This is the executive summary of my new paper published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece. For my more personal take on the parallels between South Africa and the USA, and their implications, click HERE.
Over the past decade, toxic interactions between persistent inequality, racial tensions, and political polarization have undercut the promise of South Africa’s so-called rainbow miracle transition from apartheid to democracy. South Africa’s recent history sheds light on the United States’ recent political travails. It illustrates how interactions between inclusion and inequality on the one hand and political ideas and entrepreneurship on the other can fuel positive spirals of hope, economic dynamism, and political legitimacy—but can also trigger vicious, downward spirals of disillusion, anger, and political polarization.
Polarization has both a demand-side and a supply-side. The demand-side comprises the way citizens engage politically – as shaped by power, by their perceptions of the fairness of economic outcomes, and by whether they frame identity in inclusive or in us/them ways. The supply-side comprises political entrepreneurs and the ideas they champion – ideas about how the world works; ideas about identity. In both South Africa and the USA, the demand- and supply-sides of polarization have been mutually-reinforcing.
South Africa was able to transition from a society structured around racial oppression into a nonracial democracy whose new government promised “a better life for all.” Especially remarkable was the speed with which one set of national ideas appeared to give way to its polar opposite. From a society marked by racial dominance and oppression, there emerged the aspiration to build an inclusive, cooperative social order, underpinned by the principles of equal dignity and shared citizenship.
In the initial glow of transition, South Africa’s citizens could hope for a better life for themselves and their children. In time, though, the promise wore thin. It became increasingly evident that the economic deck would continue to be stacked, and that the possibility of upward mobility would remain quite limited. Fueled by massive continuing inequities in wealth, income, and opportunity, South Africans increasingly turned from hope to anger.
In the United States, a steady and equitably growing economy and a vibrant civil rights movement had fostered the hope of social and economic inclusion. But that hope turned to anger as the benefits of growth became increasingly skewed from the 1980s onward. In 2019, the U.S. economy was more unequal than it had been since the 1920s. Younger generations could no longer expect that their lives would be better than those of their parents. Such economic adversity and associated status anxiety can trigger a heightened propensity for us-versus-them ways of engaging the world.
In both South Africa and the United States, polarization was fueled by divisive political entrepreneurs, and in both countries, these entrepreneurs leveraged inequality in ways that added fuel to the fire. In the 2010s, South Africa went through a new ideational reckoning, in part to correct the view that the transition to democracy had washed the country’s apartheid history clean. But opportunistic political entrepreneurs also pushed an increasingly polarized and re-racialized political discourse and pressure on public institutions, with predictable economic consequences. South Africa’s economy slid into sustained stagnation.
Paralleling South Africa, America’s political entrepreneurs also cultivated an us-versus-them divisiveness. However, unlike in South Africa, political entrepreneurs and economic elites in the United States also used their divisive rhetoric as a way to persuade voters to embrace inequality-increasing policies that might otherwise not have won support. By the late 2010s, the risks were palpable in both South Africa and the United States of an accelerating breakdown of the norms and institutions that sustain inclusive political settlements.
But lessons can be overlearned. Mass political mobilization was pivotal to South Africa’s shaking loose the shackles of apartheid—and new calls to the barricades might seem to be the obvious response to current political and governmental dysfunction. However, different times and different challenges call for different responses. In both contemporary South Africa and contemporary America, the frontier challenge is not to overthrow an unjust political order but to renew preexisting formal commitments to the idea that citizenship implies some shared purpose. Renewal of this kind might best be realized not by confrontation but rather by a social movement centered around a vision of shared citizenship, a movement that views cooperation in pursuit of win-win possibilities not as weakness but as the key to the sustainability of thriving, open, and inclusive societies.