In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of South Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • South Africa Before Apartheid

Political Science Politics of South Africa
Tom Lodge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0159


Modern South African politics is organized around liberal democratic institutions. Sophisticated political parties compete in properly administered elections. A bill of rights enforced through a constitutional court checks executive power. Strong trade unions, vigorous civil society, and a free press each enliven political life. Optimism about South Africa’s future needs qualification, though. One political party, the African National Congress, predominates. Through its use of patronage within the bureaucracy, boundaries that should separate party concerns from public interest have become blurred. Patronage has promoted inefficiencies, especially obvious in education, public health, and municipal administration. Venality has become routine in public contracting and in secret donations to political parties. Sharp social inequality and high levels of poverty persist despite heavy expenditure on social grants. South Africa’s crime rates and its level of HIV-AIDS infection also point to severe social stresses. The virtues and the shortcomings of this political regime reflect its history. Until 1994, discriminatory laws disenfranchised most South Africans. Under apartheid and earlier segregationist orders instituted by white settlers, Bantu-language-speaking “Africans,” about 80 percent of the population in 1990, were excluded from most kinds of citizenship. Their mobility was governed by “pass laws” and restrictions on their urbanization, which began to be developed in the late 19th century. From 1948, “apartheid” controls imposed by Afrikaner nationalist administrations attempted to ensure that as few Africans as possible should become permanently urbanized. Instead, policymakers hoped the economy would depend on migrant workers maintaining their families in designated ethnic “homelands.” The details of modern South African politics were shaped by the bargaining that accompanied the 1994 constitutional settlement. The integrity of South African elections is also the legacy of the procedural routines that governed white party politics between 1910 and 1994. The organizations that predominate in today’s political life have long lineages. Critical media, strong trade unions, and lively associational life also draw on well-established institutions often dating back decades. More negatively, one-party authoritarianism is a strongly entrenched feature of South African politics. It is a product of racially segmental nationalism still evident in voting behavior and the demotic political language used by political parties to their core supporters. Corruption is partly attributable to leftover habits of patrimonial rule that apartheid helped to preserve in ethnic homelands. Poverty and social inequality were institutionalized by apartheid. In short, historical predispositions exercise profound and competitive influences over South Africa’s modern political trajectory.

General Overviews and Textbooks

Widespread international interest in South Africa’s transition to democracy has helped to ensure a strong market on American and British campuses for general treatments of South African politics. On the whole, academic assessments of the political record since apartheid are disparaging. Deegan 2011 and Lodge 2003 balance their treatments between achievements and failures, and both suggest that political authoritarianism is subject both to institutional and popular checks that include public sentiment. In Butler 2009 the emphasis is on the democratic deficit. Marais 2011 is representative of a range of authorities that argue that South Africa’s democratic and developmental prospects are limited by powerful economic interests. Finally, the Human Sciences Research Council published six annual reviews of the State of the Nation between 2003 and 2009, edited principally by Roger Southall and John Daniel. These are multiauthored compilations that survey different facets of policymaking and implementation. The series continued under a new title from 2010 as the New South African Review, edited by John Daniel and Prishani Naidoo and published by the University of the Witwatersrand Press. Citations of individual chapters from these volumes appear in different sections of this article.

  • Butler, Anthony. Contemporary South Africa. 2d ed. Contemporary States and Societies. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Introductory text that offers critical commentary about the government’s shortcomings with respect to service delivery and accountability. Maintains that recent developments point to the emergence of an effective “one-party” state.

  • Deegan, Heather. Politics South Africa. 2d ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman, 2011.

    Accessible undergraduate-level textbook, based partly on original research. Narrative treatment. Includes events up to the 2009 general election, and a poll-based analysis of “contemporary South Africa.”

  • Lodge, Tom. Politics in South Africa: From Mandela to Mbeki. 2d ed. Oxford: James Currey, 2003.

    Not for beginners. Assessment of the achievements and shortcomings of the first and second governments led by the African National Congress (ANC) party. Notes the “amorphous” character of the ruling party. Within the ANC’s varied following, no one group holds undisputed power, Lodge suggests.

  • Marais, Hein. South Africa Pushed to the Limit: The Political Economy of Change. London: Zed Books, 2011.

    Modern poverty and inequality in South Africa are partly the consequence of the historical terms of its incorporation within the international economy by a “mineral-energy complex,” as well as the effects of the continuing predominance within its economy of international “conglomerates.” Yet, “neo-liberal” strategic choices by post-1994 governments are also to blame.

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