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.


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Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanlcooper. Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.