South Africa: When Strong Institutions and Massive Inequalities Collide

Brian Levy, Alan Hirsch, Vinothan Naidoo, Musa Nxele
Content Type
Working Paper
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
South Africa's economic and social imbalances can no longer be swept under the rug. The country has three choices: muddle through, endure another surge of ethnopopulism, or pursue inclusive development. South Africa was one of the 1990s iconic cases of democratization. Yet starting in the mid-2000s, the country began to experience a disruptive collision between its strong political institutions and massive economic inequality. The collision intensified across the 2010s, resulting in economic stagnation and increasing threats to institutional integrity. Understanding why this collision occurred and worsened over time is relevant not just for other middle-income countries but also many higher-income democracies wrestling with similar tensions between a declining tolerance for high or rising inequality and institutions that seemed strong in the past but find their legitimacy increasingly being questioned. Ideally, ideas, institutions, and growth all reinforce one another in a virtuous developmental spiral. Ideas offer hope by encouraging cooperation and the pursuit of opportunities for win-win gains. Institutions assure that the bargains underpinning cooperation will be monitored and enforced. Together, ideas and institutions provide credible commitment, which fuels economic growth. However, such a benign scenario does not reckon with the ways in which persistent high inequality, accompanied by unresolved tensions between the distribution of economic and political power, can both put pressure on institutions and quickly change hope into anger. The result can be a cascading set of pressures and an accelerating downward spiral. For the first fifteen years of democracy, South Africa enjoyed the advantages of both effective institutions and a shared willingness of stakeholders believed in the power of cooperation. This enabled the country to move beyond counterproductive conflict and pursue win-win outcomes. Growth began to accelerate, which created new opportunities for expanding the middle class. Increased fiscal space made it possible to broaden access to public services and to social grants, which reduced absolute poverty. There were, however, some stark limitations in what was achieved. Gains for the poorest did little to alter their difficult economic and social realities. Less than a quarter of the total population, including essentially all white South Africans, enjoyed a standard of living that was middle class or better. There was ample reason for the majority of South Africans to feel that, notwithstanding the promises of mutual benefit, the deck remained stacked against them. This increased the vulnerability of South Africa’s political settlement.
Development, Inequality, Institutions
Political Geography
South Africa, Africa