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March 24, 2009

South Africa's Sad Descent and the Implications for Democracy Promotion
Posted by Michael Cohen

There is a very sad story out of South Africa today about the troubled state of that nation's commitment to democracy. Apparently, the government has rejected a visa for the Dalai Lama to attend a peace conference of Nobel Laureates. According to a a government spokesman, "Dalai Lama's presence was not in South Africa's best interest at the moment." And when he refers to best interest, this is no doubt a reference to South Africa's burgeoning political and economic relationship with China, which invests about $6 billion a year in the country.

Now, of course from a symbolic standpoint this is pretty bad. Considering how hard many countries fought to see the yoke of apartheid lifted from black South Africans - and considering the plight of Tibet -- this is pretty objectionable behavior.

But I suppose in the country's partial defense, nations act in their economic self-interest all the time. But what is really worrisome here is that this fits a disturbing pattern. On the Security Council, South Africa has hardly been a passionate voice for democracy, siding with authoritarian leaders in Burma and others.

Its response to the crisis in Zimbabwe has been horrible, not only in its failure to put pressure on the Mugabe regime, but in its acceptance of naked and obvious un-democratic behavior.  If anything, South Africa has not only been asleep at the wheel in resolving the political stalemate there, they've helped drive the car into the ditch. They are perhaps the most important country in sub-Saharan Africa and their commitment to democracy is less than stellar.

Now in a vacuum this might just seem like bad behavior from a wayward country, but there are larger implications here for US policymakers. First, the inclination among Chinese leaders to spread an anti-democratic political model cannot be underestimated. There is emerging an alternative political and economic model to liberal democracy - its semi-authoritarian in nature and its being backed by China's vast economic leverage. If the United States is to be serious about spreading democracy we need to recognize this threat and be prepared to combat it, both rhetorically and financially.

Second, there will always be feckless politicians who will place economic assistance over democratic promulgation. What that means for US leaders is they need to stop looking to leaders - both ones we like and ones we don't like - as the harbinger of democratic outcomes. If we want to seed democracy around the world and support democratic movement then we need to be looking more to private groups, NGOs etc as the focal point of our efforts and focus on institution building rather than individuals.


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The question about democracy in South Africa is primarily one of domestic constitutional development. My impression is that the governing institutions established after apartheid have survived despite some very challenging social and economic conditions and tensions over recently contested political leadership. A more multiparty system may be on the horizon.

The Chinese model may have some appeal in theory but the Chinese have not been without their own problems as employers on the African continent. Africa in general and South Africa in particular are going to find their own way in terms of models. I wish the visa decision had been different but America with its history of backing undemocratic governments is not in the strongest position to criticise South Africa; if the latter remains a democratic state, its foreign policy will sooner or later evolve just as ours did.

No surprises here, the ANC would naturally feel obliged to have a certain understanding for the PRC, given the support the latter gave to the ANC (weapons, cash, explosives, diplomatic support) in its fight against the former National Party government between the 1960s and 1990s. The ANC also faced pressure from its partners in the Tripartite Alliance - the South African Communist Party - to avoid giving the Dalai Lama an invitation to South Africa.

This is a who/whom question. S. Africa is most interested in oppression by the people who oppressed its majority, ethnic Europeans, not anybody else.

On the Chinese model, some of China's "friends" would actually be greatly improving themselves if they really adopted it. Imagine if the Pakistani population replaced its sectarian values with the pragmatic materialist values of the Chinese- they would be a much smaller source of danger. If Burma and North Korea followed the rationalism and openness of the Chinese system, they'd do themselves and the world a great big favor. The problem with the "China model" is there is not enough "thinking and acting like China" in the "model" today. Instead, its a bunch of dictators saying, "see, China has not become democratic like many westerners wanted and they're doing well, so we don't have to do what the west wants either"

Mr. Cohen's last paragraph was a very wise statement about avoiding overpersonalization. Unfortunately, for top American politicians, its a bad habit to break.

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As far as I know the demise of apartheid's reign and the democratization of South Africa in 1994 brought hope and fear for many in South Africa. he hope was inspired by the transition and change from a tyrannical and dehumanizing rule.

Carothers alleges that, driven by imperatives related to the war on terrorism, the administration has come to cooperate with a number of authoritarian regimes and turned a blind eye to various antidemocratic practices carried out by these newfound allies. This claim is incorrect. The administration's September 2002 National Security Strategy, which lays out our post-September 11 strategic vision, prominently features democracy promotion. The strategy describes it as a core part of our overall national security doctrine and commits us to help other countries realize their full potential:

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