In South Africa and Elsewhere, Democracy Has to Deliver the Goods

In South Africa, popular disillusionment with the inequality of the postapartheid order runs so deep that support for authoritarianism is on the rise. It’s a striking reminder that democracy must deliver material gains for the masses to remain a vibrant force.

Protesters demonstrating against planned electricity tariff increases on February 2, 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Lubabalo Lesolle / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

In 2009, historian Jacob Dlamini published the quickly popular Native Nostalgia, a memoir centered on his apartheid-era childhood in South Africa. Dlamini fondly remembers radio programs, school, speaking in Afrikaans (“the language of the oppressor”), and especially tight familial and community bonds. The book was controversial. Some condemned it, while others defended it on ethical grounds. Dlamini does not celebrate state-sanctioned racial domination, and he acknowledges its brutality. But he does seem, as Eric Worby and Shireen Ally put it, to pose the “politically incorrect question: could it be that life for blacks under apartheid . . . was not quite as bad as critical histories tell us”?

We must not stretch the point too far. Black apartheid nostalgia is hardly widespread. According to the Afrobarometer survey, in 2008, nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of Black African residents in South Africa agreed that life was currently worse than it was under apartheid. In the 2015 survey, 14 percent of Black African residents rated the apartheid government higher than the postapartheid government, and 10 percent of Black African residents approved of a return to apartheid.

These are fairly small, albeit nontrivial, proportions. Rather than dismiss the phenomena, however, I suggest that it provides a useful glimpse into the frustrations of the present. The numerically insignificant pattern of black apartheid nostalgia emerges within the soil of a much wider pattern of critique and protest — one that takes square aim at the postapartheid state.

Nostalgia as Critique of Democracy

Why might black residents express fondness for what renowned historian George Fredrickson described as “the most comprehensive racist regime meant to be a permanent structure that the world has ever seen”?

One answer lies in the particular dynamics of South Africa’s democratic transition. This dramatic shift combined, on the one hand, the abolition of formal racial discrimination, and on the other hand, the preservation of a highly unequal capitalism. Economic hardships persist in a postapartheid capitalism that relegates many black residents to poverty, unemployment, and precarious work.

These conditions produced sharp feelings of betrayal, directed primarily at government and political leaders. Governance woes — from corruption scandals to challenges with delivering public goods such as water and electricity — only compound frustration with economic hardship.

At the same time, race no longer frames the problems at hand as it once did under apartheid. Indeed, black residents dominate the upper echelons of government, and they are rapidly entering the middle class.

Further, democratization reoriented popular politics. Formal racial inclusion pushed concerns about legalized racial discrimination to the background and thrust popular aspirations toward the state. The African National Congress (ANC) famously stoked such expectations by promising a “better life for all.”

Amid the ruling ANC’s failure to deliver on such promises, some residents looked beyond the racism of the apartheid state to find an example of more effective government. Nostalgia was a form of critique.

Nostalgia Blooms Amid Resistance

Popular resistance has been a consistent feature of postapartheid South Africa. The early 2000s saw the rise of “new social movements,” such as the Anti-Eviction Campaign and the Anti-Privatisation Forum, which leveled incisive critiques of the postapartheid state and its associations with neoliberalism. From the late 2000s, this resistance exploded in the form of widespread local protests around issues of housing, water, electricity, and, more generally, the demand for better public “service delivery.”

The research that I conducted for my book, Fractured Militancy: Precarious Resistance in South Africa After Racial Inclusion, took me to impoverished black townships and informal settlements where protests had occurred. I did not intend to study apartheid or nostalgia, but they emerged organically as residents — predominantly the poor, unemployed, or activists — used the comparison to articulate views of the present. In response, I began to ask about apartheid directly, prompting interviewees to evaluate whether things had gotten better or worse.

Some residents emphasized the bureaucratic integrity of the government under apartheid, contrasting it with corruption and empty promises under democracy. Others pointed to social protection, including especially the apartheid state’s ability to provide public goods, invest in the economy, and create jobs. Ayanda, a protest organizer from Tsakane who was born in 1974, remarked:

The apartheid government was very good compared to the one we have now. . . . If the [current] government can review what that government did, and take away that it was done for a certain group, [and instead] do it for all South Africans, I think that is something that can take our country forward . . . small pipes that can be easily blocked [today], that was not happening during apartheid . . . the [apartheid] government would make sure that there is electricity and water . . . the roads that were made before 1994, we are still using them, they are still going on strong. But the ones that were made [under democracy], there are no inspections, it is just patch and go.

Ayanda did not seek a return to apartheid. Rather, in the form of what Svetlana Boym calls “reflective nostalgia,” she used a longing for apartheid as a way to critique the current government and look toward an alternative future.

In this sense, apartheid nostalgia was quite consistent with South Africa’s widespread protests. Both condemned the bureaucratic failures of the postapartheid state and its inability to provide goods such as housing, electricity, water, and jobs. And they both called for a different future.

A Return to Authoritarianism?

If some reconstructions of apartheid pushed toward a more equal, democratic, and racially just society, others demanded greater coercion or exclusion. Mirroring widespread xenophobia, some residents expressed appreciation for apartheid-era pass laws that restricted migration into urban areas. As I show in Fractured Militancy, so-called service delivery protests and xenophobic attacks often overlapped with each other, despite proposing widely divergent solutions.

Apartheid nostalgias in democratic South Africa thus pointed to a future-oriented terrain of struggle, with competing visions of economic security rooted in either state-led redistribution or coercion and order.

Nostalgic longings did not feature prominently in popular movements and discourse. Public condemnation of white opposition politician Hellen Zille’s suggestion, in 2017, that colonial rule in South Africa was not “only negative” revealed the political limits of any approach along these lines. Nonetheless, there is certainly some desire for greater order. According to the 2015 Afrobarometer survey, nearly two-thirds of black residents were willing to “give up regular elections” in exchange for a “non-elected government or leader [who] could impose law and order, and deliver houses and jobs.”

Many in South Africa agree that greater steps are needed to ensure redistribution and economic security. But will these steps arrive via a deepening of democracy and public accountability, or instead a return to authoritarianism?