If the number of choices offered to voters is a reliable indicator of democracy, then South Africa is a model democracy.
At least, when they went to the polls, voters were presented with a list of 40 parties to choose between. How many really offer anything distinctive is another question. Still, the three biggest parties, as I write before hearing final results, do represent different policy options.
The African National Congress (Anc) is set, with 2/3 of the votes counted, to remain the governent. They enjoy the advantage of having spearheaded the struggle for democracy and against apartheid and claim to be heirs to a national tradition that found its most powerful voice in the 1950s People's Charter, a manifesto that any people's movement in the world would be proud to own. Although they made some moves on assuming power 20 years ago in the spirit of the Charter, such as abandoning the apartheid regime's Israeli-backed nuclear weapons programme, and making an assertion of homosexual rights which is probably unique in Africa, the big practical issues remain to be tackled. Black people have moved into all the significant positions of power, but the majority of blacks are still poor in a country with one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the world. Hopes that were raised by the first democratic elections have not been realised, despite the presence in the coalition that has made up the Anc government of the intelligent Left, in the form of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party. People question whether those two have succumbed to the Anc's tendency to enjoy the fruits of power rather than the power to change society. The "Rainbow nation" promised and exemplified by Nelson Mandela, has not materialised. Watching the soap operas on South African Tv might suggest interracial harmony, but in real life many whites remain isolated from the mainstream. The roots and the racial character of economic inequality have not been attacked.
The biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (Da), has more white support. It has formed the provincial government in the Western Cape, the province with the lowest proportion of black people in the country (and stronghold of the predominantly Afrikaans-speaking mixed race community) and claims, with some plausibility that this is now the best governed of the country's nine provinces. Maybe, but it includes some of the worst slums, in Khayelitsha and Cape Flats, suburbs of Cape Town. The white liberals who are influential in the party remain dangerously susceptible to economic liberalism. If they came to power, South Africa would see bigger disturbances than economic liberalism has provoked in Greece. Of course, they will never get majority support, but if the Anc lost its majority in the near future, no ruling coalition could be formed without the Da.
A new party came third: Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (Eff), assured, as I write, of at least six seats in parliament. Malema is a plump, babyfaced son of the new elite whose party offers the poor a populist rhetoric that hits the headlines. His policies, in as far as they are articulated, echo those of his hero Robert Mugabe, which have turned Zimbabwe in twenty years from Afica's breadbasket to Africa's basket case. Some fear Malema is another potential black Hitler. He will certainly be the man to watch in the next few years.