Apartheid and democracy. Part 1

Apartheid SA as a democracy

Tuesday 29 August 2017


This is the promised blog post for the two students who asked me this morning whether or not “apartheid SA was a democracy”.


“Was apartheid SA a democracy?”

I would say obviously not, but it does depend on what you mean by “democracy”.

“Democracy” is a contested concept: people argue over what it means, and their competing definitions are not just based on reason and evidence but also on value judgments and ideologies.

“Democracy” literally means something like “rule by the people”. That idea (direct popular rule) is not realized in any complex society. If you want to look at it in that way, there is a sense in which “nobody has a democracy”.

In practice, so-called “democracies” have been (at best) “representative democracies” in which citizens vote periodically for a political elite that then governs on their behalf. This can work quite well. (There is a lot of evidence for this usually being a better option than the alternatives.)

But scholars – and ordinary people – have also expected more from “a democracy”.

Political scientists typically argue that beyond elections, a democracy should have some additional attributes, such as:

  • Elections that are regular and competitive, and that result in changes to the occupants of legislatures or executive offices (for example the presidency)
  • Elections that are “free and fair” (a variety of requirements flow from this)
  • Constitutional (and real) protections of certain key human rights (freedom of speech, press freedom, freedom of association) – this is what makes for a “liberal democracy”
  • A political system that permits “participation” (or perhaps “pluralism”) so that citizens can express their preferences between elections concerning particular issues and ideas that matter to them, regardless of how they vote


Was apartheid a democracy on these terms?


Why not?

  • After 1910 most (eventually all) black people were excluded from voting
  • Opposition parties were banned, quite widely after 1960
  • There was institutionalised racial segregation that denied fundamental human and political rights, including the rights needed for democracy to exist
  • Bantustans were created as “mini-states” in an attempt to deny Africans’ political rights inside SA by granting them fake rights in fake countries (this project was never legitimate under international law)
  • Freedom of association and speech was suppressed
  • A whole lot of other conditions for democracy were absent: there was detention without trial, state sponsored violence, and many other anti-democratic interventions.


Why do some scholars argue that SA was a “qualified” democracy?

After 1910, SA had competitive “white elections” that resulted in changes in government.

These elections had important political consequences. Most of them were very negative.

White voters sometimes obstructed moves towards reform that business and governmental elites might have favoured.

In addition, between 1910 and 1994, many white South Africans accepted the myth that SA was a democracy, and this was reinforced by academic analysis and media coverage of SA’s elections. This helped to maintain the legitimacy of the regime in whites’ eyes, and so served as a brake on political reform.

Up to the 1960s it was relatively easy to pretend that SA was democratic, because there were so few democracies globally, and many other so-called democracies also denied the vote to a majority of their inhabitants (specifically women, non-citizens, people who had been imprisoned, citizens deliberately disenfranchised by literacy and other requirements for registration, etc.).

And even after 1960, apartheid propagandists excused the white franchise in SA on the (false) grounds that Africans would soon enjoy political self-determination in the Bantustans.

I explored the argument that apartheid SA was a kind of democracy in a book Democracy and Apartheid that I wrote in 1996 and 1997, in the aftermath of the 1994 election (Macmillan 1998).

This book was a critique of the triumphalism about liberal democracy and capitalism that prevailed in political science at the time, expressed most famously in an article about “the end of history” by Fukuyama (1989). Fukuyama’s writing reflected a wider presumption that there was a global trend towards both market-based economies and liberal representative democracy.

South Africa “transition to democracy” was viewed in just this light by most of its international analysts.

It is important to situate the argument of my book in this context, and also to read the book in its entirety. The use of selective quotations can easily open the way to misunderstandings (as I discovered this morning from one student).

What the book does NOT argue is the following:

(A) “Democracy is good”

(B) “Apartheid was a democracy”

Therefore (A) plus (B)

(C) “Apartheid was good”


In the next blog post, I will explore whether or not democracy is (always) good.


Anthony Butler

29 August 2017

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