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Following its series of articles on corruption within South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC), the New York Times published an editorial on April 23 accusing the party of “a betrayal” of its ideals. That being said, the Times acknowledges that corruption elsewhere in Africa and the world is worse than it is in South Africa, and that corruption was heavily associated with ex-president Jacob Zuma. However, the Times points out that the new party leader and state president, Cyril Ramaphosa, became rich partly through his party connections. It therefore questions whether he is capable of using “the democratic tools to combat the blight of corruption,” but nevertheless acknowledges that those tools exist and provide a means of overcoming it. The ouster of Zuma was an important first step in that regard.
The Times correctly points out that since independence, little has been done to address the gross inequality of South African society, in which most white South Africans enjoy a high standard of living while most black South Africans—eighty percent of the population—have social and economic statistics characteristic of the developing world. Indeed, the white minority is wealthier compared to the black majority now than it was in 1994 when Mandela was inaugurated president, notwithstanding a tiny black elite that has grown rich largely through government connections.
The Times goes on to associate enduring black poverty with Nelson Mandela’s “grand bargain” with “the white minority.” However, it inadequately acknowledges the circumstances surrounding the transition to non-racial democracy. It is true that while the deal gave the black majority control over politics, the economy—and wealth—remained in the hands of whites. But Mandela had little choice. The ANC and other liberation movements had far from defeated the apartheid state; they could render ungovernable some of the townships some of the time, but never seriously threatened to overthrow the entire system. For the ruling-white minority, the economy was stagnating, the intellectual underpinnings of apartheid had been destroyed, and they felt acutely their international pariah status.
Hence, the 1994 coming of “non-racial democracy” was not a liberation movement victory over apartheid; instead, it was a bargain in which whites yielded political power to predominately-black liberation movements in return for the preservation of their economic privileges and an end to international condemnation—and sanctions. (That is not to say that the liberation movements did not earn their spot at the table or to diminish their role.) The apartheid state, led by President F. W. de Klerk, together with the liberation movements, led in part by Nelson Mandela, concluded that neither could prevail outright and that continuation of the status quo raised the specter of a race war. So, for better or worse, they made a deal that prioritized the expansion of civil rights and democracy rather than the equitable distribution of wealth and economic opportunity.