On the Normalization of South African Politics

On the Normalization of South African Politics

The most remarkable thing about South African politics is how unremarkable they have become. I say this as someone born and raised there, who left in the early 1970s at the age of fifteen. On returning for a year’s sabbatical leave in Cape Town in 1997, I quickly discovered that the country I grew up in no longer exists. What has replaced it is in some ways more African and in some more cosmopolitan; in almost all respects it is a far cry from the South Africa I departed a quarter of a century ago.

Most striking about South Africa in the 1960s was its extreme isolation. By this I don’t only mean its ostracism from the world community. That was tangible enough well over a decade before sanctions would begin biting. But focusing on ostracism misses the degree to which apartheid South Africa’s isolation was embraced by much of the white elite, English as well as Afrikaans. Part of this was, no doubt, a defensive response to rejection, but not all of it. It is hard to overstate the degree to which white South Africa saw itself as one of the last outposts of Judeo Christian civilization, fighting the twin evils of communism in the East and moral and social decay in the West. The ferocious laws designed to suppress communism were paralleled by the often ludicrous but no less seriously meant battery of laws and regulations to halt moral decline. From the Immorality Act, to the laws banning virtually everything except religious service on Sundays, to the laws against every sort of gambling, to anti drug laws that were harsh even by contemporary American standards, South Africa’s governors saw themselves as drawing multiple lines in the sand. Banning Black Beauty was perhaps the comic apotheosis of their grotesque endeavor: they thought of themselves as Puritans no less than as racial purists. Playboy was banned as pornographic; we had no idea what real pornography was.

Ian Shapiro teaches political science at Yale. His new book, Democratic Justice, will be published by Yale University Press in the fall.

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