The Path of the Past

South African Democracy Twenty Years On
Professor Steven Friedman – Director. Centre for the Study of Democracy, Rhodes University and University of Johannesburg

Douglass North would have had no trouble understanding that the key issue in this year's election is whether it can strengthen the patterns of the past two decades which have cemented democracy's form – and begin to change those which have denied many South Africans its substance.
North, a Nobel Prize-winning economic historian, came up with the idea of ‘path dependency' to describe the way the patterns of the past tend to shape the future.(1) His point was that the institutions which became entrenched in societies could retain a stubborn hold, even when society seemed to have experienced great changes. This is in many ways a useful way of understanding South Africa's first two decades of democracy.

The Contours of Path Dependency
To say this is not to claim, as many now do, that ‘nothing has changed' since 1994. Much has changed. Most South Africans are no longer subject to crippling burdens imposed on them because of their race – the days when most adults spent time in prison simply because they had neglected to carry their ‘pass' allowing them into the cities(2) are over. The ‘black middle class', which some apartheid strategists hoped would develop a stake in white domination, emerged when minority rule ended. Millions now receive social grants,(3) and significant progress has been made in extending basic services.(4) But path dependency remains a core element of the South African reality, because it is becoming increasingly clear that the ‘democratic breakthrough' of 1994 did not fundamentally change the patterns of the past – it simply absorbed a section of the black majority into the institutions which existed then and the elites which dominated them.

One of the key features of the new South Africa is the collective bargaining system, a subject of heated controversy, as employers claim that excessive union rights have created ‘inflexible labour markets'. But the system is, in essence, the 1924 Industrial Conciliation Act extended to include black workers. While workers do enjoy more rights now, the contours of the system have remained much the same over 90 years.(5)Similarly, competitive elections have been institutionalised in the post-apartheid era – despite grumbles that ‘voting changes nothing', the principle that governments will continue to be elected in regular multi-party contests is under no serious threat and has become an accepted feature of political life. This is no small achievement in a deeply divided society scarred by deep inequalities – yet it continues an unbroken pattern which dates to at least 1910 when the (white) South African state was formed. Regular elections have always been a feature of South African politics – the key change in 1994 was that everyone could participate.

These two examples may show how path dependency can work in democracy's favour: if democratic institutions are created for a minority, they may be more likely to endure when everyone takes part in them. But some of its other consequences are not nearly as benign. The most obvious example is poverty and inequality. As suggested earlier, the 2011 census, the most recent source of data, finds that significant progress has been made in access to services. But income inequality has not changed dramatically since 1994(6)- and it still bears a racial tinge: white incomes have increased faster than those of other races since democracy's advent.(7) In 2010, according to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, black South African investors owned only 18% of the available share capital in the top 100 listed companies.(8) By 2009, the percentage of black professionals in accounting, engineering and law remained at 12%, 24% and 21% respectively.(9) So the life chances of the majority are improving, but the hierarchies of the past remain, albeit in a slightly different racial form.

There are similar patterns in access to democratic citizenship and responsive government. In the suburbs, a democracy exists so vigorous in its denunciation of government that it has become difficult to say anything positive about it without risking ridicule or abuse.(10) But in the townships and shack settlements, local power holders seek to retain a monopoly, partly by using force against independent voices which challenge them – the experience of the shack dweller movement Abahlali basemjondolo, which faced severe violence after challenging the authority of the local council in the Durban area,(11) is only one example. This pattern is also part of another path-dependent feature of post-apartheid democracy. While previous elections have, by common consent, been free and fair (at least in the sense that the losers accept the results), they have not been very competitive –voting districts tend to be dominated by single parties whose opponents have conceded their territory to them. (12) This pattern was partly disturbed in the 2009 election by the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope), which challenged the ANC in its areas of dominance. But, this exception aside, the political landscape has been an archipelago of political fiefdoms in which allegiance strongly corresponds to race and other ascriptive identities.

Finally, despite the fact that the suburbs are the electoral fiefdom of the opposition, they enjoy higher standards of municipal government efficiency and greater responsiveness because, in any democratic society, resources, organisation and the confidence needed to hold officials to account usually translate into influence, regardless of electoral outcomes. To those who know South African political history, these features of the landscape should sound familiar – they are much the same as those which prevailed before 1994. Then too, some prospered at the expense of the many, the suburbs were much better governed than the townships, and a minority enjoyed the right to speak (and vote) which the majority was denied. For all the real gains made over the past two decades, the country has not embarked on a fundamentally new path. In some ways, this is an asset because institutions which operated then for the few have been broadened (electoral democracy chief among them). But the persistence of patterns of social and economic domination threaten the society.

Thus another form of path dependency is the degree to which citizens continue to use street demonstrations to express themselves: while much media reportage and commentary tend to assume that protest is a new phenomenon, it has been an almost constant reality since 1976, when the Soweto uprising began – only in the mid-1990s, in the first flush of democratic enthusiasm, did protest briefly subside.(13) Protest is a democratic right and there is evidence that protestors are usually the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence(14) – so demonstrations cannot be seen as severe threats to social order. But where citizens feel they have a voice, protest is employed only as a last resort: the fact that it has become a regular feature of public life suggests that many citizens do not believe that they have other ways of making themselves heard. Since most protests remain bottled up in areas where the affluent (and the media) do not go, they have limited effect on the society. They are also unlikely to have much influence on the election. Protest leaders in some areas have successfully organised boycotts of voter registration,(15) but this did not prevent the IEC reaching its target of registering 1,25m new voters.(16) Many of the protests are not aimed at the ANC – they are often organised by ANC politicians seeking to enhance their influence within the organisation.(17) There is, therefore, no necessary reason why the protesters should vote against the ANC. For some years, it has been regularly predicted that protests would be followed by a significant election stay-away by ANC supporters.(18) The predictions have been inaccurate, partly because protesters often see no contradiction between campaigning against an ANC mayor and supporting the party at the polls.

Path dependency has had a more damaging influence in the formal workplace: the patterns mentioned here are also a key cause of labour conflict, epitomised by the Marikana shootings of 2012. It is now widely agreed that worker indebtedness is a key reason(19) – and this in turn is prompted both by a desire to buy consumer goods which, in an unequal society, confer status(20) and by a need to feed unemployed dependants.(21)
Unauthorised strike action on the mines, the rise of the Amalgamated Mining and Construction Union (Amcu), a rival to Cosatu's National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and tensions within Cosatu all suggest that a significant section of union membership is rebelling against a leadership which they believe has failed to protect them from the wage pressures they face. A persuasive analysis thus argues that the bargaining system is facing severe pressure from pre-1994 patterns which it is struggling to manage.(22) Much the same might be said about the society. Tensions between government and business,(23) which hamper economic progress, industrial conflict, and a national debate marked by angry yelling rather than a search for common ground, all testify to the unresolved tensions which are the legacy of path dependency. The racial features of the conflict are never far from the surface, even if an assertive black professional class is also eager to yell at the ANC government – black business people and professionals recently phoned in to a radio station to say that experiences at white-run workplaces have convinced them that they will not vote for the governing party if it appoints a white person as a provincial premier;(24) a public commentator observes that the political majority remain a cultural minority.(25) That much public commentary which claims to ‘speak truth to power' is an attempt to defend the racial hierarchy of the past is evident when a commentator insists that corruption under apartheid was ‘incidental', while under majority rule it is ‘systemic',(26) or when a journalist, in an article portraying a white constitutional court judge as a moral antidote to a black state president, declares that growing up as a white person in poverty under apartheid meant that he had ‘endured much the same hardship and discrimination as the most unfortunate of his compatriots',(27) so delegitimising the moral critique of legislated black subordination under apartheid. All this suggests that the racial hierarchies of the past are still alive, despite two decades of political change.
South Africa faces a twin challenge – to retain those aspects of path dependency which strengthen democracy (of which multi-party elections are the most obvious) and to begin dismantling those which threaten it. It is in this context that the country nears the 2014 election. The links between the impending ballot and the points made here may not be immediately apparent, but there is a direct connection. While the election's capacity to change the society's direction has been exaggerated, it will test the degree to which the beneficial aspects of path dependency can be maintained – and could begin a process in which some of its corrosive effects are addressed and a new, more sustainable, path emerges.

Free and Fair? Elections Under Pressure

One implication of this analysis is that, while regular elections are now routine, the commitment of the parties to free and fair elections is yet to be fully tested.
It is one thing to hold regular elections when the result is not in doubt, quite another when the outcome could determine who holds power. While whites enjoyed regular elections from 1910, power changed hands at the ballot box only twice – in 1924 and 1948. After that, the white electoral system was never tested. Since 1994, of course, there has been no change of power at the national level and so no test of the system. It is at least possible that, if elections become far more competitive, the integrity of the electoral process will be tested. The background presented here suggests that, if parties' hold over their bastions or their constituencies is threatened, elections might turn out not to have been institutionalised at all. There are expectations that the 2014 election may provide such a test.

First, the election is expected to be more competitive than any of its predecessors. Second, it has been suggested that its integrity is under threat. On the first score, the governing party faces a greater challenge than in the past. ANC documents acknowledge dissatisfaction within its voter base,(28) and it also enters the campaign with a key sources of election-time organisation, the Congress of SA Trade Unions, at war with itself;(29) another, the ANC Youth League, has been deprived of much of its organisation by the dissolution of branches and regions.(30) The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, is actively campaigning in traditional ANC areas and the Economic Freedom Fighters are seen by commentators as a threat to its electoral base. On the second, allegations of irregularities in municipal elections in Tlokwe, North West Province,(31) have raised the first serious doubts about the integrity of the Independent Electoral Commission. Allegations of financial impropriety levelled at the head of the IEC, Pansy Tlakula, have prompted one party leader, Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Front, to claim that elections will be rigged.(32)
Both the expectation of intense competition and of electoral irregularity seem exaggerated. The leader of the Opposition, Helen Zille, has scaled down her party's initial target of 30% and has predicted that the ANC will win 60%, only a few percentage points less than its current vote.(33) This is consistent with a trend visible in many municipal by-elections – that the ANC remains fairly secure in its traditional strongholds and that the threat to its hold on office is very limited. A very different picture might be evident in 2019 if the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) decides to form a left-wing worker's party to challenge the ANC. In December, Numsa announced that it would no longer campaign for the ANC and that it would be considering a range of options, including a new party.(34) This decision will have only a marginal effect on the current election. While Cosatu's support is crucial to the ANC and Numsa is currently its biggest union, Numsa has left it to its members to decide who to vote for and will thus not be campaigning against the ANC. But, if it forms the party some time after this election, it could fundamentally change the electoral power balance. If the ANC does get a little over 60% in this election, it may be realistic to assume that it will experience a further drop in 2019: a workers' party would then need only around 10% to deprive the ANC of a majority. Local elections in Tlokwe have confirmed a key principle of South African party politics – that the chief threat to the ANC's hold on national government is a split in its own ranks rather than a growth in the support of current opposition parties.(35) The Numsa-initiated party could become that split, in which case, electoral democracy will face its litmus test.

For this election, the fact that the DA is campaigning in traditional ANC areas – and the EFF is seeking support from ANC voters – does destabilise some traditional party fiefdoms and has led to clashes on university campuses.(36) But the 2009 election prompted similar fears, both because the ANC was encroaching on IFP territory and Cope was encroaching on ANC territory: in the event, the conflict was largely contained.(37) Fears of electoral irregularity are based on one incident which was rapidly detected: nor is it clear how Tlakula's financial dealings compromise the fairness of the electoral process. The Electoral Commission allows direct participation by the parties – as long as this remains so, irregularities will be checked by the surveillance of the aggrieved party.

An allied concern is that enhanced electoral competition and the concomitant threat to the ANC will prompt an assault on another beneficial feature of path dependency: the civil liberties enjoyed in great measure by the suburbs and to a lesser degree by everyone else.(38) While complacency in the face of threat is dangerous for democracies, for now at least, this concern seems have more to do with a largely ignored South African phobia than reality. Almost three decades ago, the liberal scholar David Welsh pointed to the similarities between attitudes to the poor in 19th century Britain and mainstream white attitudes to black people here:(39) the dominated group is seen as dangerous and to be biding its time before engaging in savage acts of retribution – the nightmare of the black uprising which despoils that which is valued by the property owners of the suburbs lurks beneath the surface. There is some evidence that this attitude remains prevalent and that, in a particularly poignant example of path dependency, it has been embraced by many middle-class black people – how else can one explain the tendency to bestow mythical powers on politicians who appear eager to lead the uprising such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Julius Malema?

It is only a small jump from this to the notion of the ANC, often seen as the embodiment of the threat, as a wrecker of constitutional democracy when backed into a corner. And yet there is no evidence to support this claim – at least in the suburbs. Perhaps the best evidence was the Public Protector's report on the presidential homestead in Nkandla – while it was directed at senior ANC figures, including the president, the senior leadership of the ANC not only refrained from attacking the office (rather than the report) but rebuked its youth and student wings for doing so.(40) This probably has less to do with democratic principle than political calculation – a sense by ANC leaders that the costs of acting would sharply outweigh the benefits. This makes the prospect of a lapse into authoritarianism even more unlikely, because democratic attitudes are being retained because of interest calculations, not goodwill. In the townships and shack settlements, pressures to conform will continue, but they do not seem to have been effective enough to prevent the ANC losing municipal by-elections at Nkandla and Marikana.(41)

That said, it does seem obvious that, the more competitive electoral politics become, the more will the commitment to fair electoral contest be tested. The 2014 election is unlikely to be a seismic event. But it will be more competitive than its predecessors and so will further test the degree to which free electoral competition has become ingrained in the post-1994 society.

A New Path? The Election and Inequality

In the second half of 2013, the country's most popular Sunday newspaper published an ‘exposé' on its front page: it had found an ANC circular to its members of parliament telling them to ensure that they spent the months before the election passing laws which would be popular among voters. Legislation, it said, must make the ANC ‘look good' and seven draft laws were identified as ‘necessary for election'.(42)

On one level, the breathless report, which conveyed the sense that the circular was a minor scandal, was laughable – parties are, after all, meant to appeal to voters. On another, it was a significant departure, for this seems to be the first time the ANC has made such an appeal to its legislators. This suggests that it is more concerned now than ever before with the need to retain support and that it believes that the best way to do this is to show voters it is looking after their interests (while this last point may appear obvious, embattled governing parties could just as easily respond by whipping up fear of their opponents – the ANC has done a little of this(43) but in the main its response has been to try to show voters it is serving them).

If this attitude persists, it has two implications. First, it is likely to prompt increased ANC attention to the responsiveness of government, particularly in the areas in which ANC voters live. Thus, in a possible straw in the wind, the ANC reacted swiftly to demonstrations in Madibeng (Brits) by forcing senior elected officials to resign(44) and placing the council under administration.(45) The speed of the response was highly unusual and suggested a new sensitivity to voter sentiment. This could have an important impact on the quality of government. While it is common to insist that the government provides inadequate service to citizens because it lacks technical capacity, the evidence suggests that the key problem is inadequate accountability. The National Treasury is often regarded as the most technically proficient government department: this is so because it is held accountable by the market if not by citizens. It seems reasonable to assume that, if other departments face equally strong pressures to account, they would be equally competent. If the ANC feels under pressure to retain citizen support, this is very likely to ensure more effective governance for the grassroots poor in particular.

Second, ANC documents suggest that it believes that a key reason for citizen alienation is that not enough has been done to address poverty and inequality.(46) A strategy to retain support would then translate into an enhanced attempt to address inequities. But it knows too that sustainable changes to the economic patterns of the past cannot be imposed –the co-operation or at least compliance of the owners of capital is essential if the country is to continue generating enough wealth to address the demands of redistribution. This is why its mid-2012 ‘Second Transition' document, which sought to address these issues, is long on redistributive rhetoric but very short on proposals – the only one which alarmed business, an apparent promise to dilute the independence of the Reserve Bank, was quickly disavowed by ANC leadership.(47) This suggests that the ANC knows that change must be negotiated with economic power-holders.

But, while the ANC has talked over the past two decades of the need to address poverty and inequality, it has made no serious attempt yet to negotiate a new economic path. Complaining that current patterns are unsustainable is not negotiation. To negotiate, the ANC would need to spell out what it expects of businesses (or other parties) and what it will give in return. If electoral pressures really are compelling it to address these issues more seriously, we would expect it to begin spelling out a negotiation position. This is precisely what the economic section of its election manifesto(48) does: it contains a set of proposals for change and proposed concessions to business concerns in exchange. The 2014 budget speech(49) does much the same, albeit in a more subtle way. This suggests that current electoral dynamics have impelled the ANC for the first time into facing the challenge of negotiating a different economic path.

Conclusion: The Pressure for Change

Whether the two intentions discussed here will survive the election depends partly on the result. If the ANC does not lose much ground, its leadership may conclude that the problems which push them in a new direction were overstated. That would take much of the urgency out of attempts to begin moving away from path dependency in governance and in the economy. But the loss of several percentage points could prompt it to continue these efforts in the period after May 7.

Even if it does lapse into complacency, however, this is unlikely to last long. The pressures which prompted it to adopt its current stance are unlikely to abate – if Numsa forms a party, they could well increase. And even if Numsa does not launch a party, it seems only a matter of time before the ANC faces either a challenge from within the labour movement or another split which will imperil its majority.

None of this may come to a head this election. But this ballot will offer some sense of whether the beneficial aspects of path dependency will survive and those which are damaging will begin to face a challenge. These two issues remain at the heart of South Africa's difficult quest to build a democracy. The issue is not whether they will be tested, but when.


(1) Douglass C North Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990
(2) See for example Nigel Worden The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, apartheid, democracy (5th edition) Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
(3) Servaas van der Berg and Krige Siebrits ‘Social assistance reform during a period of fiscal stress', Working Papers 17/2010, Stellenbosch University, Department of Economics, 2010.
(4) Trevor Manuel ‘Proof of how much we have done — and must still do' Business Day October 21 2012
(5) I am grateful to Sakhela Buhlungu, Dean of Humanities, University of Cape Town, for this observation
(6) Manuel ‘Proof of how much we have done'
(7) Haroon Bhorat, Carlene van der Westhuizen and Tougheda Jacobs Income and Non-Income Inequality in Post-Apartheid South Africa: What are the Drivers and Possible Policy Interventions? Development Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town, DPRU Working Paper 09/138 August 2009, p.4
(8) JSE Presents Findings on Black Ownership on the JSE September 2, 2010
(9) Development Network Africa Professional Services in South Africa: Accounting, Engineering and Law 25 January 2009
(10) Steven Friedman ‘Identity Crisis: Electoral Dominance, Identity Politics and South African Democracy' (forthcoming)
(11) See for example Abahlali baseMjondolo The Attack on AbM in Kennedy Road
(12) Friedman ‘Identity Crisis'
(13) See for example Jerry Lavery ‘Protest and Political Participation in South Africa: Time Trends and Characteristics of Protesters' Afrobarometer Briefing Papers 102 May 2012
(14) Peter Alexander, Carin Runciman and Trevor Ngwane Growing civil unrest shows yearning for accountability Business Day 7 March 2014
(15) Abongile Mgaqelwa and Sipho Ntshobane ‘Voter registration boycott' Dispatch Online
(16) Independent Electoral Commission ‘Outcome of Final Registration Weekend' 11 February 2014
(17) Karl Von Holdt, Malose Langa, Sepetla Molapo, Nomfundo Mogapi, Kindi Ngubeni, Jacob Dlamini and Adele Kirsten The Smoke That Calls: Insurgent Citizenship, Collective Violence and the Search for a Place in the New South Africa Johannesburg, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Society, Work and Development Institute, July 2011
(17) Susan Booysen (ed) Local Elections in South Africa: Parties, People, Politics Bloemfontein, SUN media, 2012, p.99
(19) SARB: Unsecured lending on the rise' Fin24 28 June 2013
(20) SA Press Association (Sapa) ‘More TVs than Fridges in SA Homes' IOL News October 30 2012
(21) Reuters ‘Mine Strike to Drive Up Platinum Prices' Eye Witness News 18 February 2014
(22) Edward Webster ‘The promise and the possibility: South Africa's contested industrial relations path' Transformation 81/82 (2013)
(23) Chris Barron ‘Why business and the ANC fell out of love' Business Day March 30, 2014
(24) Kaya FM Today with John Perlman Podcast ‘How Important is the Race of a Candidate in Making your Political Choice?' March 17, 2014
(25) White people remain a cultural majority. And it is their world view that continues to dominate the shaping of social and economic relations'. Aubrey Matshiqi ‘Why Manuel is right and wrong about Manyi's “racism”' Business Day 8 March 2011
(26) John Kane-Berman ‘ANC corruption is systemic, unlike Nats' incidental version' Business Day March 24, 2014
(27) John Carlin ‘Judge shows why constitution is about morals not ceremony' Business Day March 28 2014
(28) African National Congress Organisational renewal: Building the ANC as a movement for transformation and a strategic centre of power A discussion document towards the National Policy Conference Version 9, released on 10th April 2012, p.9
(29) Natasha Marrian ‘Vavi court case lays bare divisions among Cosatu leadership' Business Day 28 March 2014
(30) Setumo Stone ‘Four provincial ANC Youth League branches get the chop' Business Day 10 June 2013
(31) Setumo Stone ‘IEC ‘irregularities' could taint Tlokwe by-elections' Business Day 13 September 2013
(32) Fiona Forde ‘ANC Plotting to Rig Elections: Holomisa' IOL News 2 March 2014
(33) Natasha Marrian ‘Modest Zille puts ANC share of votes at 60%' Business Day 17 February 2014
(34) National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) 2013 Numsa Special National Congress December 17 to 20, 2013 Declaration, Johannesburg: Numsa; Terry Bell ‘Numsa, Political Parties and socialism' Terry Bell Writes
(35) After an internal split, the ANC vote in the North-West province municipality of Tlokwe dropped by up to 40 percentage points in some wards ‘ANC Loses Support in Five of its Wards' The Witness 20 September 2013
(36) Poloko Tau ‘Police watch Turfloop campus after clashes over SRC seats' City Press 11 October 2013
(37) Reports of Electoral Monitoring Network in author's possession
(38) Remarks by civil society activist, Centre for the Study of Democracy workshop, 18 March, 2014
(39) David Welsh “Democratic liberalism and theories of race stratification' in Jeffrey Butler, Jeffrey, Richard Elphick and David Welsh (eds). 1987. Democratic Liberalism in South Africa. Cape Town: David Philip
(40) Jackson Mthembu ‘ANC Statement on Remarks of ANCYL and Cosas on the Public Protector' 24 March 2014
(41) ‘ANC loses Nkandla by-election' News24 6 December 2012; Setumo Stone ‘ANC loses ward near Marikana in by-election' Business Day 8 November 2012
(42) Sam Mkokeli and Thabo Mokone ‘Exposed: The ANC's secret election Plan' Sunday Times 22 September 2013
(43) SA Press Association (Sapa) ‘Ramaphosa warns against return of “boers” ‘ Mail and Guardian 11 November 2013
(44) Zain Ebrahim ‘Madibeng mayor resigns after Mothotlung mess' Mail and Guardian 21 January 2014
(45) Madibeng municipality put under administration' City Press 11 February 2014
(46) African National Congress The Second Transition? Building a national democratic society and the balance of forces in 2012 A discussion document towards the National Policy Conference, Version 7.0 as amended by the Special NEC 27 February 2012
(47) ‘ANC denies it plans changes to Reserve Bank' Moneyweb 5 March 2012
(48) African National Congress Together We Move South Africa Forward: 2014 Election Manifesto pp.19-22
(49) SA Government 2014 Budget Speech Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan 26 February 2014