For Alternatives to the Authoritarian Model, Look to South Africa

Despite its lingering problems, South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy provides many valuable lessons.
Despite its lingering problems, South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy provides many valuable lessons.

This week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit focuses on the topic of “Investing in the Next Generation.” The summit aims to explore issues of economic inclusiveness, democratic development and “creating an enabling environment for the next generation.”

This discussion is especially pertinent in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, when many in developing countries have begun to lose faith in the wisdom of democratic governance and market-based economic reforms. The rise of Chinese and Russian authoritarianism coupled with robust economic growth in those countries provides a seemingly plausible alternative for lifting millions out of poverty while still allowing autocrats to retain a tight grasp on power.

The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), a South African think tank and CIPE partner, examined the post-apartheid experience of South Africa’s transition to market economy and a vibrant democracy in a recently released report entitled “South Africa and the Pursuit of Inclusive Growth.”

As part of a larger initiative known as the “Democracy Consensus”,  CDE’s research shows that democracy is a viable path not only for fostering inclusive economic growth in the short- to medium-term, but also laying the foundations for sound institutions that lead to long-term stability and prosperity.

Democratic countries can tackle corruption more effectively through independent courts and greater citizen engagement. At the same time, the emerging middle class puts greater demands on their government for more transparency, accountability, and efficiency in spending and public service delivery. A free press and vibrant civil society are also important institutions in a democratic state.

The report provides a roadmap of South Africa’s successful transition to democracy by examining the development of the country’s democratic institutions and the implementation of necessary economic reforms. CDE emphasizes the role of reducing corruption, building strong institutions, and fostering innovation and entrepreneurship as a means of combating poverty and promoting inclusive economic growth.

In the context of theU.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which aims to showcase ties between America and African countries, the South Africa country report provides an excellent resource of transitional lessons for developing countries from an African perspective. South Africa is an example of how democracy generates new economic opportunities, reduces poverty, and fosters innovation, while helping a country move beyond its divisive past.

Teodora Mihaylova is a Research Assistant at CIPE.