Consent of the Governed: Country Studies — South Africa

South Africa Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016. Status: Free. Freedom Rating: 2; Political Rights: 2; Civil Liberties: 2.

South Africa


South Africa is a republic and constitutional democracy, with a president chosen by the popularly elected lower house of a bicameral legislature. The previous system of apartheid, in which a white minority oppressed a large majority of black Africans, so-called coloureds (people of mixed-race), and Asians, was abolished starting in 1991 after decades of resistance and international pressure.

Following negotiations between the ruling National Party, the African National Congress (ANC) and other parties, an interim consensus constitution was adopted in 1993. The ANC won free, multiparty and multi-racial elections held in April 1994 for a Constitutional Assembly, which elected as president the ANC’s leader, Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in prison. In 1986, the Assembly adopted a permanent constitution (by an 86 percent majority). The new constitution came into force the next year following final approval by the Constitutional Court. South Africa has held four national elections since then.

South Africa is the 25th-largest country in the world (1,219,000 square kilometers). The 2015 population is estimated at 55 million people, of whom 79 percent are black African, 10 percent are white, 8.5 percent are coloured, and 2.5 percent are Asian (mostly of Indian origin). The black population is itself diverse, with major ethnic groups including the Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, and Ndebele, each speaking distinct languages. The white population is mainly Afrikaner (descended from Dutch settlers and speaking Afrikaans), but also includes a large community of British descent from the 100-year period of British colonial rule. There are 11 recognized “official” languages; English serves as the lingua franca.

Rich in natural resources, South Africa's economy is the second largest on the continent after Nigeria and growth averaged around 5 percent in the last decade. Despite this growth and the emergence of a sizable black middle class, economic disparity between white and black remains quite large. The unemployment rate, affecting mostly blacks, is about 25 percent. Thus, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), nominal gross domestic product (GDP) ranked a healthy 33rd in the world for 2014 at $350 billion, but South Africa’s per capita gross national income (GNI) ranked only 90th at $6,800 per annum.  



South Africa's black population is made up mostly of Bantu peoples, who originally migrated from northern parts of Africa, and the San (known to white settlers as Bushmen). Pastoral, agricultural, and hunter-gatherer groups developed into distinct civilizations and kingdoms over time, each with their own spoken languages, but the region did not enter the written histories of the European world until the first Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

Colonization and the Great Trek

Following a series of abortive attempts by the Portuguese to colonize the area, the Dutch East India Company established the first successful European settlement on the Cape in 1652. As the Dutch expanded this settlement, they battled with indigenous Africans, especially the Xhosa kingdom, in the Cape Frontier Wars. The indigenous people were not easily conquered and the Dutch imported slaves to meet their labor needs, mainly from Dutch colonies in Asia.

Britain initially seized the Cape colony in 1795 as part of its conflict with revolutionary France. After briefly ceding the territory to the French-backed Dutch state (1803–06), the British regained authority over the Cape in 1814. The Dutch settlers, chafing at British rule, began migrating in large numbers to areas northeast of the Cape and forged a new identity as an “indigenous” African nation, calling themselves Trekboers (Wandering Farmers), later known simply as Boers. Britain's abolition of slavery throughout its empire in 1833 spurred the Boers, strict believers in white racial superiority and separatism, to migrate to new territories in the northeast and led to the establishment of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The Boer Wars

The British consolidated their control over what is now South Africa by conquering Zululand in 1879. Britain had already seized diamond mines located in disputed Boer areas and annexed Transvaal. In the First Boer War in 1880, Transvaal revolted and inflicted a quick and decisive defeat on British forces. Transvaal regained its independence, calling itself the South African Republic (SAR). The Second Boer War arose after the discovery of gold in the northern region of Witwatersrand. A flood of non-Boer white prospectors and other newcomers migrated to the area, threatening Boer identity and independence. The SAR rejected British demands to give foreign whites the vote and fighting broke out in 1899. This time the British won, in part by adopting brutal tactics, including a scorched-earth campaign. A treaty signed in 1902 forced Transvaal and the Orange Free State to recognize British sovereignty.

The Union of South Africa

In 1910, Britain created the Union of South Africa, a federation of the Transvaal, Orange Free State, the British-dominated Cape Colony, and Natal (Zululand). A self-governing dominion within the British Empire similar to Australia, the Union of South Africa granted the Boers, or Afrikaners, the right to home rule. Black Africans were denied voting rights in all four states and suffered under discriminatory laws. Protests were crushed by the authorities. The Union of South Africa was a key ally of the British in World War I, driving the Germans from their colony of South West Africa (Namibia). In 1939, it joined Britain’s World War II effort after Jan Smuts regained control of the ruling party from an anti-British, pro-Nazi faction.


In the 1948 elections, however, an anti-British backlash brought pro-Nazi and avowedly racist parties to power. The coalition government of Prime Minister D. F. Malan began instituting apartheid, meaning “separateness” in Afrikaans. In part, this was a formalization and extension of previous British “pass laws” and land acts that remained in force and kept blacks from traveling freely, obtaining employment where they wished, or owning land. The apartheid laws, however, brought a new level of racial discrimination, instituting strict separation in all areas of life. The system was also designed to strengthen the Afrikaners' economic position against the British, placing most assets in Afrikaner hands. While the white minority of Afrikaner and English descent enjoyed formal democracy and general freedom, blacks, coloureds, and Indians lived in a repressive police state that suppressed all opposition to the apartheid system. Blacks suffered the greatest discrimination and lived in mounting economic misery and social isolation.

Mahatma Gandhi

Opposition to Apartheid

There is a long history of indigenous African opposition to colonization, segregation and apartheid. As noted above, the Xhosa, Zulu, and other nations resisted encroachment on their territories over two centuries. The British takeover of Zululand in 1879 came at a heavy cost, including the worst colonial defeat in British history at the battle of Isandlwana.

At the turn of the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi, who was then living in South Africa as a young lawyer, emerged as a notable activist against discrimination. He helped organize the South African Indian Congress and campaigns of civil resistance (he was arrested 20 times in efforts to reverse discriminatory laws). Inspired by the Indian Congress, black community leaders and various ethnic chiefs organized the South African Native National Congress in 1912 (later renamed the African National Congress, or ANC) to oppose racist laws by the new Union of South Africa, but without success.

Armed and Peaceful Resistance

In 1944, Nelson Mandela and others organized an ANC youth wing, which dedicated itself to organizing massive civil resistance. It organized national protests such as the Defiance Campaign in 1952 and the local Sharpeville Protest in 1960. The brutal suppression of these peaceful campaigns, however, led the ANC to take up armed resistance in 1961. Mandela, the first leader of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), was arrested in 1962. He was sentenced in 1964 to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Over time, armed resistance proved ineffective against the overwhelming power of state security forces. Internal civil resistance, especially by new black trade unions and student organizations, gained greater strength within the country, especially in the late 1970s and 1980s.

 The National Party government declared the country to be a republic in 1961 and withdrew South Africa from the British Commonwealth, whose members universally opposed apartheid. Beginning in the 1950s, international campaigns were organized to pressure South Africa to end apartheid through sanctions, disinvestment, and other means. The government tried to maintain support, especially from the United States, by presenting itself as a bastion against communist expansion in southern Africa during the Cold War, but even this rationale failed. By 1986, the US imposed a policy of economic and political sanctions.

In 1989, the combination of growing internal resistance and mounting international pressure led the newly installed president, F. W. de Klerk, a relative moderate, to establish negotiations with the still-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. By then, Mandela was convinced that continued armed struggle was pointless and was committed to a strategy of non-violent change. De Klerk finally ordered the release of Mandela in 1990 after more than 27 years in prison, most of them in isolation. Over time, the two leaders’ negotiations led to lifting the ban on the ANC (as well as the Pan-Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party), an end to apartheid laws, and ultimately the adoption of a new interim constitution in 1993. Democratic multiracial elections were held in April 1994 and the ANC won in overwhelming fashion. Its leader, Nelson Mandela, was elected president by the new Constituent Assembly that May.

President Nelson Mandela

Consent of the Governed

There was no consent of the governed for the majority of the population under the white-dominated Union of South Africa after its establishment in 1910. Whites enjoyed basic freedoms and had the right to vote, while black Africans and Coloureds were denied the vote. In 1948 elections, racist and anti-British white Afrikaner parties seized full control of the government, renamed the country as the Republic of South Africa, and established a system of apartheid (“separateness”) — an even harsher, more discriminatory race-based authoritarian rule in which the white minority denied all human rights to blacks, coloureds, and Asians, with particular discrimination and use of violence against blacks. Since the end of apartheid and the first free multi-racial elections in 1994, the country has been a constitutional republic holding regular democratic elections and having institutions with guarantees of human rights to all groups.

Establishment of Democracy

The 1993 interim constitution established the foundation for a multiracial democracy, allowing all citizens to participate in the first free, multiracial elections for a bi-cameral parliament. These were held on April 27, 1994 (the date was later proclaimed South Africa's Freedom Day). In those elections, the African National Congress (ANC) won 62 percent of the vote, with the Afrikaaner-based National Party taking 20 percent and the Inkatha Freedom Party (an ethnic Zulu party) 10 percent of the vote. Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in jail before being freed and resuming leadership of the ANC, won the presidency in a landslide vote within the lower house of Parliament, which also served as a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. was a harsh, race-based authoritarian rule in which a white minority denied all human rights to blacks, coloureds, and Asians, with particular discrimination and use of repressive violence against blacks.

As required by the interim constitution, President Mandela convened a Government of National Unity (F.W. de Klerk was initially Deputy President). It oversaw the initial political transition and set in process the drafting and adoption of a final constitution in 1996 by the Constituent Assembly. The constitution reflected Mandela’s strong commitment to human rights and to building a multi-racial country. It includes a sweeping bill of rights that guarantees equal rights to all, while also allowing affirmative action to redress previous racial disadvantages. The constitution came into effect in 1997 after being approved by the South African Constitutional Court, which examined whether provisions conformed to international human rights conventions.

In 1995, Mandela also created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a means of addressing the past apartheid system. It had authority to provide amnesty to all those who came forward to tell the truth about atrocities and police actions during the era of apartheid. Only those who refused to tell the truth were subject to punishment. The televised hearings provided families with information about the fate of loved ones and the citizenry learned the facts about the former regime's brutal and elaborate efforts to control the non-white population. The process made definitively clear the apartheid regime's basic illegitimacy and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was used as a model for other post-dictatorship societies trying to come to grips with past injustices. Many people, however, criticized the proceedings because no criminal penalties were meted out to the perpetrators who revealed their crimes from the apartheid era.

Democracy Today

Today, South Africans are free to choose their government democratically. In the four democratic national elections that have been held since 1994, the ANC has held a large electoral advantage (62.1 percent in 2014, only slightly down from 66.4 percent in 1999). The liberal, multi-racial Democratic Alliance supplanted the post-apartheid New National Party as the principal opposition party (it gained 22.2 percent of the vote in 2014), while the new formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a more radical party whose members split from the ANC, has emerged as the third largest party (with 6.4 percent of the vote).

In a continent known for long-ruling strongmen, Nelson Mandela made the unusual choice of serving only one term.  After the June 1999 elections, he was succeeded in the presidency by his deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, who was also elected to a second term, the constitutional limit, in 2004. Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s deputy president and expected successor, was forced to resign over corruption charges that were later dismissed on procedural grounds (he was also acquitted of a rape charge in 2006). In a leadership fight with Mbeki, Zuma was elected head of the ANC in 2007 having gained strong support among youth and the poor as a populist leader claiming to represent the masses. Mbeki himself was forced to resign as president before the end of his term in early 2008 after being accused by the ANC leadership of misusing the police and judicial system against Zuma. After an interim successor, Zuma was elected president in 2009 by a new parliament following that year’s legislative election. He was elected to a second term by parliament after the 2014 elections.

Current Issues

Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95. In the weeks-long mourning that took place in South Africa — and the world — Mandela was hailed as one of the great political leaders of the 20th century. He was remembered both as a freedom fighter whose long 27-year imprisonment inspired the struggle against apartheid and also as a post-apartheid leader who fostered human dignity, democracy, multi-racial harmony and, ultimately, forgiveness of his oppressors.

Yet, the political dominance of the ANC, the organization Mandela led, has led some to question South Africa's democratic character. The ANC has little electoral competition and the newfound wealth of some of its leaders (including current President Zuma) has raised concerns over endemic corruption. In the most notable recent case, the Constitutional Court ruled in early 2016 that President Zuma had to pay the state back millions of dollars for luxury renovations of his home that he had claimed were necessary for “security,” a scandal that has given rise to calls for Zuma’s resignation. There has also been concern that both Mbeki and Zuma have led the country in a more racially biased direction, in contrast with Mandela's vision of a “rainbow nation.”

However, dominance by a coalition that was central to the overthrow of authoritarian rule is not unusual in new democracies (see, for example, Country Study of Chile). The constitution itself has established stable democratic institutions with checks and balances, the rule of law, and a federal system of local self-government. The Democratic Alliance, whose origins go back to the liberal Progressive Party during the apartheid era, is the principal opposition to the ANC in parliament. It proposes alternative programs and platforms and challenges the ruling party on numerous issues. Also, right-leaning and left-leaning factions within the ANC vie openly and some ANC leaders split from the organization to form alternative parties (including former President Mbeki), although none have had lasting success. The most recent of these is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), now the country’s third largest party, which is led by a radical youth leader, Julius Malema. A former ANC Youth League president who challenged President Zuma for abandoning promises to the poor, Malema was expelled from the ANC in 2012 for “hate speech” and was also charged with fraud and money laundering (the charges were dropped in August 2015 when a judge ruled that the lengthy investigation had violated due process rights).

Within the ANC itself, other rivalries may cause future divisions. At the ANC’s December 2012 Congress, Zuma, after being re-elected leader, proposed the former mine workers’ union leader turned business tycoon, Cyril Ramaphosa, to serve as his deputy president and presumed successor. The election of Ramaphosa marked a significant shift from Zuma’s more radical and populist roots.

The vibrant civil society that emerged during the period of civil resistance to apartheid also works to check the abuse of power, combat corruption and lobby for policy changes. Free trade unions act vigorously to protect their members in growing defiance of the government. Civic and human rights organizations and independent media participate in all public debates, from legislation to court rulings. One of the more important debates on public policy in recent years has revolved around the Protection of State Information Bill. Initially passed by the National Assembly in 2011, the law broadly criminalized unauthorized disclosure of state information and imposed harsh penalties of 25 years’ imprisonment for disclosure of information “that might benefit a foreign government.” A number of organizations came together in the “Right2Know Campaign” in order to change the bill to include a “public interest” provision to protect whistleblowers and allow greater disclosure of “state-protected” information. After prolonged debate, a revised version of the bill passed in November 2013, but still without the provisions advocated by the Right2Know Campaign. South African journalist and media associations, along with the Right2Know Campaign, have called for President Zuma to send the bill to the Constitutional Court for review.

Civic, student and worker protests demonstrate the freedoms protected under the South African constitution but the issues they address also reflect the continuing harsh legacy of apartheid. With the advent of democracy, blacks have gained greater access to higher education and professional training and have increased their level of property ownership and involvement in social and economic sectors. A significant black business and middle class has emerged. But the gains are comparatively small relative to the overall black population (80 percent). The white minority retains much of its economically privileged status and there remains a high level of entrenched poverty (black unemployment is 25 percent).

Students and student organizations, involving both black and white students, organized protests in 2015 against proposed tuition increases at South African universities. The protests included demands to redress continuing disparities in white and black enrollment and faculty appointments and a lack of changes in administration and curricula. The day after police used force to disperse a large national demonstration held outside the parliament building in Johannesburg, President Zuma announced a freeze on tuition increases.

Another issue compounds economic disparities: the prevalence of HIV infection in South Africa. As of 2014, the country had the highest infection rate in the world: around 12 percent of the total population (18.1 percent of the adult population), with a total of 5.6 million cases. There are an estimated 2 million orphans as a result of AIDS-related deaths. The HIV crisis is an example of a tragic health policy. As infection rates began to rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s, then-President Mbeki refused to accept scientific data on how the disease was spread, prevented government distribution of anti-retroviral medication, and insisted that AIDS was a disease of “poverty” requiring “an economic approach.” In 2003, the Treatment Action Campaign, including former president Nelson Mandela, succeeded in lobbying the government to change some of its policies, but it still dragged its feet on education, treatment and prevention efforts. Jacob Zuma took more affirmative steps once in office to make anti-retro viral drug treatment broadly available (treatment now reaches more than 2 million people), to encourage testing (an estimated million people were tested in 2013), and enact government education plans for prevention (one poster showed Nelson Mandela endorsing condom use). By 2012, the number of AIDS-related deaths had dropped to 280,000. International health organizations stated that the epidemic had reached its peak. Still, the overall impact of the crisis is hard to reverse: in the 2000s, AIDS-related deaths accounted for almost 50 percent of all mortalities, and life expectancy in South Africa has declined to just over 50 years.

Since the end of apartheid, Freedom House has consistently ranked South Africa in the category “free,” with high measurements for electoral processes, political pluralism, human rights, association, and expression, and slightly lower measurements for rule of law, personal autonomy and individual rights, security, and governance. It expressed growing concern for increasing levels of societal and police-led violence and corruption as well as threats to media freedom indicated in the Protection of State Information Bill.