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Pass or Fail?

Assessing the Quality of Democracy in South Africa


Victoria Graham

In recent years, growing concerns over the strength of South Africa’s democracy appear to indicate a population increasingly disillusioned and dissatisfied with the quality of its implementation. This book assesses the quality of democracy in South Africa after 20 years of democracy in order to ascertain whether or not this growing perception is valid. Since the inception of democracy in 1994 there have been countless procedural and substantive improvements in addressing historically entrenched political, social and economic problems; however, there are serious issues that have emerged relating to the quality of democratic implementation in South Africa. Two existing analytical frameworks of democracy assessment, International IDEA’s State of Democracy framework and Leonardo Morlino’s tool for empirical research on democratic qualities, TODEM, are utilised to assess the quality of South Africa’s rule of law and institutional capacity; representative and accountable government; civil society and popular participation; and freedom and equality after 20 years of democracy. The book concludes cautiously that while South Africa faces many serious and threatening potholes in the road to a fully successful democracy, there is nevertheless much to applaud.
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Chapter One. Introduction


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“Defining democracy is a bit like interpreting the Talmud (or any religious text)… you are likely to get at least eleven different answers.”(Diamond, 2008: 21)

1.1.   Introduction and Background

The 1994 South African elections officially marked an end to the country’s exclusionary and racist past and ushered in a democracy, delivering not only the universal franchise but also “formal equality before the law, avenues for citizen participation in governance and statutory institutions buttressing democracy” (Muthien, Khosa and Magubane, 2000: 1). South Africa was praised too for its adoption, in 1996, of one of the most liberal and comprehensive constitutions in the world. It contains a wide array of political rights (where among others, it is explicit in its accommodation of the cultural claims of minorities) and socio-economic rights (including the pledge to improve the quality of life of all citizens through access to housing, healthcare, food, water, social security, and education), a range of independent watchdog agencies and commissions intended to support democracy, and an activist Constitutional Court.

Since its democratic transition, it cannot be denied that South Africa has achieved much in rebuilding the state in a more democratic way (for example, five consecutive free and fair elections). Given its history of polarisation and racism, violent political conflict, and extreme antidemocratic tendencies, it would seem that 21 years on the country’s democratic performance has thus far surpassed expectations.


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