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‘Many liberation and political movements that valiantly opposed authoritarian regimes often behave in markedly undemocratic ways when in power themselves’, writes William Gumede. In an extract from a new book of essays, ‘The Poverty of Ideas’, Gumede explores the challenges South Africa faces in making the transition from an independence movement political culture to a democratic political culture.

Many liberation and political movements that valiantly opposed authoritarian regimes often behave in markedly undemocratic ways when in power themselves. One of the reasons why many such movements in Africa and developing countries fail to sustain quality democracy is that they are unable to change successfully from a liberation or independence movement political culture into a democratic political one. It is now clear, following the staggering post-liberation disappointments, that it is not a given that progressive liberation movements which fought for democracy will necessarily foster a democratic political culture when in power.

One way of measuring whether a democracy is of the lasting sort is to determine whether a democratic political culture has developed. On paper, South Africa has a model constitution, elaborate democratic institutions and public watchdogs, and it holds regular elections without opponents bludgeoning each other. Supposedly, we should be able to conclude that South Africa has a democratic political culture. Not yet. It is often mistakenly assumed that to have democratic institutions in place or to conduct regular ‘free and fair elections’ is tantamount to a mature democracy.

The importance of a democratic political culture cannot be overstated. In fact, political culture ‘determines the type of government institutions, how authority is vested in government, who is given authority and power in society and government, who is allowed to participate in policy- and decision-making and how citizens hold their leaders accountable’.[1] Whether the political culture is democratic or not will have an impact on how citizens experience the entire political system (the executive, legislatures, bureaucracy, judiciary, political parties and civil groups), the political process (the behaviour of parties, groups and individual citizens) and the policy-making process.[2]

Although a democratic political culture is not easy to define, its obvious characteristic is that it sets ethical norms and standards of behaviour for governments, organisations and individuals. David Paletz and Daniel Lipinski argue that political culture ‘consists of widely held shared, fundamental beliefs that have political consequence’. ‘It constrains the actions of politicians and public officials: even if inclined otherwise, they usually refrain from taking positions or from implementing policies that blatantly violate the elements of the political culture’[3] – even if they want to act otherwise. On evidence, the countries that neglect to build a democratic political culture often slide back into ghost democracies, of which Zimbabwe is a good example.


Progressive intellectuals can play a very important role in building democratic political cultures, not least by attempting to change what Gramsci called ‘the deep culture, ideologies and mentalities of our (political) culture’,[4] which may undermine the building of a quality democracy. The very first task in this is to encourage dialogue on common problems, one of the most important aspects of democracies.[5] The American scholar Cornel West sums it up neatly: ‘No democracy can survive without that culture of criticism and dialogue and discussion and debate and contestation ... It is about Socratic questioning, accountability, answerability and responsibility.’[6] Deliberation, discussion and debate are crucial for citizens to be able to evaluate government policies and actions. Discussing public issues helps citizens to form opinions where they might otherwise have none. Furthermore, it offers democratic leaders better insight into public concerns than elections do.

Jürgen Habermas put deliberation at the centre of the democratic decision-making process.[7] Free discussion among citizens is essential if the rule of ‘the people’ is to be a reality. It encourages the participation of ordinary people in decision-making and so makes them part of public action to transform their societies. As Amartya Sen argues,[8] public dialogue enhances respect for pluralism and an attitude of tolerance for different points of view and lifestyles. Yet conducting a dialogue within society is not easy. Indeed, the larger and more diverse a society, the more difficult it becomes to hold such public dialogue. The corollary is that the larger and more diverse the society, the greater the need for deliberative dialogue.[9]

Extensive public dialogue and debate are crucial in working out the kind of values that are important in our new democracy. So freedom of expression and discussion are required not only in pinpointing economic and social needs, but also in deciding on what needs should have priority and what demands should receive attention. It goes without saying that critical thinkers are much needed in new democracies, as Socrates was in ancient Athens.


Past political cultures do influence the building of a new democratic one. As South Africa comes from a violent, authoritarian past, a democratic political culture, like all new democratic institutions, will have to be carefully built from scratch. South Africa began its democracy in 1994 with different political traditions. Apartheid culture was not democratic, even if it pretended to conduct its affairs within the semblance of racial democracy. Although liberal organisations working in the system argue that they themselves were democratic in spite of the undemocratic context, their operations were circumscribed by the rules of the apartheid system. Liberation movements, although waging an honourable liberation struggle, were also in part tainted by their opposition to a brutal regime: They had to become more undemocratic, by centralising decision-making and so on, to fight the apartheid government more effectively.

During liberation struggles, decision-making is necessarily left in the hands of a few. Dissent and criticism are seldom allowed lest they expose divisions within the movement, which could be exploited by the enemy. But if non-criticism continues during the first crucial years of power, it becomes entrenched as part of the political culture. In the early years of liberation, governments often operate as if under siege. Critics are marginalised, making criticism almost impossible later, or are seen as racists or ‘traitors’ in the pay of imperial powers or former colonialists. And so, when the UK or Australia attacked Robert Mugabe’s government, for instance, most African neighbours fell silent, not wanting to be seen supporting their former masters. In a similar way many intellectuals prefer to reserve their misgivings about government policy rather than face being placed in the camp of the ‘neocolonialists’.

As African liberation movements came to power, their supporters were ready to overlook their shortcomings. The feeling was that a new, popularly elected democratic government needed to be given an extended chance. Liberation movements were seen as the embodiment of the nation as a whole. Similarly, during the first years of democracy in South Africa, criticism of the ANC by its supporters was muted. There was also the fear that criticising the government would give ammunition to powerful opponents. But this was a grave mistake. All governments must be kept on their toes. Once criticism is withheld, it becomes difficult to be critical later. It also makes it easy for governments to isolate those who criticise it – even if most of them sugar-coat the criticism so as not to offend – and denounce them as in the camp of colonial powers, unreconstructed whites, the unpatriotic or the ‘ultra-left’,[10] as critics of the Mbeki government were labelled.

Alarmingly, quite legitimate criticism of the ANC government has been portrayed as disloyal, the critics being labelled racists or enemies of the state. This has often led to the withdrawal of intellectuals from public debate. During Mbeki’s administration, senior ANC leaders demanded, quite wrongly, absolute loyalty to the president or the state or government as a prerequisite for promoting a national consensus. Dissent, difference of opinion or even mild constructive criticism was not tolerated. Those that did so were denounced as ‘forces connected to the old apartheid order to undermine the state and liberation movement’.[11]

Take, for example, the government’s initial inaction in the face of the AIDS pandemic. Mbeki embarked on a fatal policy of denial. Many ANC supporters knew he was wrong but kept quiet, in case they were seen as supporting Western governments or big international pharmaceutical companies bent on perpetuating Africa’s underdevelopment. When William Malegapuru Makgoba, the head of the Medical Research Council, questioned this policy, senior ANC leaders, including Essop Pahad, minister in the President’s office, and the former Northern Province premier, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, launched a bitter personal attack on Makgoba. Pahad and a group of senior cabinet ministers summoned Makgoba to a meeting where he was pressured to recant his ‘dangerous’ views. A barrage of abusive letters against Makgoba followed. One threatening letter contained 22 pages of abuse and was signed by Ramatlhodi. He accused Makgoba of ‘betraying his race’ and of not being a ‘real’ black person. Makgoba stood firm. But many other intellectuals were less courageous and, fearing similar treatment, simply fell silent.

Another case in point was the exclusion from the SABC of political commentators deemed critical of the government. This not only demonstrated the intolerance of the broader political culture, but also showed just how much criticism had been devalued. But intolerance of different viewpoints is not only the preserve of the ANC. Ahead of its 2007 national conference, the South African Communist Party brutally crushed dissent and sidelined internal critics. The SACP treasurer, Phillip Dexter, was suspended for a year for mildly suggesting that the party’s leadership was intolerant and Stalinist. As this instance showed, the party’s or the state’s leadership often speaks ‘for the people’ or ‘in the national interest’ because, so the argument goes, it was elected by ‘the people’. Those critical of the leadership are then cast as not part of ‘the people’ or working against the national interest. Opposition parties are equally intolerant, if not worse. The DA MP Raenette Taljaard came under the lash when she differed with the party’s leader, Tony Leon, and the IFP’s secretary-general Jiba Jiyane was packed off to political Siberia when he stated that the party’s leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, was a dictator. The PAC has become so intolerant internally that it is virtually extinct.

In the climate prevailing under the Mbeki government where critical viewpoints were looked upon disparagingly, the president’s weekly online column in ANC Today was not in fact a good thing. Instead of encouraging debate as Mbeki hoped, the column actually killed off any discussion, as many ANC members looked on his weekly online missives as ‘authoritative pronouncements’ (in the words of the respected ANC thinker Raymond Suttner) that carried the weight and legitimacy of the highest office in the country. It would have been political suicide for any loyal ANC cadre to express a contrary opinion. Leaders who explain themselves and can be questioned, instead of merely issuing diktats and introducing policies beyond criticism, are far more likely to be followed than those who discourage dissent and crush debate.

During Mbeki’s reign critical intellectuals often faced having their reputations turned into shreds by the smears, innuendoes and sheer meanness of the presidential inner circle and their sycophantic hangers-on. As a result, many progressives bit their tongues. Yet no reasonable debate on policies can take place in a situation where those who propose alternatives are seen as the enemy who need to be annihilated and destroyed. Such self-imposed censorship as prevailed during the Mbeki era comes at a cost to a developing society like South Africa, where every innovative idea matters: As a result good policy ideas do not enter the public debate and bad policies are not sufficiently scrutinised. In the end it is society – mostly the poor – that pays when bad policies fail. The cult of the leader in liberation movements all too easily lends itself to the belief that criticisms of the leader are an attack on the movement and its legacy. This is akin to the belief, described by Isaiah Berlin as a ‘terrible and dangerous arrogance’, that our leaders ‘have a magical eye which sees the truth’, that ‘our leaders alone are right’ and that ‘others cannot be right if they disagree’.[12]

Members of liberation movements defer too readily to leaders and as a result many African countries famously retained colonial-era ‘insult laws’ under which criticism of the president (including, in Zimbabwe, poking fun at him) can attract a lengthy jail sentence. For another thing, liberation leaders often wrongly try to portray criticisms of them and government policies as an attack on the legitimacy of the liberation struggle – which they are patently not. Then again, the cult of the leader often incorporates the view that because he ‘delivered’ the people from bondage into freedom, he is entitled to stay in power. Those who have done most of the sacrificing are not even considered. This is perhaps why, when in power, leaders of liberation movements can be so callous to the people they govern. Finally, the cult of the leader, which encourages uncritical deference, also undermines the emergence and consideration of alternative ideas, policies and innovations. The leader becomes the font of all new policies and exerts a monopoly on policy-making.

In a democratic society, on the contrary, there are no know-all leaders to whom citizens should uncritically defer. Nor are there political truths, whatever their source, that cannot be questioned. It is not a given that the ANC leadership will act in the interests of the people or the Constitution or democracy. Of course it is not the intellectual’s role to offer another unquestioned ‘truth’, but to suggest alternatives, to make comparisons, to question orthodoxies, to interrogate motives, so that an informed debate on public issues can take place.

The deadly consequences of conformism and censorship South Africa needs to cultivate a political culture that encourages disagreement and does not penalise those who depart from the prevailing orthodoxy. In a culture of silence and fear, there is the very real risk that leaders will not receive the information they require to make good decisions. When members of the ANC feel free to differ from the President or the party leaders, society is likely to hear a wider range of opinions, and better decisions may result. On the other hand, policy errors are most likely to occur when people are rewarded for conformity.

A climate of free expression and tolerance of dissent protects against false confidence and the inevitable mistakes of planners in both the private and public arenas.[13] If there had been more openness and discussion, for example, on the government’s market-friendly economic policy, Treatment Action Campaign as being in the pay of ‘imperialists’ or multinational business interests. The National Land Committee member and Anti-Privatisation Forum embarked on a series of marches, the spymaster Vusi Mavimbela demanded an interview with one of its leaders, Trevor Ngwane. Mavimbela personally interviewed Ngwane at the group’s downtown Johannesburg office to warn him of the consequences of embarking on protest action.[25]

In spring 2005, Mbeki launched a tough attack on non-governmental organisations, claiming they were manipulated by foreign donors.[26] He questioned whether most of South Africa’s NGOs were independent. Mbeki’s statements came after local civil society groups, ahead of the African Union’s peer review of South Africa, demanded greater representation on the panel reviewing the country’s state of governance. Since Mbeki’s views carried considerable influence, his over-generalised criticisms clearly undermined the credibility of NGOs.

But this was not the first time that the government took on NGOs. In a speech to the ANC’s national conference in December 1997, Nelson Mandela made a scathing attack on civil groups, accusing them of working with foreign donors to undermine the government and its development programme. He claimed they had no right to criticise the government because they did not have popular constituencies or broad-based membership. But as three NGO activists argued at the time: ‘In our free and open democracy, NGOs and other organs of civil society have the right to criticise government when they believe it is not abiding by the letter and spirit of the law, and where it is not adhering to its constitutional obligations. In our political context of one-party dominance and a largely ineffective parliamentary opposition, it should be acknowledged that political pluralism rests heavily with the voices from below expressed through a diverse range of NGOs and other civil society organisations.’[27]

A new generation of intellectuals based in civil society has more recently emerged on the wave of grassroots and community protests and agitation for greater government accountability, better service delivery and an end to official corruption. The civil society battle against the government’s short-sighted AIDS policies has also helped groom a new set of intellectuals and activists. And intellectuals in the women’s movement have emerged as a result of the increasing marginalisation of women in society, despite the Constitution’s emphasis on gender equality. It was women intellectuals in civil society that protested the loudest against Jacob Zuma’s sexist views during his rape trail, while leading government members – both men and women – maintained a sphinx-like silence.


When African liberation movements came to power, the intellectuals that were part of the movement were often required to ‘provide the materials and justifications of already defined policies’,[28] no matter how poor the policies were. Harold Wolpe made a brilliant case study of how in Frelimo, the ruling liberation movement in Mozambique, ‘intellectual work took the priorities of the party as a point of departure’. The problem is that intellectuals always had little relative autonomy – unless their research was in line with ‘already defined policies’ – and when the movements came to power, the little they had was quickly done away with. Intellectuals all too readily concede the ‘monopoly’ of ideas to party leaders and the liberation movement itself. As Alberto Melucci once said, ‘intellectuals who claim to represent the good conscience or the true ideology of a movement have always participated in preparing the way for the advent of the Prince, only to end up as either its victims or his courtiers’.

But in a democracy, new or established, intellectuals need to provide ideas about how to deal with critical issues and develop alternative frameworks of thinking. They need to ‘construct and reconstruct our political vocabularies’[29] to suit changing contexts and environments. However, some intellectuals are fixated with the ‘correct’ interpretation of politics or history, arguing that if one holds the ‘correct’ ideology all problems will magically melt away. This is true of the SACP’s theory of national democratic revolution (NDR), which clearly does not suit current conditions, yet many left intellectuals stick to it, even if it does not make sense of the reality on the ground. The NDR has become a substitute for thinking critically about solutions to the problems of our politics, for engaging in critical introspection. The question is how to come to terms with the market, in new and innovative ways, and how to bring about a quality democracy. Instead, the SACP clings to the outdated notion of a two-stage national democratic revolution in which the first stage will be a democracy set up by the national liberation movement (the ANC) and the next stage will be socialism. Contrast this rigidity with the thinking of the Communist Party of India, which has argued that the battle ‘against globalisation would require an engagement with the existing world realities’.


Not only is South Africa in desperate need of new thinking and new policies but also in need of a renewal in values, morals and ethics. While the ANC is good at articulating hard political values, it is unable to deal with the soft values that hold the social fabric of society together. This is where intellectuals have a role to play. Old forms of authority in South Africa are dysfunctional. The bonds that held communities together are disintegrating. In black townships many who could have provided moral leadership have moved to the suburbs, often living behind high walls. Leading ANC figures have become obsessed with gaining patronage, power and resources for individual gain rather than for the common good. Political power is seen as a way to wealth rather than a public duty. In reaction to critics, government leaders often indignantly maintain that apartheid was more corrupt. But this is not the issue. The Constitution calls for us to uphold the vision of a society based on equality and social justice, one imbued with certain values. If the country’s leaders do not take the Constitution seriously, it is difficult to see how ordinary citizens can be expected to internalise its values.

Since 1994, more than ZAR280 billion has been spent on black economic empowerment, but the beneficiaries are mostly black oligarchs well connected to the ANC leadership. There has been no serious effort to compel them to create jobs or make socially productive investments, given that BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) money is a politically sponsored ‘handout’. Yet in the middle of a fiscal surplus, the proposal for a basic income grant for the poor was dismissed by the finance minister Trevor Manuel as a form of ‘entitlement’. It was left to Archbishop Tutu to point to the moral decline when he remarked that leaders ‘glibly on full stomachs speak about handouts to those who often go to bed hungry’. The dream of a caring and compassionate society that many fought for during the liberation struggle has now evaporated. Giving money away to the BEE tycoons, while shouting ‘entitlement’ if the poor demand a basic income grant, is the height of hypocrisy and is at the heart of the collapse of moral values. It is the intellectual’s role to promote a caring, compassionate society based on social justice, in which the poor and vulnerable are cared for. As Frantz Fanon argued, a new humanism should form the basis of a democratic political culture.


Most of Africa’s parties are internally undemocratic, their leaderships ossified and controlled by small elites, with power, patronage and government spoils divided among competing factions based on pork- barrel interests, ethnicity, class or region. Either the outgoing leader handpicks someone to succeed him to consolidate the power of his faction or he is ousted by the leader from another faction. Competition within these ruling parties is mostly about which faction can beat the other in order to gain control of dispensing largesse to their members, rather than about renewing government, society or the economy. The ANC is the dominant political force in South Africa. This means its internal practices also dominate South Africa’s entire political system. If the ANC’s internal way of doing things is strongly undemocratic, South Africa’s political system will also become undemocratic. A party that operates internally along undemocratic lines is unlikely to be able to promote democracy outside. If internal rules to ensure transparency, accountability and inclusiveness are not enforced within the ANC, it is unlikely that they would be enforced at broader political levels. The reality is that at many levels ANC structures have become patronage machines to reward friends and allies, through government tenders, contracts and appointments. There appears to be a lack of courage to do the right thing: To fire those who are responsible for mismanagement and corruption, even if they are allies and friends, and to appoint those whom we may disagree with politically, who come from a different background, but who have the skills that will help pull our people out of grinding poverty.

Liberation movements are not like ordinary parties. They are almost church-like: membership means adhering to a set of rules. The ANC needs to transform itself into a wholly democratic organisation. Its members, supporters and activists must play a more active role in keeping the ANC democratic and holding its leadership accountable. The first thing is that the party must become more inclusive and participatory, in decision-making, leadership elections and policy-making, from branch and provincial to national executive levels. In all this, the contribution of progressive intellectuals to the democratisation of the ANC and, by extension, the country is crucial.

Making the internal political culture of the ANC more democratic is a prerequisite for entrenching a democratic political culture in South Africa. An essential part of such a democratic culture is the concept of ‘self-enforcing constraints on the limits of power’.[30] Sadly, many liberation movements that fought authoritarian rule in developing countries argue, once they assume power, that they should have unlimited power as a government. ‘Did the apartheid regime not have unlimited power?’ some often ask. But a quality democracy means there are limits to state authority, and those limits must be enforced. Strong legislatures – parliament, provincial legislatures and municipal councils – are needed to give ordinary citizens a say in policy-making, especially when opposition parties – as in South Africa – often do not speak to the majority. Parliament should hold the executive accountable, for example on service delivery. The government itself must police the rights set out in the Constitution.

However, legislatures in South Africa are weak, and public representative are often more interested in pleasing party bosses and the executive. For example, ANC MPs rarely criticise the government, and when individual MPs bravely stick their heads out, they are often chopped off. The threat of redeployment to a lowly position somewhere else is often an effective deterrent. Opposition MPs look towards their seniors with the same boot-licking impulses. For this, South Africa’s proportional electoral system is in part to blame. Voters have no say in who goes into parliament, only in the parties they represent, and have no recourse to recall those MPs sleeping on the job.

It is the intellectual’s role not only to explain their democratic rights to ordinary citizens, but to help inculcate the idea that there should be limits to the authority of the state. The truth is that very few liberation movements set much store by building strong, independent and democratic institutions. Instead, the prevailing political culture – a legacy of our past – encourages conformism, deference to and uncritical trust in leaders, and unquestioned loyalty to tribe. Given the ANC leadership’s insistence on uncritical loyalty, it is no wonder that many government leaders think that because they are elected, they are all-powerful, untouchable, and able to do what they like. But these attributes are anathema to building a diverse, vibrant and quality democracy, which requires questioning citizens who insist on accountability from those elected.

A democracy must also embed the culture of political institutions. Not the least important of these are the public auditing and oversight bodies.[31] Depressingly, South Africa’s Chapter Nine institutions, which are supposed to keep the executive in check and protect ordinary citizens from arbitrary action and state neglect, have been pliant and overly deferential to the executive. What is astonishing is that in February 2007 the public protector, Lawrence Mushwana, complained to parliament that his job was being ‘obstructed’ by the criticism of opposition parties and the media to the extent that his institution’s oversight role, particularly of the executive, had weakened, and that it was not protecting citizens against callous politicians and public servants or poor service delivery. Quite rightly, Kader Asmal, chairperson of parliament’s oversight committee, called Mushwana to order. The fact remains that many of the so-called watchdog agencies are under poor leadership, defer too readily to the executive, and are hostile to public scrutiny. They also have had to contend with attacks by the government. A few years ago the presidency lambasted the South African Human Rights Commission for its socioeconomic report in which it criticised the slow delivery of social services, and ominously reminded the body that the executive holds the purse-strings.

Even more so than the watchdog bodies, the judiciary plays a vital part in the constitutional dispensation. The judiciary’s role is not only to constrain the power of the state, but also to ensure the rule of law. It is important that the judiciary is independent, adheres to constitutional values, and does not suffer interference. Of course South Africa’s judiciary must become more representative of the country’s diverse population and adopt a value system in line with the democratic Constitution. Although the ANC has said that it is not about to alter the constitutionally entrenched principle that the judiciary should be independent, there are some worrying signs. The proper functioning of South Africa’s constitutional democracy depends on an independent judiciary. Another cause for concern is the collapsing of the divisions between party and state. In their attempts to transform the societies they inherit, leaders of liberation movements often fuse their parties with the new state to form a kind of ‘party-state’, with the movement and the party becoming one and the same. There is no firewall set up between the party on the one hand and the executive, legislature and public institutions on the other. In fact, independent democratic institutions are seen as an extension of the party, and not only are the heads of these institutions ‘deployed’ there by the party, but once in office they are expected to defer to the party leadership. Before he was appointed ANC spokesperson, Carl Niehaus admitted in November 2008 that there was ‘an expectation that the party line and leadership should be followed blindly, and that the judicial and democratic institutions of the state should merely be instruments to carry out ANC policy’. Yet a constitutional democratic system demands a clear division between party and state.

Moreover, most independence and liberation movements see themselves as the embodiment of the ‘people’, speaking for the whole nation, and the leader as the tribune of the ‘people’. This means that decisions taken by the party leadership, often out of pure self-interest, are regarded as being in the national or public interest. Former Western Cape ANC leader Ebrahim Rasool once remarked that ANC leaders failed to understand that the ANC is only the ‘driver of the nation’ and not ‘the nation itself’.

The collapse of the proper boundaries between party and state can have dangerous consequences. In his landmark 2008 judgment in the Zuma case, Judge Chris Nicholson was critical of the Mbeki government’s manipulation of public institutions for political ends. In this case it was the independence of the National Prosecuting Authority at stake. Similar concerns surround the state intelligence agencies. In view of our violent past, it is essential that civil liberties are protected and that there be public oversight of the intelligence, security and military agencies. When community protests began to mushroom across the country in 2005, the intelligence minister, Ronnie Kasrils, ordered an investigation, blaming agents provocateurs whom he sought to fish out. The danger in situations like these is that the intelligence agencies are used to settle political scores within the ANC or to sideline and discredit legitimate critics. The ANC’s hoax e-mail scandal, in which intelligence operatives fabricated e-mails to destroy the careers and reputations of political rivals and critics, was another instance of the danger that state institutions can be used to sideline critics within and outside the ANC.


One of the other great challenges facing intellectuals as well as the wider society is the need to cobble together a new South Africanness after three or more centuries of colonialism and apartheid. The great African scholar Mahmood Mamdani[32] has observed that the Achilles’ heel of many African post-independence and liberation movements has been their difficulty in constructing an inclusive concept of citizenship.

To start with, countries such as South Africa, with its politically divided and economically inequitable past, obviously cannot find a solution in a nationalism based on a shared culture, as is often assumed in Western models.[33] South Africa’s democracy is based in fact on a compromise between different groups and an acceptance of our differences. The diversity and inequality bequeathed by both colonialism and apartheid means that modern South Africanness cannot but be plural and inclusive. There cannot be a single definition of who is a South African or even an African. Nelson Mandela’s statement in the dock during his political trial neatly put it that South Africanness cannot be defined in relation to a majority community. In his own autobiography Mandela appealed to the best of African traditions, culture and custom to argue that ‘a minority was not to be crushed by a majority’.[34]

The important discussion document prepared for the ANC’s 2007 national conference, Building a National Democratic Society, argued that in the quest for nation building, South Africa must create a new ‘national democratic identity’.[35] According to the document, nation building would be achieved by securing a ‘social compact of common interests’ and by promoting ‘a common sense of South Africanness and shared responsibility for a common destiny’. Thabo Mbeki’s presidency was in part based on building South Africanness out of a ‘project of common development’.[36] Mbeki rightly attempted to weave together a new South African identity centred on a ‘national consensus’,[37] which rested on an inclusive democracy, core shared values and empathy for the vulnerable cutting across the racial and political divide.

Yet during Mbeki’s administration South Africa seemed to move further away from the sense of a shared national purpose. Many of the President’s allies retreated into ‘nativism’, seeking an exclusive definition of who is an African, which overrode the Constitution’s core definition in terms of multiple identities, diversity and inclusivity. By allying himself with the ‘nativists’, Mbeki diluted his own Nehruvian idea that there can be no retreat into some mystical African past and undermined the belief that the nation will have to be built as a mosaic of the best elements of our diverse histories and cultures. Dividing the nation into natives and non-natives is just a step away from reimposing an ethnic criterion for South Africanness – a kind of retribalisation of South African society. Nativism frequently sees transformation of society as merely involving the replacement of white faces with black, rather than something more thoroughgoing – the development of a new democratic ethos in line with the Constitution. Such a wrong-headed approach to transformation can only undermine efforts at nation building.

In this spirit, some have wrongly called for the Africanisation of public institutions rather than their democratisation. The Cape judge president, John Hlophe, has argued, for instance, that South Africa’s laws must be ‘Africanised’ to make them more ‘relevant’. Of course, he is right when he argues that the judiciary must be ‘transformed’, by making the bench more representative of the country’s population and the laws of the country more ‘accessible’ to the masses.

However, what is still lacking is the full democratisation of the judiciary and the real transformation of the law. Simply concentrating on putting black judges on the bench who issue similar conservative judgments to their white colleagues cannot be construed as transformation.

Hlophe’s own behaviour has come in for criticism. Because he has insisted that the allegations against him are fuelled by white racism, most black colleagues have remained silent out of reluctance to criticise him because they have also experienced racism in the workplace and fear giving legitimacy to the more hardline white critics of transformation. Yet South Africa won’t be able to move forward unless we are able, in Hlophe’s case, to separate individual wrongdoing from the merits of the struggle for transformation of the judiciary. At the same time, we need to recognise that the very cause of transformation may be undermined by those using it to advance personal ambition or to deflect attention from personal shortcomings. In this way the legitimate need for transformation, already an emotionally and politically charged issue in South Africa, is set back.

As the Hlophe debacle reveals, the progressive intellectual must look beyond racial solidarity that supports often undemocratic practices. The American scholar Cornel West warns against the pitfalls of what he calls a resort to black ‘authenticity’ politics, whereby every issue is reduced to ‘racial reasoning’. In this kind of thinking, black intellectuals readily question somebody’s black credentials: ‘Is he or she really black’, ‘Is he or she just black on the outside?’[38] Instead West argues that the public intellectual must ‘replace racial reasoning with moral reasoning, to understand the black freedom struggle not as an affair of skin pigmentation and racial phenotype but rather as a matter of ethical principles and wise politics’.[39] Appeal to nativist or black authenticity often demands that people close ranks behind very dubious personalities and sometimes undemocratic politics. It is a seductively easy way of closing one’s eyes to difficult moral and ethical choices.

If in the early years after liberation, criticism and dissent are not tolerated and a new democratic political culture is not quickly established, ruling parties will either adopt the ways of the state they inherited – especially if, as in South Africa, it was inherited intact from the colonial or apartheid government – or fall back into their limited habits of democracy from the liberation struggle era. Once either of these cultures is entrenched it is very difficult to create a new democratic political culture. Failure to create a democratic culture after liberation often opens the way for a return to autocracy, a reversion to a narrow nationalism and tribalism. This has bedevilled many post-independence attempts by African and developing countries at building democracies. If this happens, citizens will soon feel alienated and eventually lose trust in the democratic political system. Already in South Africa there are worrying signs that many citizens have withdrawn from political activities, some have resorted to expressing their unhappiness violently, while others have become cynical. None of these is good for the democratic spirit. The task of the public intellectual in South Africa is both grave and daunting.


* This is an extract from [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] Ruth Lane, ‘Political culture: residual category or general theory?’, Comparative Political Studies, 25, October 1992, pp. 362–87; and David L. Paletz and Daniel Lipinski, ‘Political culture and political communication’, Working Paper 92, Barcelona, 1994.
[2] Peter Gross, ‘Media and political society in Eastern Europe’, in Mass Media and Democratisation in Eastern Europe, Media Development 1, WACC, 2002 (see
[22] Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Washington: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
[23] Larry Diamond, Is the Third Wave of Democratization Over? The Imperative of Consolidation, Working paper 237, March 1997.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Interviews with Trevor Ngwane, Andile Mngxitama, Dale McKinley and Zakes Hlatswayo, August 2002.
[26] Terence Smith, Ismail Davids and Glenn Hollands, ‘Mbeki’s attacks on NGOs undermine civil society’s right and duty to criticise’, Cape Times, 25 October 2005.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Michael Burawoy, From Liberation to Reconstruction: Theory and Practice in the Life of Harold Wolpe, The Wolpe Lecture, 22 July 2004.
[29] Goldfarb, Civility and Subversion, p. 1.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] See chapter by Mahmood Mamdani in this volume.
[33] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1999).
[34] Mary Benson, Mandela: The Man and the Movement, revised edn (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004).
[35] ANC, Building a National Democratic Society.
[36] Ibid.
[37] ANC, Strategic and Tactical Approaches to the Opposition: ANC NEC Discussion Document, September 2004.
[38] Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Beacon Press, 1993).
[39] Ibid.