Evan Lieberman on South Africa. Democracy in Hard Places


Evan Lieberman

Evan Lieberman is a Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Director of the MIT Global Diversity Lab, and the faculty director of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). He is the coauthor with Rorisang Lekalake of the recent article “South Africa’s Resilient Democracy” in the Journal of Democracy and author of the forthcoming book Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa after Apartheid.

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When you hear people talk in such disparaging tones, that everything is broken, that nothing is possible, you need to ask yourself, is that right? When you look around, the answer is no. There are these examples where things do go right, where people work together and create a neighborhood or a community for themselves in which they can be prosperous and build better lives. And that’s really what the democratic project is all about.

Evan Lieberman

Key Highlights

  • Why is Evan Lieberman optimistic about democracy in South Africa
  • Role of Nelson Mandela on South Africa’s democracy
  • Importance of South Africa for democracy in the world
  • Account of the housing community Ethembalethu
  • What the 2019 election says about democracy in South Africa

Podcast Transcript

Thank you for listening to the Democracy Paradox: A podcast on democracy, democratization, and world affairs. Each week we talk about big picture insights to better understand political issues and events. These are complex ideas that might be unfamiliar, so I always provide a complete transcript at democracyparadox.com. 

Today’s guest is Evan Lieberman. Evan is a Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Director of the MIT Global Diversity Lab. He also has a forthcoming book called Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa after Apartheid. 

This is the second of my episodes on Democracy in Hard Places. This series of episodes is based on the forthcoming volume edited by Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud. Evan Lieberman does not have a chapter in the book, but South Africa faces numerous challenges due to the legacy of apartheid. At the same time, it has overcome those challenges through its commitment to democracy. 

Nonetheless, a lot of the conversations on South Africa focus on its ongoing challenges rather than its accomplishments. So, Evan’s recent article “South Africa’s Resilient Democracy” in the Journal of Democracy coauthored with Rorisang Lekalake felt like a breath of fresh air. You’ll find Evan does not ignore or deny the challenges South Africa continues to face. It’s just he does not deny South Africa’s accomplishments either. Like always you can send any questions or comments to jkempf@democracyparadox.com. So, here is my conversation with Evan Lieberman…


Evan Lieberman, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Evan Lieberman

Thanks so much. It’s great to be here with you.


Well, Evan, I want to start out with a story, because I feel like your book involves lots of different types of stories. But I want to start out with a character that all of us know well or at least we know the name and that is Nelson Mandela. But I feel like fewer and fewer of us actually know his story. We just know the name. So, why don’t we start there? Can you offer a brief profile of Nelson Mandela, because I think he offers a bridge between the Apartheid Era and South Africa’s democratic era?

Evan Lieberman

Well, Nelson Mandela is certainly one of the most, if not the most inspiring figures from our lifetimes. He was the first president of the multiracial South Africa, which is a pretty amazing feat when you think this was this country that for hundreds of years was ruled by white people over a majority black population. The fact that he was elected and became president was this amazing feat that was the product of his long struggle. He was planning to become a lawyer. He wasn’t necessarily a political activist right off the bat. But he became very much involved in ANC politics which was the African National Congress long before it became a political party. It was a resistance organization that was formed as early as 1912. But he became a part of that and became a leader of it.

As he became increasingly interested in the white supremacist government and how to overthrow it through politics, he used his legal prowess and his charisma to help organize people starting in the 1950s. He eventually decided that this kind of peaceful nonviolent struggle was not going to change the minds of this apartheid regime. Apartheid means apartness. It was basically an idea of keeping white and black people apart. So, he engaged in the violent struggle that he felt was ultimately necessary in order to change this profoundly unjust system of government and then he wound up in jail as a result of his actions in trying to overthrow the government. He spent, as we know, 27 years in jail.

But what was so remarkable about him was that throughout that time, he really thought about ways in which he could help the ANC build a new kind of government in South Africa. He didn’t really speak about revenge or trying to exact a toll on his oppressors, but thought about ways of negotiating a new settlement. But he was tough. Today there’s a lot of talk about whether or not he was tough enough. You know, even at the time there were a lot of his black African comrades who didn’t like the fact that he was willing to negotiate behind the scenes with a white guy. But he did. He really decided to engage in a way that would allow white South Africans to imagine themselves having a potential future in a country that they came to recognize, I think, in large part had governed unjustly.

A majority of whites came to realize ‘We can’t govern over a black population anymore.’ The dispensation that we’ve left here is unfair and unjust. But meanwhile, I think they were nervous about what the future would bring and he remarkably managed to find ways to assure them that they could figure out a way to all live together under democratic rule. Although not a lot of white south Africans voted for Mandela’s ANC Party, I think by and large they accepted that he would probably be the best black leader and by far the majority of black South Africans voted for him. So, he provided this great bridge of a transition from white South Africa to a multi-racial South Africa.


So, Evan, in political science, we typically look for conditions or different events or different variables that determine the outcomes of the way the world evolves. We think of reasons for democratization and they always involve things like economic growth or something else. It’s interesting, because when we think about South Africa, I’m not sure that I can imagine South Africa as a democracy without Nelson Mandela. We don’t often times link individual people to the reason why we end up having the outcomes that we do in political science. So, I just want to ask you would South Africa be a democracy without Nelson Mandela?

Evan Lieberman

You know, I think actually the answer is yes. I mean, Nelson Mandela played a huge role. I don’t know that South Africa would be the democracy that it is without Nelson Mandela. But a lot of the conditions that led to the democratization of South Africa were present in a lot of other countries that underwent democratic regime changes. You know, one of those, of course, was the collapse of the Soviet Union and in many ways, South Africa is part of the third wave of democratization that took place in countries around the world including in many African countries. Even Namibia that neighbors South Africa, which in many ways was an offshoot of South Africa, had a democratic transition a little bit earlier and is still very much a democracy.

The ingredients were there for some kind of transition such as low economic growth and protests. Moreover, this incredibly repressive and unjust regime of the apartheid government had the ultimately positive effect of generating a really strong and robust and committed resistance movement over a very long period of time. So, I think that in many ways, the ANC had a very deep bench with a lot of thoughtful, intelligent, and skilled politicians. I don’t know that any of them were as skilled or as open to this idea of a multiracial democracy as Mandela was. But he was not a complete outlier in his thinking and strategies compared to the mainstream of the ANC.

In many ways, his actions followed from the blueprints of what the ANC wanted to do. So, I think others might disagree and I’ve written about the importance of Mandela, certainly around the time when he eventually passed away. But would South Africa be a democracy today without him? We’ll never know, but my answer would be yes.


Do you feel like his legacy still looms large in South Africa? Because it’s been 20 some odd years since he was president. How does the initial presidency of Nelson Mandela still shape democracy today in South Africa?

Evan Lieberman

Well, I think it shapes it in lots of ways. To a large degree, he came into power talking about basic service delivery. A better life for all was the campaign pledge of the ANC during that first term of office and I think that focus on basic service delivery is still very much there. He also continued very much along the lines of what the ANC had been promoting in the decades since they published the Freedom Charter, which was a declaration of the goals and aspirations of the ANC of what a better and brighter future in South Africa might look like. That was in 1955, but it very much shaped the initial constitution of South Africa and the philosophy around Mandela’s first term with an orientation towards human rights and I think towards relatively fair and even treatment of all people.

Now, I think lots of people would disagree about whether that’s happening in practice, but I think that those ideals were very much instilled during that presidency that he oversaw including the generous way in which he famously reached out to the Springbok team. The Rugby World Cup team that would kind of miraculously prove victorious when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup epitomized in the Matt Damon staring film Invictus. It was an idea that we could all be in this together. I think that sentiment has faded somewhat for lots of reasons including the fact that all transitions give way to the realities of politics and more petty concerns. But I think that those goals and aspirations remain a part of the South African ethos and I think that Cyril Ramaphosa, the current president who was close to Mandela, echoes those sentiments.


I like how you’ve focused on the role of ideals within South African democracy, because I think that that plays an enormous role both in South Africa, but also in terms of the way that we think about it outside of South Africa. The way that we see this as a miraculous case, because of how terrible things were under apartheid for – I don’t even want to say minorities we’ll say marginalized groups, because black Africans are the vast majority within the country. In the book, you emphasize the importance of South African democracy for how we think about democracy in the world. You write, “Whether South Africa is a case of success or failure has enormous implications for how we think about the promise of democracy.” Evan, can you open up about what some of the implications are for democracy based on South Africa’s experience?

Evan Lieberman

Sure. I do think South Africa is a very high leverage case in a lot of ways. What I mean by whether we think of it as a success or failure is important is because podcasts like yours and discussions that lots of us have when we’re thinking about the world today in terms of the political systems that people have chosen or that have been chosen for them and why they come about and what the consequences are, well, that kind of database that’s in our head is limited by a finite number of cases. Some of which haven’t changed very much over a long period of time. So, there’s a bunch out there that have changed and they necessarily affect our views about what’s possible.

So, first in the African context which is world region that I study. Traditionally, Africa hasn’t been a particularly fertile ground for building lasting and robust multi-party democracies. Several countries underwent democratic transitions in the 1990s. Not all of them have gone well. Some countries like Zambia or Malawi or Nigeria or Kenya, they’re not completely collapsed democracies, but they’ve had pretty bumpy roads. If we were to look at South Africa and assess from the record that this was a failed case, I think that would understandably contribute to a fair bit of pessimism about the prospects for democracy in Africa. We’d say, ‘Wow. If South Africa with leaders like Nelson Mandela fails to be democratic, I don’t know what that means for the rest of the continent.’

But again, my reading is much more hopeful, because I view it, as I have written in my book, that ultimately, I think it’s a successful case. That doesn’t mean that democracy is going to be successful everywhere in Africa, but it reminds us that there isn’t something about this region that makes it inimical to being successful in selecting leaders through democratic means and having an open civil society and human rights. There are other countries, particularly in that region, which have been quite successful. But since they’re much smaller, like Botswana or Namibia, South Africa as an important case, I think really can contribute to our imagination that there’s a democratic future that’s possible. Not guaranteed, but that’s possible now.

Secondly, I think South Africa tells us a lot about the possibility of building democracy in what I would call an essentially divided multi-racial society. As I mentioned in the book in some ways I think about it a bit like Israel, where there are deep existential questions of whether two peoples who are so divided can ever manage to figure out a solution, a political solution, in which they can live together, select leaders together, decide on public policies together. You know, at about the same time Israel had a similar moment when two leaders who would get Nobel Peace Prizes were trying to work out a solution to have one state just like South Africa was doing. But the Israeli process got derailed by an assassination and by antagonisms. But in some ways, it could have been.

Israel and Palestine continue to face an existential crisis about what they’re going to do with this stalemate and continued conflict where South Africa really got over this challenge. Again, I think that for many South Africans, as I write about in my book, they are frustrated or unhappy about various outcomes that they see. But if we look at the big picture, I think that South African democracy has been quite successful in solving what really seemed like an unsolvable existential crisis.


I think symbolically it also mirrors the experience that we’ve had within the United States. It’s not a perfect comparison, but apartheid obviously has a lot of similarities to the Jim Crow era within the American South. It helps us look at another example that’s been able to overcome some of the horrible discrimination and even more so than discrimination that happened within South Africa and see that they’ve been able to have somewhat of a democracy, even in a nation that’s developing economically. In a developed economy like ourselves that should have more advantages when we see dark moments in our own democracy, we can look at a country like South Africa and say that we should be able to overcome some of those obstacles.

Even looking beyond, the United States and South Africa I would imagine that in the rest of the world, we’re finding out is much more diverse than what we initially always assumed. People usually think of things as nation states, but it seems that most countries, these days have multiple populations either historically like a country like Myanmar who has multiple ethnicities within it or a country like France that through immigration has developed multiple ethnicities and religions backgrounds.

So, as we try to make these diverse democracies succeed, we want to believe in a case like South Africa that’s in a distant place, that has a tragic history in its past, but has had a miraculous transition. We need to believe that that’s going to be able to succeed into the future and I think that there’s no better symbolism than the idea of the Rainbow Nation that really kind of brings out that sense of hope. Can you tell us a little bit about what that ideal is? This ideal that’s called the Rainbow Nation.

Evan Lieberman

Sure. Let me start by saying that I completely agree with the analysis you just provided, because we’ve all traditionally thought that the world was carved up into these nation states. So, when a country wasn’t a nation state that was an aberration or a problem. That states prefer a particular kind of homogeneous people. Maybe the United States was a little bit of an exception as this place we might call a civic nation or a melting pot. There was this American exceptionalism. But through migration and movement, there’s just so much change everywhere in the world. You know, that idea of homogeneity of race or ethnicity, of creed is just not going to be the organizing principle of societies anymore.

It doesn’t mean that culture isn’t important. It doesn’t mean that legacies of oppression aren’t meaningful to people and their identities in wanting to be recognized for those histories. But we’re clearly living in an age and an era in which politics and government need to recognize that communities are flexible, changing, and that we need to figure out ways to solve problems together all the way up to the global level for problems like climate change. But getting back to the Rainbow Nation, this was an idea that was advanced by the now late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He trid to think of a way for how we conceive of a notion of nationhood that transcends the idea of a racially defined community, because South Africa under apartheid was a white nation.

In fact, that itself was an invention. Because prior to that if you look at the early part of the 20th century, so-called white South Africans were so bitterly divided between Afrikaners and British that they went to a brutal civil war and they described themselves as different race groups. So, they forge this thing called a white nation which at the time was a miraculous coming together of peoples. So, that we began to take for granted that whiteness as different from black Africanness. That it was something that we should take as a given.

The idea of a rainbow nation is upsetting that once again. That all of these different people under apartheid in South Africa, there were four racially classified groups, whites, colors which is kind of a mixed race, but it’s a slightly more complicated category than that, Indians or Asians as a third category and then black Africans among which black Africans are themselves quite diverse in terms of different language groups and backgrounds. So, the idea was ‘Look, we are all these different kinds of people, all living in one part of the earth. We have some shared history and we need to figure out a way to come together to imagine ourselves as being United in our diversity and try to have our institutions and practices to reflect this.’


So, when we think about the Rainbow Nation, and I want to separate that from just the idea of South African democracy for a moment, because South African democracy can succeed even if the ideal for the Rainbow Nation evolves or is even set aside. So, this ideal, the Rainbow Nation, do you feel that it’s succeeded or do you feel like it’s come up short?

Evan Lieberman

I think the ideal is a good one. You know, some could say it’s a little hokey. What’s the solution to diversity? ‘Oh, it will be a rainbow or it will be a melting pot.’ But I think it’s a reasonable one. I challenge other scholars and intellectuals who traditionally have been the ones to try to advance such ideas in various countries around the world. How do you think about Americanness or Frenchness or Brazilianness? It’s an idea. So, I haven’t seen something that squares the circle much better. I think as an idea it still offers promise. I think that as an ideal it’s still in the heads of people in South Africa. When you ask them about it, I think most will say, ‘No. We haven’t yet attained this ideal.’

As I write in the book in surveys a large share of South Africans don’t think that this is going to be possible for some time. But very few think that it’s out of the question. Very few think that this ideal of a Rainbow Nation is just off the table. That they can’t do it. So, while I think lots of south Africans are skeptical or cynical about it, because what they see in their everyday lives is a continuing degree of mistrust across racial and ethnic divides. They see the realities of inequality across the racial divide and various challenges that their society faces. They haven’t solved everything, but it’s still less than 30 years since the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela. I guess I would say that what’s been successful is that that ideal has stuck.

If you look on TV at the newscasters, they always make sure to promote an image of people from different race groups and backgrounds. If you look at corporate board rooms or if you look at schools in urban areas where there is a diversity of people, all of these institutions feel that it is critically important to put forward an image of a diverse and integrated workforce or school.

Now, some of us may say that’s hypocritical or cynical, because we know that a lot of American institutions do that as well and those images do not accord with some of the realities of what’s going on in those institutions. I understand that concern, but I guess my response to that would be in these official documents or in these choices about how to represent their organizations it’s clear that this is an important value. We’re all trying to be the best people we can be. The question is along what dimension. I think the idea of an integrated multi-racial multi-ethnic rainbow nation is clearly still that idea.

So, for me that is a measure of success. Just like in the case of the United States where rates of intermarriage are still low, we still see a fair bit of de facto segregation, all sorts of inequality, the unthinkable extent of violence against people of color and incarceration. So, the problems are large in our society as they are in South Africa. But I think that these values are still there of how do we try to integrate peoples and in my mind in South Africa, they’re moving more quickly than we’ve moved in the United States.


So, you already kind of mentioned, Evan, that it’s not just racism that’s an issue. It’s inequality and the two are tied together within South Africa just like how they’re tied together within the United States. It’s difficult to untangle economic issues from race issues, but I want to touch on the economy and the way that South Africans feel that they’ve actually made progress in their actual lives. In the book you write, “The compromise solution was to combine a largely free market system while actively promoting black economic empowerment.” So, can you help us understand how democratization, how the end of apartheid has changed the South African economy?

Evan Lieberman

So, first of all, I think it’s important to point out that because so many South Africans rightly highlight how economic growth is not what we hoped it would be. That’s particularly true. Over the past several years, it’s been really lackluster, but the waning days of apartheid had consistent stalled and negative economic growth. Economic growth in South Africa was pretty solid for the first 15 years after apartheid. It wasn’t amazing. But there were suddenly real opportunities for work and management positions that were not racially constrained. The economy could focus on productive activities. So, a very large black middle-class developed.

So, in some ways, people take it for granted today. But as an outsider who has been coming back and forth to South Africa over the past 30 years, you look at malls and restaurants and various parts of the country, which may demand various levels of spending power suddenly you see great deal of diversity. You see this large black middle-class and that is a big change. On the other hand, democratization, the election of leaders through votes and choice, doesn’t mean you always get great leaders. The South Africans took on a really lousy president in 2009 in the form of Jacob Zuma. I say lousy in terms of the fact that here’s someone who oversaw and seems to have been the principal actor in a number of highly corrupt and thoughtless schemes that coincided with the global economic meltdown.

If you were to isolate what led to a real decline in South Africa’s economy during this democratic era, those two really important factors ended up being quite crushing for economic growth. Overall, I think inequality has remained staggeringly high in South Africa. If one would have hoped, and even predicted, that a democratic dispensation in which the majority of the population is poor would figure out a way to affect policies and practices that would really shrink the gap between the haves and the have-nots, by some measures South Africa hasn’t been particularly successful. The measures of income inequality are still just profoundly high. Now, again, that’s true the world over. Countries like the United States, other advanced countries, other middle-income countries have become more on equal over this time. The reasons for that are way beyond the scope of this book. My focus is on South Africa.

But, on the other hand, I think what has happened in South Africa which is a result of a democratic government, is a result of the end of apartheid, is so many more social policies which give cash grants, which give housing, which give basic services to the poor majority. They haven’t managed to bring these out to every single person. So, they have not reached universal coverage. Those sorts of statistics don’t figure when you’re looking at income inequality, because they’re not considered income. But they have really softened the blow of profound income inequality. So, I think what we have as a result of the end of apartheid and democratization is a somewhat more just economy. But also a recognition that there’s still a long way to go.


Yeah. I think your book does a really good job of pointing out some of the issues that South Africa still needs to overcome, while at the same time keeping a very optimistic message about South Africa itself, the progress that it’s made, and the opportunity that exists for people that did not exist before. I really want to kind of come back to that. That there’s this yin yang. That there’s still some serious issues that are legacies that exist within South Africa, while at the same time there’s been significant progress. There’s a lot of cause for hope and at the end of the day, I find that the book is very much an optimistic book. It’s a hopeful book. It’s not pessimistic unlike a lot of the literature that has been written on South Africa. I think that a good example of this kind of yin yang is where you talk about this example of a housing community called Ethembalethu. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges it faces, the hope that it brings, and just kind of tell the story of this community?

Evan Lieberman

Ethembalethu is this community in the municipality of Mogale City that’s between formerly rural areas and the big cities. In many ways it is representative of a lot of South Africa and encapsulates lots of the challenges of the country as a whole. As I mentioned before, one of the ways in which the South African government has tried to cushion the blow of this horrible legacy of inequality and that went back to the promises of the Freedom Charter was to deliver housing. I think a lot of South Africans don’t even realize how unique the country is in that the government is promising and providing free housing, meaning in the form of title deeds albeit small, modest homes, but giving a home with a title deed over to its poor citizens. People couldn’t believe it when I said we don’t do that in the United States.

This is kind of a remarkable feat, but what’s frustrating understandably for South Africans is there’s still so much need. However, as great as it is that a government would give housing to its residents, as is the case with public housing in communities around the world, certainly in the United States, sometimes they’re not very thoughtfully constructed. Strong and solid communities don’t necessarily build from it. But one day when I was in Mogale City, I had been introduced to this woman. A really interesting woman, a white woman, whose own land had been occupied by squatters and yet she’d become quite sympathetic to their plight. She became very involved in the politics of the municipality and was driving around, showing me different parts of the municipality.

So, she said, ‘You should check out this neighborhood that’s been really successful called Ethembalethu.’ I said I’d only been here for, I think at that point, a few weeks. I hadn’t heard of it. So, we drove out to this place and in some ways it’s a little bit hidden from the highway. You have to go down a bit of a dusty road to get there. It’s in this more rural part of Mogale City called Muldersdrift and as I write it is what I think was one of the nicest and most successful public housing developments that I’ve seen in a country. It feels secure. People have really beautified their homes. There are 120 of these homes. The streets are clean. People are walking outside, quite happy, feeling secure.

I had the opportunity to interview a man named Molefi Selibo who is now a local counselor. But he helped lead this organization that helped bring this community to fruition. Now, the hard part of all this is how long it took and how hard he had to work. He was once a hairdresser and was kind of a very involved hairdresser. He knew lots of people. People began to see him as a leader and, frankly, as early as 1994 he somehow recognized that it would be a good idea for a community to try and purchase its own land in order to take advantage of the public housing projects that were beginning to be on offer and promised by the ANC.

So, he formed an organization of members, basically poor black south Africans whose ability to own a home or to live somewhere stable was very tenuous, because most people in the rural area were farm workers. If they lost their job, they lost their home and their homes were not in any great shape to begin with. They contributed small amounts of money and they sought to buy a piece of land. So, the thing about this municipality where I focus my study, Mogale City which was centered in Krugersdorp, was very much dominated by Afrikaners of the kind who really supported the apartheid project and are quite conservative. The transformation of 1994 was not a welcome one for them. They really saw this as kind of the beginning of the end and were doing all that they could to preserve their way of life.

So, as Selibo walked me through the story. He just described time after time, how white land owners used their connections within the South African government. Now this was already the government of Mandela, but as you can imagine much of the bureaucracy was still a holdover of the white Afrikaners who were in power. They knew the rules in places like what became Mogale City in this area. They were still making lots of decisions and not necessarily following things to the spirit of the transformation. They kept trying to stall progress on these black would-be homeowners who want to buy land from getting the permits they wanted and they kept outbidding them on whatever land they would buy. They would go to the seller and say, ‘Wait, you can’t sell to these black guys. Let us purchase it.’

So, this organization kept finding itself in court and various sorts of battles until they finally figured out a way to secure the land that they needed to get the permits that they needed. Then in 2014 eventually over 120 houses were built on this land and the people who had contributed along the way got to live in them. So, I conducted a survey in Mogale City municipality and in this area. I found that overall their rates of trust, the way in which they participated as citizens, their overall satisfaction with democracy was just substantially higher among these Ethembalethu residents than elsewhere and even higher rates of employment. You know, it’s impossible. Any of my political scientist colleagues, if I tried to make any cause-and-effect conclusions from this story would tell me that I’m full of baloney.

That would be fair, because there may be all sorts of reasons like who were the people that were willing to contribute, they may have been different at the start and who carried the way all the way through this. So, we can’t say that this project caused these better outcomes in some way. That’s generalizing. But again, like much of the book, I think it’s a reminder of what’s possible. Because people talk about RDP housing and public housing and redevelopment as universally failed, as impossible. You know, this community… although one lesson is boy, they had to work ridiculously hard to get what seemed quite reasonable: to build a community of simple houses and live in a neighborhood.

We know in the United States, this notion of nimbyism, not in my backyard, prevails all over the place when it comes to public housing. That relatively well-to-do white people are not so keen to be generous about having lower income residents nearby. But in this particular case, it really ended up being associated with an improvement in quality of life and seeing that it is possible through various forms of public private partnerships and a strong community to build a better life for people who otherwise would be living in quite destitute conditions.


Well, I think their experience mirrors a lot of the work of people like Robert Putnam and even de Tocqueville on social capital. I mean, this isn’t a new concept. The idea that if people live in a community that ties itself together and builds upon each other and establishes networks of trust, that people are able to accomplish more than they can individually. I mean, that’s an old concept in social science and even before social science, to be honest, that we’ve seen come true again and again. It’s a key building block to democracy and it’s interesting because the community itself feels like that’s what South Africa needs to take the next leap in terms of its democracy.

It needs more communities like those and the thing that was striking was the fact that some of the obstacles they were facing weren’t even from the state itself, but from the community. The idea that they’re getting in the way of free enterprise even. Somebody wanted to sell them land and other neighbors get in the way of allowing them to buy the land. It happened more than once and it just really surprised me. The other thing that surprised me was the fact that when you talk to the local newspaper that they didn’t even realize that this community existed. There was only one reporter that was a black African that even remembered. The white members on the newspaper didn’t even know about it. That shocked me.

Evan Lieberman

Yeah, me too. Me too. I mean, I think that on this point one of the lessons of the book that lots of people might say, ‘Tell me something, I didn’t know.’ But it was a stark reminder for me was the extent to which people tend to focus only on the bad news and particularly newspapers, radio stations, journalists, those who are our information brokers. No one reports on all the planes that landed safely or the projects that worked as planned. But they certainly like to highlight for you the things that didn’t go right.

I talk about that from the beginning of the book with the election. Everyone focused on one little incident of malfeasance in the election that may have been associated with a handful of votes. Everyone around the country knew this one anecdote as if that was evident that things had gone wrong with the election. So, when it comes to public housing or public policy, the South African media institutions do a good job of being watchdogs when things go wrong and oftentimes the government is in fact responsive to those. But some of that needs to be balanced with remembering and appreciating what goes right.

This was an example, a really important one, of the idea of a community building itself up, working hard, contributing, and really creating what, as you mentioned, that kind of social capital. They would make some binding agreements that they wouldn’t just go and sell the houses. They wouldn’t build extra shacks that would look ugly and change the character of the neighborhood they were trying to build. You know, they really did it and did it the way in which social scientists might sit down and say, this is how you should do it. You know, they went and did it. That’s kind of amazing, because we don’t see that as often as we’d like. At the very least we don’t hear about it. So, to me it was striking that this wasn’t more prominent.

Again, I think for some people they’d say, ‘Ah, I don’t know how impressed I should be by this one example. It’s not so many people. There are all these other things that have gone wrong.’ But again, when you hear people talk in such disparaging tones, that everything is broken, that nothing is possible, you need to ask yourself, is that right? When you look around, the answer is no. There are these examples where things do go right, where people work together and create a neighborhood or a community for themselves in which they can be prosperous and build better lives. And that’s really what the democratic project is all about.


So, as we look to wrap up, one of the other things in the book that you’re really focused, on one of… I don’t want to say themes, but an event that was really at the center of the book, the center of the study, was the 2019 election. Elections say a lot about politics, but they also say a lot about communities. They say a lot about society. They say a lot about the health of democracy. So, I’d like to just kind of open up to you to see what the 2019 election told you about the state of South African democracy.

Evan Lieberman

Great. Yeah, I do spend a lot of time on that election starting in Mogale City at the time in which voter registration was going on. It was in the last stages of voter registration, the January before the May 2019 election. So, I think of the election as being those five months. So, this was the 25th anniversary of Mandela’s election and I think it provided an opportunity for us to think about the issues that you and I have been talking about that face South African society.

The first that was clear is how frustrated so many different actors within South African society are. An election campaign is an opportunity for people to talk about what is not going right. That’s quite reasonable, because all of us, as well off as any of us might be and as great government services as I might have here where I live in Brookline, Massachusetts, we’re all interested in a better life. But these were pretty deep seeded frustrations about lack of jobs, inequality, corruption ineptitude in government. Real concerns. So, I think it revealed that because you heard it from so many different voices. But I think that it really revealed that South Africa is functioning as a democracy, as the democracy it was designed to be. The processes worked. They have these institutions.

So, this was for the national and provincial elections. So, they’re run in terms of proportional representation. You have these parties that are really offering distinctive platforms that people could describe. If you asked your average South African what’s the difference between party a and party B, I think they could tell you. They really came to understand what their choices were. It wasn’t just about people or personalities. This was an election about ideas. The parties represented actual ideas and people had lots of opportunities to register. Not everyone did. I mean, there was a lot of disappointment with the fact that rates of voting and registration have gone down over time and understandably that is frustrating and that is not a positive sign.

But the institutions were there. The election itself was really free and fair. So, all of that I think tells us that democracy, at least the basic institutions of leadership selection, are very much intact. I think the results in this case, the fact that the ANC, despite all of the critiques of what was going on, with Cyril Ramaphosa at the helm, still, although barely, won a majority. That the population, that the citizenry, didn’t go in droves to a populist party on the extreme left or extreme right.

That they were still kind of willing to find a more centrist solution to the challenges that the country faces and not yet make a radical departure to me suggested that, although there’s a lot of bluster about frustration with the country, that to a degree, they still want to stay the course a little bit longer and see how well the ANC can do. So, that may be reading a lot into different results and maybe it’s reading into it in a way that accords with the narrative of my book. But clearly what we’re seeing is South Africa’s democracy becoming more competitive. That the ANC itself, which took the mantle of being the liberation party, the party of Nelson Mandela, has not worked at a satisfaction for all voters.

So, other important political voices and other parties have gained strength. Yeah, that poses certain challenges, but ultimately, I think it’s a good thing that there is this competition. Competition is what keeps democracies accountable and afloat. At times it can be fierce and we don’t know what the future will bring. But to me, that 2019 election, and, frankly, the local election that followed a few years later suggests that South Africa’s democracy is successful. It’s vibrant. It offers a lot of potential both for people in that country and for people around the world to think about this really challenging, but best of all alternatives solution to how we govern ourselves.


Well, thanks so much for joining me. I was really impressed with the book that you wrote Until We Have Our Liberty: South Africa After Apartheid. But I was also impressed with the recent article that you wrote in the Journal of Democracy, “South Africa’s Resilient Democracy,” and as we kind of talked, especially with the comments that you just had, that it really emphasizes the fact that South Africa truly does have a resilient democracy to this day. So, thanks so much for joining me today.

Evan Lieberman

Thanks so much. It was great to chat with you today.

Key Links

Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa after Apartheid by Evan Lieberman

South Africa’s Resilient Democracy” by Evan Lieberman and Rorisang Lekalake in Journal of Democracy

Learn more about Evan Lieberman at www.evanlieberman.org

Follow Evan Lieberman on Twitter @evlieb

Democracy in Hard Places edited by Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud

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Email the show at jkempf@democracyparadox.com

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