‘Hybrid’ South Africa: poised between democracy & autocracy?



A survey by Afrobarometer shows that growing dissatisfaction with the country’s leadership and government performance has spilled over into frustration with democracy in general, writes analyst Boniface Dulani:

Looked at cumulatively since Afrobarometer’s first surveys in 2000, the most recent results suggest that South Africans are becoming increasingly demanding of the country’s democracy. What was good enough at the dawn of democracy is no longer adequate.

Rising dissatisfaction with the performance of elected leaders, both the governing ANC and opposition, indicates that they are no longer exempt from the court of public opinion and urgently need to raise standards to regain public trust, notes Dulani, Afrobarometer’s operations manager.

In reality, South Africa has never reached an embedded democratic state where political rights are supported and protected by civil liberties, argues the University of Cape Town’s Sean Gossel.

Therefore, sociopolitical developments do not represent a reversal from a semi-entrenched democracy. Instead, the country’s post-apartheid experience can be assessed more realistically as an ongoing oscillation between a deepening and a reversal of democratic liberties….. Countries that experience unstable regime shifts have various labels. Generally they are categorised as hybrids with, broadly speaking, amorphous political systems. Publicly they claim to adhere to liberal democracy. This includes having formal democratic institutions and civil and political liberties. But they simultaneously exhibit illiberal or authoritarian qualities.

Hybrid regimes share the following characteristics, all sadly familiar to South Africans, Gossel adds:

  • Populist politics, unaccountable leadership and opaque decision-making processes;
  • Strong democratic institutions associated with elections;
  • Weak institutions that lack credibility;
  • Weak political participation beyond elections. This means limited government accountability, which leads to public frustration with delivery and institutions;
  • Conflict between formal institutions and informal practises. Formal institutions suffer from a trust deficit. Informal practices, including presidentialism, clientelism, and corruption, are entrenched and can take precedence;
  • Weak state capacity. State decision-making is bloated with public-sector participants;
  • The state is unable to respond adequately to democratic pressures because it lacks the necessary institutional and administrative capacity; and
  • Political change is driven by the political elite rather than by the electorate.


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