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Opposition in South Africa*

  • J. E. Spence


A STRIKING FEATURE OF THE EMERGENCE OF THE ‘NEW’ SOUTH Africa following the first democratic election in April 1994 was the widespread expectation that both the mechanism of transition and the electoral outcome in coalition government (the Government of National Unity: GNU) might serve as a model to other African regimes similarly placed. This may well be true with respect, for example, to the relevance of power-sharing arrangements of the kind that were built into South Africa's interim constitution in 1993, but as I shall explain, South Africa's experience of constitutional change and its outcome is best understood as sui generis. I am inclined to be sceptical about this assumption on the grounds that ‘models’ imported from elsewhere have not served Africa well; that the establishment of Westminster-style democratic structures in newly independent states in the 1950s and 1960s based on winner-take-all electoral systems failed to take into account historical and cultural differences — in particular the absence of anything resembling a Western-style tradition of democratic participation. Whether it could have served as a model, given the constraints of the time — loss of imperial will, insistent claims of indigenous nationalist elites etc. — is another matter. As Michael Oakeshott remarks: ‘[democracy] has been homegrown in Western society and to seek to transfer its beliefs and habits to an exotic soil will always be difficult.’



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1 Quoted by Dennis Austin. in ‘Reflections on African Politics: Prospero, Ariel and Caliban,’International Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 2, April 1993, pp. 203–21.

2 Quoted in Callaghy, Thomas, ‘Africa: Back to the Future?’, The Journal of Democracy, Vol. 5, No. 4, 10 1994, p. 140.

3 Adedeji, Adebayo, ‘An Alternative for Africa’, The Journal of Democracy, Vol. 5, No. 4, 10 1994, p. 126.

4 ibid., p. 126.

5 Callaghy, op. cit., p. 140.

6 David Welsh., ‘Negotiating a Democratic Constitution’ in Spence, J. E. (ed.), Change in south Africa, Pinter/Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, 1994, p. 29.

7 Ionescu, Ghila and Isabel de Madariaga, Opposition, London, Watts, 1968, p. 69.

8 See Spence, J. E., ‘The Origins of Extra‐Parliamentary Opposition in South Africa’, Government and Opposition, Vol. 1, No. 1, 10 1965, pp. 5580.

9 See Spence, J. E., ‘Reflections on the South African General Election’, Government and Opposition, Vol. 29, No. 4, Autumn 1994, p. 441.

10 Welsh, op. cit., p. 30.

11 Crick, Bernard, ‘Two Theories of Opposition’, New Statesman and Nation, 18 06 1960 , pp. 882–3.

12 The Independent, 10 May 1996, p. 16.

13 ibid.

* I am grateful to Professor David Welsh of the University of Cape Town for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Opposition in South Africa*

  • J. E. Spence


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