to all those who told the truth about atrocities and police actions during the apartheid era. Only those who refused to tell the truth were punished. In this way, families could learn about the fate of loved ones, and the population could learn the facts about the former regime's elaborate efforts to control the nonwhite population. The process established definitively the apartheid regime's basic illegitimacy. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has become a widely acknowledged model for post-dictatorship societies trying to deal with their past.