Skip to main content

Bill Keller, South Africa, and Political Dysfunction

Bill Keller, recently retired executive editor of the New York Times,apparently lived in South Africa for a time as the local bureau chief. The framing device for his column today is what lessons new Arab democracies can learn from South Africa after 18 years of freedom:
I wish I could say the lessons from here are easy. But it is becoming clearer by the day that a glorious constitution carries you only so far if its values have not taken root in the culture.
So South Africa has an exquisite balance of powers on paper — but is, in effect, a one-party state, riddled with corruption. It has a serious independent judiciary — but is now contemplating loopholes to let tribal courts practice South Africa’s version of Shariah. This country was years ahead of the United States in recognizing the rights of homosexuals, including same-sex marriage — yet there is no openly gay leader in the ruling African National Congress, and lesbians have been targets of punitive rape and murder. It has a vibrant, diverse press — and a president who keeps trying to muzzle it.
I too lived in South Africa, from 2009-11, and I witnessed much of what Keller describes. But his bullet-pointed suggestions are aggressively banal. Write a good constitution, he says, peace before justice, activist judges aren’t so bad unless they are, etc. All this is compounded with a Brooksian tendency to passive-aggressively blame the masses. The liberal values of South Africa’s constitution “have not taken root,” new democracies should “make citizens” as South Africa failed to.

The current tottering of the South African state bears eerie similarity to what happened across the continent after the end of colonialism. First, a charismatic leader would lead a liberation movement and take power on the strength of having shoved out the European oppressor. Next would come political repression, galloping corruption, and megalomaniacal excess. The country’s economy would stagnate and spiral down, and then the coups would start.

South Africa has been following this quite closely, especially starting after the world-historical presidency of Nelson Mandela (who was probably the only reason the country isn’t now like Zimbabwe). That kind of a pattern suggests that there are deeper forces at work than “values” failing to “take root.”

That force is a lack of political competition, and it is the number one problem with South Africa. The African National Congress has won every election with over 60 percent of the vote, and the lack of electoral consequences for failure hasn’t done wonders for their moral discipline. So I’d add one bullet to Keller’s list: foster political competition for its own sake.

This is, incidentally, one reason why the projections of a permanent Democratic majority are troubling. The system needs loyal opposition to keep the parties honest, and lately the Republican party has been overtaken with a messianic apocalypticism and doesn’t seem very interested in competing on the electoral turf as it exists today. Instead they hatch plots to rig the system in their favor:
Republicans alarmed at the apparent challenges they face in winning the White House are preparing an all-out assault on the Electoral College system in critical states, an initiative that would significantly ease the party’s path to the Oval Office.
Senior Republicans say they will try to leverage their party’s majorities in Democratic-leaning states in an effort to end the winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes. Instead, bills that will be introduced in several Democratic states would award electoral votes on a proportional basis.
And in the process, they totally destroy their reputation among core Democratic constituencies, who rightly perceive that they are being deliberately disenfranchised. Let’s hope they figure out soon that this is a losing strategy, for everyone’s sake. South Africa is an example of where that road ends.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

On Refusing to Vote for Bloomberg

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg is attempting to buy the Democratic nomination. With something like $400 million in personal spending so far, that much is clear — and it appears to be working at least somewhat well, as he is nearing second place in national polls. I would guess that he will quickly into diminishing returns, but on the other hand spending on this level is totally unprecedented. At this burn rate he could easily spend more than the entire 2016 presidential election cost both parties before the primary is over. I published a piece today outlining why I would not vote for Bloomberg against Trump (I would vote for Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Biden), even though I live in a swing state. This got a lot of "vote blue no matter who" people riled up . They scolded me and demanded that I pre-commit to voting for Bloomberg should he win the nomination. The argument as I understand it is to try to make it as likely as possible that whatever Democrat wins t

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves tha