Myth of the Rainbow Nation: Prospects for the Consolidation of Democracy in South Africa1

by Adam Habib
Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Durban-Westville

Published in African Security Review Vol 5 No 6, 1996


Metaphors are often used by the political élite as electioneering tools to capture the attention of the public. Their purpose is to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. They are thus often cloaked in an aura of patriotism that makes it difficult for critics to interrogate the metaphor and expose the political assumptions that underlie it. But metaphors are indeed founded on political assumptions, and these assumptions are often those of the political élite advancing a particular political project. This is no more true in South Africa, as it is elsewhere in the world. And it is equally true of the metaphor of the 'rainbow nation' that is now in vogue in the political vocabulary of South Africa's new political élite.

After being coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the metaphor of the 'rainbow nation' soon took on a life of its own. It has been adopted by top political figures, such as Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. It has been utilised by big business concerns to exhort the broader public to buy some or other commodity in the name of patriotism. It has been advocated by a range of organisations within civil society to advance a variety of political and socio-economic causes. It has been accepted by both the national and the foreign media as the descriptive label of the South African nation. And, it has beguiled the outside world into trumpeting the 'miracle' of the South African transition.

But this widespread acceptance of the rainbow metaphor often occurs without a true appreciation of its underlying political assumptions. The notion of the rainbow nation projects an image of different racial groups coming together and living in harmony. Two separate, but related, elements of this metaphor need to be extrapolated. Firstly, the focus on racial groups assumes that the predominant conflict in South Africa has been and is one of racial antagonism. Secondly, the harmonising appeal implies that the democratisation experiment, of which the high point has been the April 1994 elections, is in the process of consolidating itself. Both elements of this metaphor are open to criticism. As has so often been suggested, class variables are just as critical as issues concerning race in coming to an understanding of the nature of the South African conflict.2 The rainbow metaphor, by only focusing on race variables, is thus theoretically misleading. Moreover, the omission of class variables in the assumptions underlying the metaphor enables its advocates to remain sanguine about the prospects for consolidating democracy. In their view, the prospects should be measured in terms of the efforts of the Government of National Unity (GNU) to promote racial reconciliation. Very little, if any, attention is paid to the socio-economic and other variables that will impact on democratic consolidation in South Africa.3

There is an urgent need for such a holistic analysis on the prospects for consolidating democracy. Admittedly, this task is complicated by the relative recentness of the South African transition. Empiric data is not easily available to verify a conclusion. Moreover, the policies of the GNU have not been given sufficient time for definitive conclusions to be drawn. Nevertheless, to await the results of these policies, which may take years, is to invite disaster. By that time, conditions in the country could have disintegrated to the extent that democracy can longer be salvaged. It thus seems useful, if not necessary, for some provisional analysis to be made of the prospects for consolidating democracy in the country.


One way of approaching the discussion on the prospects of consolidating democracy in South Africa is to traverse the vast international literature that has emerged on democratic transitions. This rich source of information, with its large number of comparative studies, is a useful starting point, since it identifies the features that have been present in cases of successful democratic consolidation, and absent in cases where such attempts at consolidation have failed. It should be noted that this article does not focus on the important literature dealing with the appropriateness of particular constitutional designs,4 as the debate has not conclusively proved that a specific option is more appropriate for the consolidation of democracy than others. A variety of states, with different constitutional designs, have successfully consolidated democracy. It thus seems that the particular constitutional design is less relevant to the issue of consolidating democracy, than it is for facilitating compromise between the major political players in the negotiation forums.

Four studies are particularly useful in a discussion of the prospects of consolidating democracy in South Africa. The first of these is Dankwart Rustow's Transitions to Democracy: Towards a Dynamic Model, that suggests that the existence of a national identity among the vast majority of the citizens is an essential precondition for successful democratic consolidation. He also suggests that the consolidation of democracy – what he terms 'habituation' – is also facilitated by the success of the "first grand compromise ... [which should demonstrate] the efficacy of the principle of conciliation and accommodation."5

Although the former point might seem self-evident for any successful consolidation of democracy, it is important to state it boldly in the light of the controversy in the South African literature on whether people conceptualise their identities in ethnic, racial, class, or national terms. Moreover, it is absolutely essential that a national political identity is generated that subsumes narrower ethnic and racial identities, so that manipulating political figures are not able to exploit social and economic tensions within society to establish widely supported claims for secession. Failure to generate this national identity will leave the forces of democracy forever vulnerable to such political figures, and to the civil war that will undoubtedly result if any such secession is ever attempted.

It should also be noted that 'the success of the first grand compromise' can, in the final instant, only be determined in the medium term. A 'honeymoon' period is often granted to newly established democracies, in which the populace waits to see whether the new political system delivers on its promises. Thus, even if the grand compromise succeeds in terms of its acceptance by the élite, such success might become ephemeral if powerful social forces in civil society, such as the unemployed, organised workers, or a combination of these and others, come to the conclusion in the medium term, that the 'first compromise' has not facilitated the delivery of promises made to the wider populace. Such social forces may then embark on widespread extra-institutional action that could, but need not, lead elements within the GNU and the African National Congress (ANC) to adopt an authoritarian, repressive response that would ultimately threaten the fragile foundations of the democratic order.

This points to a second issue, particularly taken up by Adam Przeworski in Democracy and the Market, and Giuseppe Di Palma in To Craft Democracies: An Essay on Democratic Transitions. These scholars suggest that the essential trick involved in any successful consolidation of democracy is the ability to institutionalise conflict. Przeworski argues that this involves the establishment of institutions that offers the relevant political forces "a prospect of eventually advancing their interests that is sufficient to incite them to comply with immediately unfavorable outcomes."6 Di Palma emphasises the need to institutionalise rules that will convince all the players that their interests can prevail in a democratic order.7 Given this, Przeworski underlines the attractiveness of neo-corporatist decision-making arrangements for fledgling democratic governments.8

Despite their similar prescriptions, both scholars offer remarkably different hopes for the consolidation of current democratic experiments. While Di Palma argues that negotiated transitions can be a promising path to the consolidation of democracy, Przeworski suggests that such possibilities are slim under conditions that require major economic reform. In other words, for Przeworski, the institutionalisation of conflict is undermined by the poor economic circumstances of many transitional societies.

This raises a third issue, discussed in Samuel Huntington's The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Huntington's argument, very much in a modernist vein, suggests that economic development in the form of significant industrialisation creates the conditions for the transition to, and the consolidation of democracy.9 While the validity of the train of this argument is questionable – especially in the light of studies by Cardoso, O' Donnell and others, who have demonstrated that economic development is as easily compatible with authoritarian regimes as it is with democratic ones – Huntington's work, nevertheless, has the merit of pointing his readers to the fact that democratic consolidation is facilitated under conditions of an expanding economic system.

Such an expansion of the economy generates necessary surplus resources that could be used for redistribution, thereby legitimising the democratic process. The South African transition, like many others, occurs under conditions of heightened expectations. The populace expects the newly established democracy not only to protect its human rights and civil liberties, but also to uplift its material standard of living. Should the GNU and/or ANC fail to do so in any appreciable sense, a substantial demoralisation of the populace could take place, thereby undermining the support, and ultimately the social foundations of the democratic order. This could create the context for the aforementioned widespread extra-institutional action, and the attendant possibility of a repressive clamp-down by the newly elected regime.

Finally, a related but distinct problem that would have to be addressed in South Africa if the consolidation of democracy is to be realised, is the racial character of the economic system. Liberal commentators (and many Marxist ones) often seem to suggest that the prospects for the consolidation of democracy are higher in South Africa than in other societies, particularly because "democracy will not have to be accompanied by structural economic transformation to create a viable market order." In this view, all that is required is some degree of redistribution which "should not breed foundational resistance to democratization."10

Such a view, however, seems exceptionally naive. The racial character of the ownership structure of the South African economy has and will continue to be a stark reminder of apartheid and its inequities. In a country of historically heightened racial awareness among the populace, the transformation of the racial nature of ownership relations – that would involve a structural transformation – must be conceived as one of the significant goals of the democratic experiment. The failure of the newly established democratic regime to address this problem could make it the rallying cry of the many disaffected elements within the country. The long term consolidation of democracy in South Africa is thus dependent, in part, on the deracialisation of the economic system.

The model of democratic transitions suggested here, establishes a framework involving five dimensions on which assessments on the prospects for the consolidation of democracy in the country can be made. These five dimensions are:
  • the emergence of a national political consciousness in which the majority of citizens perceive their overall political identity in South African terms;

  • a perception among both the élite and the populace of the success of the GNU which represents the 'first grand compromise' of South Africa's transition;

  • the institutionalisation of conflict and a belief among the major political and socio-economic actors that institutions are structured to offer them an opportunity to advance their interests;

  • an expanding economic system within which resources are made available for redistribution, that would lead to an appreciable increase in the standard of living of the populace; and

  • a perception among the populace and certain significant social forces within civil society that the new regime is engaged in attempts to transform the racial character of ownership relations in the South African economy.
How has the GNU fared as it approaches the halfway mark of its first term in office? The GNU's success in fostering a national consciousness is clearly questionable. This might seem surprising to many who witness the high profile reconciliation initiatives of Nelson Mandela and the public euphoria that has emerged with the recent successes of South Africa's national teams in the sporting arena. But it needs to be understood that temporary national pride and celebrations are not an adequate gauge of public attitudes, and need not be incompatible with a lack of a South African identity. Indeed, a recent study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) suggests that, while identities are transforming in the new South Africa, this is not occurring in the direction of a national
consciousness.11 The table12 summarises the results of a 1995 survey on which the HSRC study was partly founded, and suggests that while there is some empirical evidence to suggest that a South Africa identity is increasing among Afrikaner whites, English-speaking whites, and Asians, there is a marked upsurge in ethnic identities among the coloured and African populations. Moreover, a close analysis of the electoral results in the national and local government elections suggest that the ANC's treatment of the Indian and Coloured communities as homogenous entities has been wholly inadequate in generating their support, and has paradoxically fostered a 'minority group' vote for the National Party (NP).13 In general, preliminary research suggests that the GNU has not made much progress to foster a national consciousness in South Africa.

With regards to perceptions of the success of the GNU, it can only be concluded that this constitutional compromise was a complete and utter failure. The decision of the NP to withdraw from the GNU with more than half of its term left, suggests an unravelling of the political settlement fashioned in the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum. Although Inkatha will remain in the GNU for the foreseeable future, it is doubtful whether this multi-party cabinet will remain in place for the full first five years of the transition. Moreover, the constituent assembly debates and the adoption of the finalised Constitution indicate that there is little support in the ANC for the continuance of the GNU. The success of the GNU is questionable at other levels as well. The gravy train phenomenon, widespread corruption, and an attitude of the senior leadership in the ANC to turn a blind eye to some of these disturbing developments, have provoked widespread cynicism in the country. Tensions have increased in the ruling party, as the never-ending cycle of dismissals of ministers from cabinet testifies.14 These developments do suggest that the 'first grand compromise' of the transition and the alliances that permitted it, are crumbling like a pack of cards as the contradictions of the constitutional settlement manifest themselves.




speaking Whites %

English-speaking Whites




 South African

The ANC's success in 'institutionalising conflict' is similarly questionable. Worker days lost in 1994 increased by 300 000 to 3,9 million days. While labour unrest declined in 1995 to 1,6 million worker days, indications are that it will dramatically increase in 1996.15 In the first quarter of this year, strike activity accounted for the loss of 175 000 worker days. This is higher than for the corresponding periods in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1995.16 Corporatist agreements have also been unable to stem the tide. In fact, the spontaneous strike in the Toyota plant in Durban in March 1996 indicated that workers are not prepared to allow national corporatist agreements to restrain them from flexing their muscle in support of local plant demands.17 Moreover, labour unrest is likely to rise as tensions increase between the GNU and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) over the cabinet's latest macro-economic programme. Conflict in other sectors has similarly increased. Almost all universities and technikons have experienced major disturbances in the course of 1995 and 1996. Squatter struggles have been on the rise since 1994, and in a number of notable cases, many ANC dominated regional governments were responsible for forcibly evicting squatters. The national picture is one of rising conflict, despite the ANC's attempts to institutionalise this through corporatist structures and processes.

While the economic performance of the GNU is more promising, its redistributive programme does not inspire much confidence. Real gross domestic product rose by 2,7 per cent in 1994, and 3,3 per cent in 1995, and a similar growth rate is expected in 1996.18 Nevertheless, this growth has not been translated into significant levels of redistribution that would lead to the conclusion that progress is made in uplifting the material standards of the black population. The economic growth over the last two years has essentially been a 'jobless one' with less than 50 000 people being employed during 1995. Given a labour force growth rate of about 2,6 per cent, overall rates of unemployment have increased since April 1994.19 Moreover, given an annual population growth of about 2,4 per cent, real per capita output is lower than the corresponding 1991 level, and is estimated to be 17,3 per cent below the 1981 peak.20

On the more positive side, the black population's share of personal income has increased since the 1970s, and this trend is likely to continue. A study conducted by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) estimates that, while the white population's proportion of personal income declined from 54 per cent to 51,7 per cent between 1990 and 1995, the share of the black population increased from 32,5 per cent to 34,1 per cent.21 But the more important gauge of the redistributive effect is the dispersal of this increased income within the black population. Two views currently prevail on the issue. Whiteford and McGrath, basing their analysis on the 1991 Population Census, suggest that the trend since the 1970s has been for this increased income to be directed towards the most affluent within the black population. They suggest that the bottom forty per cent of households saw a drop in their average real incomes during this period of more than forty per cent.22 These conclusions have been contested by the CDE study that suggests that the gains made by the black population in its share of personal income, have been more widely diffused.23 Given the lack of statistics for the post-1994 period, it is difficult to identify which trend is evident since the GNU took office. But there is a danger that the bulk of the black population's increased share of personal income since 1994 could have gone into the pockets of the most affluent sector within that community.

The dissatisfaction with the GNU's redistributive programme can also be underscored by the fact that very few of the Reconstruction and Development Programme's (RDP) targets have been met. For instance, the RDP committed the GNU to provide one million houses in five years. In the first eighteen months of the GNU's existence, a mere 10 600 state-funded houses were built, far less than that of Slovo's target of 125 000.24 Similar statistics could be cited for other areas of the RDP programme. It is thus difficult to contest the view that the RDP has been an utter failure. As Anton Haber maintains, "... South Africa's political leaders ... have become defensive because if you measure the success of the Government of National Unity in purely numerical terms – the number of houses built, the number of people who have access to free health care or portable water – then it scores disturbingly low."25 This redistributive record makes it difficult for anyone to argue that the GNU has succeeded in facilitating an appreciable increase in the standard of living of the poorest sectors of the black population.

Finally, progress in changing the racial character of ownership relations in the South African economy has also been lacking. To date, changes have revolved around a few high profile individuals and companies. A case in point is Nthato Motlana's New Africa Investments (NAIL), whose total assets by 1995 ranked it as number 100 on the list of the largest companies in South Africa.26 NAIL should be able to improve its ranking if it succeeds in winning the bid for Johnnic, an Anglo-American company with R4 billion in assets. Similarly, there have been a few other highly publicised acquisitions by black companies, most often in partnership with more established domestic and foreign companies. But this approach is hardly likely to make a dent in the racial character of ownership relations in South Africa. Part of the reason for this is the domination of the South African economy by a few large conglomerates. While the GNU has made some noises about unbundling, very few practical initiatives have been forthcoming in this regard. It thus seems as if ownership relations will only change marginally, unless more radical initiatives are introduced by the GNU to change the racial character of the South African economy.

On balance, any preliminary assessment of the success of the GNU to facilitate conditions for the consolidation of democracy leads to a profound pessimism. In all of the five dimensions identified above, the GNU's record has been lacklustre. Yet, comparative literature on transitions suggest that progress along these five dimensions is essential for the consolidation of democracy in South Africa. The prospects for democratic consolidation seem very bleak indeed.


What would explain these poor prospects for the consolidation of democracy? How is it that the euphoria of a mere two years ago has so easily been translated into the widespread demoralisation of the present? At the root of any explanation must lie the conflict in South Africa between the moderate policies facilitated by the distribution of capabilities and the minimum expectations of the black population. It has been argued that the distribution of capabilities facilitated a political settlement in which the ANC committed itself to a Government of National Unity with a conservative economic agenda.27 The GNU, reflecting and reinforcing this wider distribution of capabilities, enabled the NP to serve as a moderating influence on the ANC,28 especially during the first two years in which the post-apartheid regime established the policy parameters of its rule.

The NP did not have any veto powers in cabinet, but its mere presence and the wider distribution of capabilities served to inhibit the adoption of more radical policies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the economic arena. The rightward shift of economic policy during the last few years, coupled with administrative inefficiencies and the non-compliance of state bureaucrats,29 compromised the implementation of the RDP.30 Most of the significant targets of the RDP have not been met by the GNU. In fact, indications are that in areas such as the housing sector, the GNU is even less effective than the apartheid regime in addressing the material concerns of the poor. David Ginsburg, in a review of the GNU's performance, has suggested that its taxation policy, rather than being used as a lever for redistributing income, actually protects and enhances the incomes of the corporations and the very rich. It is thus difficult to deny his conclusion that the poor and "comparatively less well-off South Africans are paying to remedy the sins of apartheid, while those that were enriched largely by that same system are, in a relative sense, getting away scot free."31

This fact and the widely held public perception that the new government failed to deliver on even the minimum expectations of the black population, generated a large degree of uncertainty and unhappiness in the ranks of the ANC and the Congress Alliance. Confronted by these criticisms, the leadership diverted attention from its own policies by blaming its failures on the existence of the GNU and non-compliant state bureaucrats. In this sense, the existence of the GNU was a godsend to the ANC leadership. It provided them with a credible excuse to shift the blame in the explanation of their own failures. As a result of this, considerable opposition developed within ANC ranks against extending the GNU in the final Constitution that was to come into effect after 1999.32 The abandonment of the GNU was possible as a result of the change in the distribution of capabilities at the political level after 1994. The NP no longer had a veto over the negotiating process, because it no longer occupied the dominant position in Government. Moreover, it no longer held a monopoly over the organs of state repression.33 The ANC could thus jettison consensus democracy in favour of majoritarianism without immediately threatening the democratic transition.

Confronted with the ANC's decision to abandon the GNU after 1999, the NP began to reconsider its role and political options. Since 1994, critics within its own ranks had maintained that the NP's participation in the GNU prevented it from adopting a more adversarial oppositional stance to the ANC.34 Moreover, the NP's role as 'guarantor of capitalist interests' in the GNU increasingly became irrelevant, as the ANC committed itself to and implemented conservative economic policies. Given these developments, the NP reconsidered its participation in the GNU. A few days after the adoption of the finalised Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, the NP announced its decision to withdraw from the GNU on 30 June 1996. With this decision, the NP effectively destroyed the carefully crafted constitutional settlement of 1994.

The shift to majoritarianism did not herald the advent of more radical economic policies. While a change in the distribution of capabilities had permitted some shifts at the political level, it still constrained the ANC's room to manoeuvre at the economic level. This was not taken up by capital concerns that began to raise the stakes in early 1996. In February, the South Africa Foundation, an organisation representing the country's largest corporations, released a report that criticised the Government for adopting a piecemeal approach to market reform. Arguing that much of the economic recovery since 1994 was the result of post-election dividends and cyclical economic forces, the report suggested that this would peter out unless drastic and fundamental reforms were undertaken by the Government. Five such reforms were proposed.
  • Government was to take a tougher stance on crime by strengthening the police force and adopting a firmer approach against rent and service boycotts.

  • Government was to streamline expenditure and reduce its deficit to two per cent of GDP through cuts in social spending and the retrenchment of 150 000 civil servants over five years. Company and individual tax rates were also to be lowered and the tax system was to be simplified.

  • A three-phase privatisation programme was proposed that involved the sale of all of the Government's major commercial holdings and the privatisation of its pension fund.

  • A number of recommendations were made to create a flexible, two-tier labour market with extremely low labour standards and no minimum wage regulations.

  • In conjunction with the above, the report proposed lower tariffs and a devaluation of the rand as a means to expand the export of manufactured goods.35
This neo-liberal economic programme did not go unchallenged. By April 1996, COSATU, the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) and the Federation of Salaried Staff (FEDSAL) released their own report that accused business of undermining the national consensus on economic development, and of promoting economic apartheid that would inevitably generate social and political instability in the country. Taking as its aims the achievement of social equity and job creation, labour's report located itself within the developmentalist philosophy of the RDP base document. It is thus not surprising that the report has reiterated much of the proposals of the RDP. Advocating a programme to reduce the vast inequalities in the society, it proposed policies that facilitated the redistribution of wealth, the eradication of poverty, the promotion of worker rights, increased employment, human resource development, and the provision of basic infrastructure and services to all citizens.36 Such initiatives, it was believed, would advance the RDP and ensure in the words of an editorial in The African Communist, "... that the feelings, concerns and fears of the great majority of working people ... impact on economic policy-making."37

The Government's long awaited response to this economic debate emerged in June 1996 with the publication of its report, Growth, Employment and Redistribution: A Macroeconomic Strategy. Predictably, its approach was largely consistent with earlier interventions and with the central thrust of the South Africa Foundation report. Establishing targets of a 6,1 per cent growth rate and the creation of 409 000 jobs per annum by the year 2000, it proposed an accelerated programme of privatisation, deregulation, and fiscal restraint. Foreign exchange was liberalised even further by increasing the proportion of assets that could be swapped by local financial institutions, merging holiday and business allowances to R60 000 per annum, and lifting the borrowing capacity of foreign investors from 50 to 100 per cent of shareholders' equity.38 A number of new tax allowances were announced to attract foreign investment. Government also recommitted itself to the sale of state assets, although it provided no concrete timetables in this regard. Fiscal restraint and a deficit target of three per cent by 1999 are to be realised through the rationalisation of the public sector, the elimination and scaling down of certain social services, budgetary reform, an overhaul of the tax structure, and the establishment of more efficient mechanisms for revenue collection.39 But the Government's most controversial proposals pertained to the labour market, where it envisaged a national social agreement to contain wage and price increases as a means to underpin accelerated investment and job creation. Moreover, it suggested that a minimum wage would not be established across the whole economy, but would rather be determined on a sector and area basis.40 Finally, it should be noted that the government's reforms to create a flexible labour market imply the development of two sectors with differential labour standards and wage levels. This, coupled with wage moderation, will generate at least thirty per cent of new employment opportunities and more than fifty per cent of all jobs created in the private sector during the next five years.

Of course, the new macro-economic strategy report professes a commitment to the goals of the RDP.41 But as it stands at present, there is a fundamental contradiction between those goals and the policies enunciated in the report. Rationalisation of the public sector and cuts in social spending are bound to increase unemployment and poverty. Privatisation of state assets is bound to result in layoffs. Liberalisation of trade is bound to increase pressure on domestic firms, leading to wage cuts and retrenchments as companies try to survive and re-establish their profitability levels. Dual labour markets will be used by business as a means to increase pressure on organised workers to reduce their wage demands. Moreover, a dual labour market will increase the attractiveness of outsourcing for major firms, resulting in further retrenchments Of course, the new macro-economic strategy report professes a commitment to the goals of the RDP.41 But as it stands at present, there is a fundamental contradiction between those goals and the policies enunciated in the report. Rationalisation of the public sector and cuts in social spending are bound to increase unemployment and poverty. Privatisation of state assets is bound to result in layoffs. Liberalisation of trade is bound to increase pressure on domestic firms, leading to wage cuts and retrenchments as companies try to survive and re-establish their profitability levels. Dual labour markets will be used by business as a means to increase pressure on organised workers to reduce their wage demands. Moreover, a dual labour market will increase the attractiveness of outsourcing for major firms, resulting in further retrenchments in the primary sector of the economy. The result in the short term is thus a likely increase in unemployment and poverty within the country – results totally contrary to the immediate goals of the RDP.

Business and Government would of course argue that the neo-liberal economic programme, with its focus on exchange rate reform, conservative macro-economic policy, liberalisation of trade, and fiscal restraint, would increase economic growth, attract foreign investment, enhance levels of domestic investment, and facilitate job creation. In their scenario, current programmes to retrain retrenched and unemployed workers would skill them sufficiently to be absorbed in these new jobs.

This argument is based on a number of problematic assumptions. Firstly, no clear relationship has been demonstrated between these policies and a decrease in unemployment levels. International experience is mixed in this regard. Neo-liberal economic policies followed in the United States and Britain during the course of the 1980s did not significantly reduce unemployment in these countries. Rather, it aggravated levels of inequalities and increased social immiseration within these societies.42 Similarly, the experience of neo-liberal economic programmes in South Africa suggests that there is no necessary correlation between such a set of policies and high levels of employment. As has been demonstrated earlier, even the current economic upswing has not translated into employment creation on a scale that addresses the number of jobs lost in the economic recession between 1989 and 1992.

Secondly, even if one accepts the assumption that the Government's current economic policies will lead to greater investments and increased employment, there will probably be a significant delay before the availability of new jobs compensates for the increase in unemployment. And, time is precisely what South Africa does not have. South Africa has a highly politicised population complemented with strong social movements forged in the struggle against apartheid. This population is not likely to sit by idly as their already poor material circumstances deteriorate even further. No explanation of future gain is likely to pacify them. The probable result in the short term is massive extra-institutional protests that would generate political instability and undermine the desired goal of the Government's policies to attract foreign investment. Current research indicates that one of the primary concerns of foreign investors is an unstable political climate.43 Extra-institutional protests resulting from existing economic policy will undermine the prospects to establish this political stability.

But material immiseration and political instability will not be the only products of neo-liberal economic policies. A narrow focus on the market will also reproduce social inequalities along racial lines, aggravating racial tensions within the country. South Africa's apartheid history has ensured that the dispersal of wealth and skill levels manifests itself in a racial form. Policies fostering a dual labour market will therefore lead to a situation where the majority of those who reside in the secondary economy will be of African descent. Increases in unemployment will also adversely affect the black population since it is likely to be directed against those located at the lower levels of the labour hierarchy. None of this should be interpreted to mean that all sectors of the black population will equally suffer as a result of these policies. Indeed, it is already evident that some more privileged sectors within the black population are benefiting from the Government's current economic policies. Loan concessions and preferential access to credit for black investors, and the Government's requirements that black businessmen be included in foreign investment projects, might succeed in establishing an extremely rich urban black bourgeoisie.44 Moreover, black professionals are also likely to benefit in the short term as companies scramble to fulfil affirmative action quotas. But these benefits are likely to be the preserve of a relatively small sector of the black population. For the majority of the black population, the Government's current economic policies bode disaster. And, in this environment of material immiseration, racial and ethnic tensions can easily be manipulated by rogue politicians to advance their own narrow interests.

All of this does not bode well for the prospects of consolidating democracy in South Africa. Yet many of the left-leaning activists in the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP), and COSATU seem oblivious to this. To date, they have defended the trajectory of the transition on the grounds that the emergence of corporatist structures represents a challenge to neo-liberal economics, and creates the institutional space for realising, what Eddie Webster terms, an "equity-led growth" in line with the RDP.45 In support of their argument, they point to the emergence of National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) and the workplace forums mandated by the Labour Relations Act. These corporatist structures, it is suggested, reflect the Government's commitment to grant the labour movement a say in the decisions that will impact on the lives of their constituency and on the broader evolution of the society. Among the left, some even harbour the hope that these structures would serve as the building blocks for the establishment of a social democratic South Africa.46

But there is a serious problem with this analysis. At the heart of this understanding lies an ignorance of the present distribution of capabilities in South Africa. It enables these activists and scholars to conceive of corporatism as a challenge to neo-liberal economics, and to suggest that it might be one step in a broader political project to establish a social democratic society. But the assumption underlying this view is flawed and a-historical.47 It is drawn from the experience of social democratic societies in Western Europe where corporatist structures emerged within the framework of Keynesian macro-economic theory. However, this occurred in a national and global context very different from the present. Capital in that period was much more confined at the national level, while the labour movements in these countries were in the ascendance. At the global level, the Cold War facilitated the benevolence of the US – reflected in the Marshall Aid plan and a range of trade concessions during the 1960s and 1970s for West European and some Far Eastern countries. All of this was, of course, in the interests of maintaining an anti-Communist camp on a global level.

At present, however, a very different distribution of capabilities exists. At the national level, the distribution of capabilities is not structured to convince the political élite that labour poses a real threat to the status quo. On a global level, capital is more mobile than it has ever been. The Cold War has ended and there is no longer any political and ideological pressure on the US to maintain an anti-Communist alliance. Even if there was, the abandonment of the Bretton Woods financial system that facilitated the benevolence of the US, ensures that it can no longer play the same role of world benefactor. In this new context, corporatism has not been abandoned. Rather, it has been strengthened to legitimise and contain pressures against neo-liberal economic strategies through the co-option of social movements. In a sense, this is one of the conclusions of Adam Przeworski's book Democracy and the Market, where he demonstrates the logic for the political élite of transitional societies to couple their neo-liberal economic reforms with corporatist structures and processes.48

This conclusion is also borne out in the South African case. Corporatism has emerged simultaneous with the ascendancy of the neo-liberal macro-economic strategy. The last few years have also demonstrated that corporatist structures and processes, including NEDLAC, have not been able to stem the rightward shift in the Government's economic policy. This is because these structures have either been marginalised from the process of economic policy-making, and/or their deliberations are constrained by the broader distribution of capabilities within South African society. Corporatism is entirely compatible with a neo-liberal economic growth path. Its emergence in South Africa can neither be used as evidence of a challenge to neo-liberalism, nor of the Government's commitment to establish a social democratic society.

This is the sad fact that left-leaning scholars and activists in the Congress Alliance have to appreciate. Such an awareness, however, also requires a realisation on their part of the necessity for critique. A slavish acceptance of the substantive content and current trajectory of the transition does not serve the consolidation of democracy in the country. Critique is the lifeblood of democracy. South African intellectuals, and left-wing scholars and activists in particular, need to tear themselves away from the logic that equates critique with disloyalty. Unless this is done, they will be unable to intervene effectively and counter the political processes that undermine the consolidation of democracy in the country.


Democratic consolidation in South Africa depends on a review of and a fundamental shift in the trajectory of the transition. It requires a reversal of the Government's existing neo-liberal policies and an orientation towards a more people-centred development of the country. This, however, is unlikely in the foreseeable future. It thus seems useful to reflect on the possible forms of South Africa's political evolution.

Three scenarios present themselves in the absence of the consolidation of democracy in South Africa. Firstly, the Government's existing policies, in line with expectations of relative deprivation theorists, could provoke sufficient discontent within the society to result in a rapid radical politicisation of civil society's associational life. Social and political forces could organise and mobilise against the State to force its restructuring and/or overthrow, and establish some kind of post-capitalist order. But this seems an unlikely option. The ANC Government still has a large degree of popular legitimacy. Moreover, most of the powerful social movements in the country are currently political partners in a strategic alliance with the ANC. They have accepted corporatist structures as legitimate institutional mechanisms to advance their interests. Their leadership is either drawn from the ranks of the ANC, or is at least supportive of it. Furthermore, the distribution of capabilities, both in the national and global setting, is not conducive to a radical challenge against the post-apartheid regime. An insurrectionary political project is thus not feasible in the short term.

Secondly, the Government's failure to address the material interests of the black population could generate widespread apathy within society. This could be coupled with high levels of crime and violence as a result of unemployment and the political and socio-economic marginalisation of a large part of the population. Corporatist structures and processes could facilitate the bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of civil society associations, and in particular, the trade union movement. Their leadership could become alienated from their constituency resulting in the loss of a large chunk of their membership, and further accelerating their bureaucratisation. Given the delegitimisation of social movements, mobilisation would most often take a spontaneous, sporadic form involving small and separate sections of the populace. Divisions and tensions could emerge within the activist and leadership community of the ANC, and could spill over into the National Assembly. The political élite, confronted with these pressures, would most probably centralise power in the cabinet or presidency. This would be compatible with what Guillermo O' Donnell, referring to Argentina and other Latin American states, recently termed "delegative democracy". Essentially, this term describes a hybrid political system characterised both by the existence of formal representative structures and the concentration of power in the executive.49 Elections in such systems merely serve the role of plebiscites, where power is delegated either to the political leader and/or the leadership of the country.50

Finally, the conditions outlined in the second scenario could develop such a momentum that it poses a serious threat to the fragile transitional order. The ANC leadership, feeling beleaguered, and witnessing the unravelling of their economic programme as a result of political instability, might find an authoritarian option extremely attractive. Multi-party democracy would be suspended by the political leadership on the grounds of threats to the political order. Independent civil society associations could be crushed through the State's repressive machinery. Of course, all this would be justified on the grounds that it is a mere temporary measure until order and stability is re-established within the society. But, as has happened so often in the world, such an authoritarian solution could take on a life of its own, and become a permanent fixture on South Africa's political scene.

In the absence of a consolidated democracy in South Africa, scenario two seems the most probable in the short to medium term. Indications are already that a centralisation of power is under way within the State. Decision-making is being centralised in the office of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, heir apparent to Nelson Mandela, and the future leader of the ANC and the Government. Senior cabinet ministers, such as Trevor Manuel, are now voicing a reluctance to have to negotiate government policy continuously with their partners in the Congress Alliance.51 Although the ANC's parliamentary caucus has formally won the right to veto policy decisions in cabinet, Mandela's successful intervention in the legislature to force ANC MP's not to investigate cabinet ministers like Nkosazana Zuma,52 seems to suggest that the de facto situation is one in which cabinet is prepared to and can run roughshod over parliament. Finally, the response of senior leaders in Government to sporadic protest has been to invoke images of anarchy perpetrated by a few in order to destabilise the transition – a reaction typical of senior NP leaders when they were confronted with popular struggles in the 1980s.53 Delegative democracy thus seems to be on the horizon. But it is unlikely to contain permanent pressures that will continually build within society. The authoritarian solution of scenario three is thus likely in the medium to long term.

Irrespective of whichever scenario plays itself out, it is certain that the democratic and socio-economic goals that inspired the long struggle against apartheid would likely be severely compromised. Indeed, even the consolidation of a minimalist form of representative democracy is unlikely in South Africa. This was probably not what Archbishop Desmond Tutu had in mind when he coined the metaphor of the 'rainbow nation'. But in politics, outcomes are very rarely what they have been supposed to be. The politics of the rainbow nation is unlikely to realise the consolidation of democracy. That it would do so is perhaps one of the biggest myths of the South African transition. For, the true heir to the politics of the rainbow nation is the authoritarianism, in whatever guise, that lies in our future.


  1. This article is based on research conducted for a doctor's degree in Political Science in the Graduate School of the City University of New York.

  2. See, for instance, A Habib, The Transition to Democracy in South Africa: Towards a Dynamic Model, Transformation, 27, 1995.

  3. For other criticisms of the metaphor of the rainbow nation, see A Desai, Arise Ye Coolies: Apartheid and the Indian 1960-1995, Impact Africa Publishing, Johannesburg, 1996, chapter 6; paper read by N Alexander at a conference on race and ethnicity, hosted by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA); the proceedings of this conference were reported in the Weekly Mail and Guardian, 25 August - 2 September 1995.

  4. See, for instance, A Stepan and C Skach, Constitutional Frameworks and Democratic Consolidation: Parliamentarianism versus Presidentialism, World Politics, 46(1), 1993; also, J Linz, The Perils of Presidentialism, in L Diamond and M Plattner (eds.), The Global Resurgence of Democracy, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1993; for the converse view, see D Horowitz, Comparing Democratic Systems, in Diamond and Plattner, ibid.; Horowitz also raises the debate on constitutional designs in the South African context in D Horowitz, A Democratic South Africa? Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991.

  5. Ibid., p. 358.

  6. A Przeworski (1991), Democracy and the Market, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, p. 19.

  7. G Di Palma, To Craft Democracies: An Essay on Democratic Transition, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990, p. 55.

  8. Przeworski, op. cit., pp. 182-185.

  9. Huntington argues that economic development promotes democracy, because it facilitates tolerance and education, increases trade thereby creating private wealth, alters the value structure of society by opening it up to democratic ideas prevalent in the industrialised world, and makes economic resources available for distribution; see S Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, University of Oklahoma Press, USA, pp. 59-72.

  10. Shapiro, Democratic Innovation: South Africa in Comparative Context, World Politics, 46(1), 1993.

  11. See E Bornman, Patterns of Group Identification in South Africa and their Implications for Reconciliation, HSRC, Pretoria, n.d.; it should be noted that Bornman's analysis and conclusions tend to be problematic. For instance, she ascribes the national consciousness of the English-speaking white population to its opposition to apartheid. This is factually just not true. More importantly, however, she does not explain why a similar national consciousness did not emerge in the African population that demonstrated an even greater opposition to apartheid. Finally, her conclusion that political leaders need to take cognisance of ethnicity and manage South Africa on this basis, smacks of consociationalism. There is no logical relationship between the recognition of ethnic identity and managing South Africa on ethnic terms.

  12. Adapted from Bornman, ibid., Table 1.

  13. See Desai, op. cit., pp. 87-88; also, my comments in the Sunday Tribune, 30 June 1996.

  14. Both Winnie Mandela and Bantu Holomisa have been fired from the cabinet. So was Pallo Jordan, but he was subsequently re-appointed as Minister of Environmental Affairs when the NP decided to withdraw from the GNU.

  15. A Levy and Associates, Annual Report on Labour Relations in South Africa, 1995.

  16. A Levy and Associates, Press Release, 29 March 1996.

  17. See A Desai and A Habib, Labour Relations in Transition: The Rise of Corporatism in South Africa's Automobile Industry, Journal of Modern African Studies, forthcoming 1996, p. 21.

  18. Department of Finance, Growth, Employment and Redistribution, (Internet), 1996, p. 1.

  19. C Stals. Governor's Address, in Annual Economic Report, South African Reserve Bank, Pretoria, 1995.

  20. NEDLAC, NEDLAC Annual Summit: Report on NEDLAC Activities, Johannesburg, 1996, p. 37.

  21. J McCarthy and A Bernstein, Post-Apartheid Population and Income Trends: A New Analysis, CDE Research Report, 1995, p. 16.

  22. See A Whiteford and M McGrath, Distribution of Income in South Africa, Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria, n.d.

  23. See McCarthy and Bernstein, op. cit., p. 17.

  24. Financial Times, 21 November 1995.

  25. Weekly Mail and Guardian, 21 April 1995.

  26. Finance Week 200, 28 March 1995.

  27. See A Habib, Defeat in Victory: A Macro-Study of the Transition to Democracy in South Africa, unpublished doctoral dissertation submitted to the Graduate School of the City University of New York, 1996, chapter 3; the analysis is critical of the methodology of transition theory which focuses on élite decisions and behaviour to explain democratic transitions. In contrast, I have utilised a structural approach that focuses on the distribution of capabilities (or balance of power) between political parties, social movements, classes, international financial agencies and foreign investors, to explain the emergence, substantive content, and subsequent evolution of the transition in South Africa. For a more complete discussion of this approach, see Habib, op. cit., 1995.

  28. This point has been stressed repeatedly by M MacDonald, Power Politics in the New South Africa, Journal of Southern African Studies, 1996 forthcoming, p. 4.

  29. ANC cabinet ministers have constantly accused civil servants of sabotaging the implementation of policy. For one example, see the comments of Minister Zola Skewiya in the New York Times, 20 January 1995.

  30. For a useful article in this regard, see A Adelzadeh and V Padayachee, The RDP White Paper: Reconstruction of a Development Vision, Transformation, 25, 1994.

  31. D Ginsburg, The Democratisation of South Africa: Transition, Theory Tested, Transformation, 29, 1996 forthcoming, p. 13.

  32. To be fair, the ANC had advocated a majoritarian form of democracy in its initial proposals to CODESA, and there was always considerable opposition within its ranks for any concessions in this regard. However, the fact that most supporters of the ANC blamed the GNU for its inability to realise the targets of the RDP, meant that the leadership could not even countenance an extension of consensus democratic principles in the final Constitution.

  33. It is worth noting that, since 1994, there have been individuals associated with the ANC and PAC who have been appointed to senior positions in the military and police. Moreover, ANC ministers now politically lead both sectors of the security apparatus, and they have developed a surprisingly close relationship with their previous captors as was evidenced in their support for the Generals' demands for new naval equipment. See Weekly Mail and Guardian, 7-14 April 1995. It is also worth noting that both the police and military, in the course of negotiations, had disavowed their links with the NP, and insisted on their commitment to serve an elected civilian government. See M Shaw, Biting the Bullet: Negotiating the New Military, in S Friedman and Atkinson (eds.), The Small Miracle, Publisher, place of publication, 1994; and S Friedman Holding a Divided Centre: Prospects for Legitimacy and Governance in Post-Settlement South Africa, in what publication, publisher, place of publication, 1994, p. 10.

  34. See Weekly Mail and Guardian, 7-14 July 1995. Criticisms of the power-sharing arrangement have also emerged from mainstream academics. Friedman, for instance, argues that the GNU is not a necessary political mechanism for the democratic order to achieve stability. Jung and Shapiro suggest that transitions through negotiations between government reformers and opposition moderates often inhibit the emergence of robust opposition institutions that are necessary for full the realisation of democracy. See Friedman, ibid.; also C Jung and I Shapiro, South Africa's Negotiated Transition: Democracy, Opposition, and the New Constitutional Order, Politics and Society, 23(3), 1994.

  35. See South Africa Foundation, Growth for All: An Economic Strategy for South Africa, 1996, especially pp. v-viii.

  36. See COSATU, NACTU and FEDSAL, Social Equity and Job Creation – The Key to a Stable Future, submission to Nedlac, 1996.

  37. The African Communist, 144, 1996, p. 3.

  38. Department of Finance, op. cit., p. 12.

  39. Ibid., pp. 9-10.

  40. Ibid., pp. 17-21.

  41. Ibid., p. 1.

  42. See, for instance, B Bluestone and B Harrison, The Growth of Low-Wage Employment: 1963-86, American Economic Review, 78(2), 1988; A Glyn and B Rowthorn, West European Unemployment: Corporatism and Structural Change, American Economic Review, 78(2), 1988; A Glyn, The Costs of Stability: The Advanced Capitalist Countries in the 1980's, New Left Review, 195, 1992.

  43. This was the result of a survey collated by Prof Robin Lee on behalf of the Nedcor Project; see Weekly Mail and Guardian, 4-11 April 1996.

  44. Note the earlier mentioned example of Nthatho Motlana.

  45. See E Webster, Speak Out, Social Democrats!, Weekly Mail and Guardian, 18 August 1996; S Gelb and E Webster, Jobs and Equity: The Social Democratic Challenge, South African Labour Bulletin, 20(3), 1996; S Gelb, The Post-Apartheid Political Economy, unpublished mimeo, 1996; G Adler and E Webster, Challenging Transition Theory: The Labour Movement, Radical Reform, and Transition to Democracy in South Africa, Publisher, place, 1994. It should be noted that Gelb is more circumspect is his description of the success of the GNU's economic programme. He suggests that the Government has been able to "... achieve the objectives of neo-liberal orthodoxy, and of the 'growth with redistribution' approach, while not paying the political price which has generally been exacted of governments pursuing this path" (p. 10).

  46. Webster, ibid.

  47. I have voiced these criticisms at a conference hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies on the role of civil society, Johannesburg, 19-20 September 1995. The proceedings were published in R Humphries and M Reitzes, Civil Society After Apartheid, Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg, 1995. For other criticisms of this perspective, see P Bond and M Mayekiso, Developing Resistance, Resisting 'Development': Reflections from the South African Struggle, in L Panitch (ed.), Socialist Register 1996, Merlin Press, London, 1996; A Callinicos, South Africa After Apartheid, International Socialism, 70, 1996.

  48. Przeworski, op. cit., pp. 183-84.

  49. See G O'Donnell, Delegative Democracy, Journal of Democracy, 5, 1994.

  50. Gelb will of course disagree with my suggestion that the ANC is likely to retreat to some form of delegative democracy. He holds the view that the ANC is unlikely to find itself in confrontation with the populace because of its commitment to redistribution and the fact that "no effective political challenge is on the horizon." See Gelb, op cit., p, 13. The problem with this view is that it sees delegative democracy as a product of formal political opposition. But, as I have suggested earlier, it is likely to be a product of the ANC's desire to contain tensions within itself, and the sporadic and spontaneous revolts that create the perception of political instability.

  51. See Sunday Times, 16 June 1996.

  52. See Weekly Mail and Guardian, 1 March 1996.

  53. See, for instance, Mandela's remarks on disturbances at tertiary educational institutions in Business Day, 29 March 1995.