African democracy and its flaws

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Thursday marks the opening of the sixth parliament established after all South Africans were able to vote for who was to represent them in government. The first parliament was established after the dissolution of the apartheid government and the national election of 1994. The 1990s marked a period of dramatic political change, not only for South Africa, but for the continent as a whole. Following the end of the cold war, many African countries, including South Africa, started democratising their political systems.

Prior to 1990, most African countries had one-party political or authoritarian political systems. In 2019, Eritrea is the only one-party regime left on the continent. Similarly, Swaziland (eSwatini) is the only absolute monarchy on the continent. All other African states are multi-party democracies or are transitioning to being one.

Given that virtually all countries are now multi-party democracies, the focus shifts towards the quality of that democracy. As African political pluralism is still in its infancy, it is not surprising that few African countries are considered fully functioning multi-party democracies. The Economists’ Intelligence Unit rates all countries on the strength of their democratic institutions. Although they consider South Africa as one of the most democratic regimes on the continent, they still rank it is considered a ‘flawed democracy.’

Although the revelations about state capture highlight the weaknesses in our political system, South Africa’s  rating as a ‘flawed democracy’ is due to widespread populist sentiment and poor support for constraints on the executive.

Only Mauritius is considered a ‘full’ democracy by The Economist. The map below shows the regime types for the 49 countries rated by it’s Intelligence Unit. Most African countries are rated as ‘authoritarian’. In these countries formal institutions of democracy may exist but they have little substance.

Example of Authoritarian regimes include Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Rwanda.

The next most dominant  type of regimes are ‘hybrids’. In hybrid regimes elections are held but are far from being free and fair. The flaws in political culture, political participation and government functioning are greater than that of flawed democracies. Examples of hybrid regimes include Zambia, Malawi and Kenya.

Perhaps more informative than the classification of regime type is the Democracy Index score provided by The Economist. They rate each country on a scale of zero to ten with higher scores denoting greater democracy.

Internationally, Norway receives the highest score (9.87) and North Korea the lowest (1.08). Mauritius receives the highest rating in Africa (8.22) followed by Cape Verde (7.88), Botswana (7.81) and South Africa (7.24). The lowest scores in Africa are those of Chad (1.61), the Central African Republic (1.52) and the DRC (1.49). The scores are shown in the map below.


Thursday’s opening of Parliament celebrates the improvements made since 1994. While these improvements reflect what happened across the continent since after 1989, we are reminded that both South Africa and the continent need to do much more before the full benefits of democracy are realised.