Recently a Guest Essay entitled “South Africa is Falling Apart” by the South African journalist William Shoki appeared in the New York Times. The turmoil that currently exists in South Africa is real and undeniable. What also is real and undeniable is that the basis for that turmoil is due largely to political and governance disputes. And what is also real and undeniable is that in the history of virtually all democracies there are many instances of turmoil. In other words – democracy is messy.
Coincidentally, in that same issue of the New York Times an Opinion piece by Jamelle Bouie appeared describing the history of the messy democracy of the United States in historical detail. It is probably a surprise to many that during the early decades of the American republic that there were multiple disputes, schisms and rebellions that threatened the very existence of the nascent United States.
In the first seventy years of the United States the Whiskey Rebellion and Shay’s Rebellion were only two instances of civilian unrest that had to be met with federal armed forces. George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were viciously attacked and vilified to the extreme while serving as president. A vice president, Aaron Burr, conspired with foreign forces to establish his own empire in North America.
And, of course, there was the Civil War, still the bloodiest war in American history. And let us not forget the American insurrection and the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Clearly democracy is messy. Clearly the United States endures and no one is seriously suggesting that the United States is falling apart – at least not yet.
The South African democracy is only 27 years old – born at the ending of the monstrosity called apartheid. And that new democracy had to address serious sabotage by the white South Africans who, on their way out of office, removed the files, telephones and other elements of the governmental infrastructure in its earliest days. Further, while many white South Africans have accepted the end of apartheid and the establishment of Black majority rule, there are still too many white South Africans who have sought to destabilize the new South Africa through political and economic means.
Nevertheless, democracy in South Africa endures and is one of the most robust democracies on the African continent. And while some Black South Africans have seen true change in their lives, there are many more Black South Africans who have yet to see systemic and substantive change. Indeed, democracy is messy.
Throughout the current turmoil in South Africa the democracy has remained stable as disputes continue about how that democracy can work better, and not whether or not the democracy should be replaced. It may be true that the eradication of all of the debris and decay and dysfunction that is the legacy of apartheid could be removed more effectively by an authoritarian regime but that would be at the cost of rights and protection of freedoms that were attained through decades of true struggle.
We have seen a trend towards authoritarian governments throughout the world, including in these United States. History tells us that in the long term the authoritarian governments always erode and eventually remove human rights until they become more myth than memory.
It is true that South Africa has its challenges and they are very real. To say that South Africa is falling apart is untrue – but it can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy if it is repeated often enough.
Which is why it is always important to remember that the Republic of South Africa is a democracy and democracy is always messy. But then it is always better than the authoritarian alternative.