Just 15 months ago, South Africa’s democracy faced the gravest crisis in its 25-year history. The governing African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, scrambled to oust President Jacob Zuma, whom many accused of fostering a sprawling, deep network of state corruption. So dire was the crisis that a new term entered the national lexicon — “state capture” — when those in power systematically subvert public institutions and divert public resources for political and financial gain.
So what happened in the May 8 national elections? The ANC and its reformist presidential candidate, Cyril Ramaphosa, received 58 percent of the vote. Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader and prominent ANC member, helped forge South Africa’s democratic constitution and later became a wealthy businessman. The ANC installed him as president after it drove Zuma from office in February 2018. As the elections approached, Ramaphosa was well into a cleanup he promised would bring a “new dawn” to reinfuse South African governance with the values of Mandela.
What turned things around?
ANC loyalists had the courage to replace a bad leader with a much better one — and whistleblowers and journalists risked their livelihoods to expose state capture.
As specialists in how political institutions shape the varied patterns of governance in Africa, we analyze recent events in South Africa as a fundamental stress test for the country’s democracy. In pursuing their project of state capture, Zuma and his collaborators tested the foundations of South Africa’s hard-won constitutional order. The fact that nearly all voters chose parties explicitly opposed to the Zuma legacy suggests that although democratic institutions bent, they did not break.