Political Animal


December 17, 2012 4:03 PM Bill Keller, South Africa, and Political Dysfunction

By Ryan Cooper

Bill Keller, recently retired executive editor of the New York Times, apparently lived in South Africa for a time as the local bureau chief. The framing device for his column today is what lessons new Arab democracies can learn from South Africa after 18 years of freedom:

I wish I could say the lessons from here are easy. But it is becoming clearer by the day that a glorious constitution carries you only so far if its values have not taken root in the culture.
So South Africa has an exquisite balance of powers on paper — but is, in effect, a one-party state, riddled with corruption. It has a serious independent judiciary — but is now contemplating loopholes to let tribal courts practice South Africa’s version of Shariah. This country was years ahead of the United States in recognizing the rights of homosexuals, including same-sex marriage — yet there is no openly gay leader in the ruling African National Congress, and lesbians have been targets of punitive rape and murder. It has a vibrant, diverse press — and a president who keeps trying to muzzle it.

I too lived in South Africa, from 2009-11, and I witnessed much of what Keller describes. But his bullet-pointed suggestions are aggressively banal. Write a good constitution, he says, peace before justice, activist judges aren’t so bad unless they are, etc. All this is compounded with a Brooksian tendency to passive-aggressively blame the masses. The liberal values of South Africa’s constitution “have not taken root,” new democracies should “make citizens” as South Africa failed to.

The current tottering of the South African state bears eerie similarity to what happened across the continent after the end of colonialism. First, a charismatic leader would lead a liberation movement and take power on the strength of having shoved out the European oppressor. Next would come political repression, galloping corruption, and megalomaniacal excess. The country’s economy would stagnate and spiral down, and then the coups would start.

South Africa has been following this quite closely, especially starting after the world-historical presidency of Nelson Mandela (who was probably the only reason the country isn’t now like Zimbabwe). That kind of a pattern suggests that there are deeper forces at work than “values” failing to “take root.”

That force is a lack of political competition, and it is the number one problem with South Africa. The African National Congress has won every election with over 60 percent of the vote, and the lack of electoral consequences for failure hasn’t done wonders for their moral discipline. So I’d add one bullet to Keller’s list: foster political competition for its own sake.

This is, incidentally, one reason why the projections of a permanent Democratic majority are troubling. The system needs loyal opposition to keep the parties honest, and lately the Republican party has been overtaken with a messianic apocalypticism and doesn’t seem very interested in competing on the electoral turf as it exists today. Instead they hatch plots to rig the system in their favor:

Republicans alarmed at the apparent challenges they face in winning the White House are preparing an all-out assault on the Electoral College system in critical states, an initiative that would significantly ease the party’s path to the Oval Office.
Senior Republicans say they will try to leverage their party’s majorities in Democratic-leaning states in an effort to end the winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes. Instead, bills that will be introduced in several Democratic states would award electoral votes on a proportional basis.

And in the process, they totally destroy their reputation among core Democratic constituencies, who rightly perceive that they are being deliberately disenfranchised. Let’s hope they figure out soon that this is a losing strategy, for everyone’s sake. South Africa is an example of where that road ends.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • c u n d gulag on December 17, 2012 6:21 PM:

    I have a confession to make.
    I HAVE voted FOR Republicans in the past.
    Back, when they still had some sanity.
    Hamilton Fish's, father and son, did a pretty good job for our district for decades, and the Democrats usually ran some lame candidate, knowing he/she was a sacrificial victim.
    I voted for Jacob Javits, who was a distinguished, and great, (Rockefellr) Republican Senator from, and for, New York.
    I even voted for the odious Al D'Amato for Senator in his reelection year, because the Attorney General, a Democrat, running against him was a corrupt, stupid, and evil douchebag.

    Having said that, I wouldn't vote for a modern Republican if they held a gun to my head. I'd tell them, "Shoot me now. It'll be faster."

    And of course they need to game the system, or cheat, because their morally and ethically bankrupt philisophy doesn't sell, except to old white male and some old white female buyers.

    And, I can definitely see the possibility, like they can, where the Democrats get more national votes, just like they did in last months House races, and still lose an Electoral College based on Congressional Districts - whether that's in some of the states, or all of them.

    And that is why we need to get rid of the Electoral College in any form, and determine the Presidential elections based on total NATIONAL votes.

  • Donald Ball on December 17, 2012 6:51 PM:

    South Africa is a bit of an odd example, having a government with radically limited control over its monetary policy.

  • Rick B on December 17, 2012 7:45 PM:

    @C U N D, like you I have voted for Republicans. I voted for Nixon in 1968 because I was an Army Captain on active duty in Germany and I voted absentee because I understood that Vietnam was not a war that was of any importance to America. There was no payoff. Nixon lied, and I returned to Texas where the Republican Party at that time consisted of people who were either members of the KKK or left over Goldwaterites, with a few American Nazi Party members to spice things up. All in all a better crew than today with dominionists added in to bring down the tone of the party. The radical militia members just use the Republican Party as a place to feel at home when they aren't playing soldier in the woods. They are all white and all crazy as everything.

    I know a number of Republicans I like, but they don't bother to run for office. Today the Republican Party is the party of out-and-out crazies.

    What has happened is that the sane politicians have banded together to fight the crazies. Nationally it appears to be working, and frankly I expect a Democratic Governor in Texas by 2020. But the Democrats here are not very unified.

    Essentially we have the liberal/progressive Democrats working with the conservative but sane Democrats. They can't win separately - yet. But they are all opposing the crazies, and until Karl Rove roped in the Dominionists in 1994 they were very often winning.

    Ryan there will be no "permanent Democratic majority." When the Republicans self-destruct there will be two branches of the Democratic party battling for state control. That's part of what Will Rogers meant when he said " I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat."

  • John on December 17, 2012 10:13 PM:

    I'll start worrying about one-party Democratic rule the next time Democrats hold all three elected branches of government for more than two years at a time. They haven't managed to do that in any election in my lifetime.

  • cmdicely on December 18, 2012 1:50 PM:

    This is, incidentally, one reason why the projections of a permanent Democratic majority are troubling.

    Projections of a permanent Democratic majority being taken seriously are troubling because they demonstrate a deep ignorance on the part of both projectors and acceptors of the way the American political system works. There would have been a lot more excuse -- both in terms of dearth of historical precedent showing why transitory dominance would not remain permanent, and in terms of the magnitude of the transitory dominance of the then-dominant party party -- to project a permanent Democratic-Republican majority with the complete collapse of the Federalists after the War of 1812, but that "permanent" dominance lasted little more than a decade.

    The U.S. has plenty of alternative parties, and if the Republican Party falters as a major party for a moment (which, incidentally, it hasn't really yet; while it can't gain the support of a majority of the electorate for either House of Congress or the Presidency, it still retains a sizable presence in the Senate and a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, and competitive-if-unsuccessful in the last two Presidential elections), it will either find a way to realign back into an effective major party or opposition to the dominant Republican Party will coalesce around one of the alternative parties.

    The Democratic-Republicans couldn't -- with much greater dominance than the Democrats have now and a system with fewer safeguards against a dominant party institutionalizing control of the entire system through patronage -- secure a permanent majority, and the Democrats won't be able to, either. Projections to the contrary are based either on ignorance or scaremongering.

    Institutionally and politically, the situation in the U.S. is pretty much nothing like Africa in the wake of decolonialisation, or any of the particular African states struggling to establish effective democratic traditions in the wake of revolution against a local dictatorship.

  • Ted Frier on December 18, 2012 4:55 PM:

    Nice job and right about political competition. It is why I went to work for the Massachusetts Republican Party back in 1989 at a time when Democrats controlled all constitutional offices and 85% of the state legislature. As a reporter who covered the State House even Democrats told me this was not a healthy situation. Two party government keeps everyone honest. I know work against Republicans but that is because they're nuts or victims of "messianic apocalypticism."

  • Adrian Lesher on December 21, 2012 6:08 PM:

    Notably absent in the glib discussion of sub-Saharan African politics is any mention of the CIA-funded assassinations (e.g. Congo's Lumumba), corporate-sponsored corruption (Nigeria, and other oil-states, among others), and awful leaders simply installed by the US and other colonial powers (e.g. Mobutu). When you look at why things really happened the way they did in many sub-Saharan African situations, the taxonomy suggested by Keller and Cooper falls apart. Beyond that, it seems rather early to write off South Africa.

    Beyond this, the worries about the Democratic Party having a bit of power after the vandalism visited on the country by the right seem highly overwrought.