As a South African immigrant to the United States and a longtime observer of South African politics, I am attuned to the ways in which appeals for racial justice and demands for change can unleash powerful social and political forces.
Granted: I am biased by my particular experience, and the United States is by no means an apartheid state (at least not since 1964). But it is striking to see the United States in 2020 look so much like the failing state that was late-apartheid South Africa—albeit at American scale, and at American speed.
The sudden speed of events has triggered growing warnings of the death of U.S. democracy or even another civil war. But the South African precedent suggests that the future, while certainly challenging, is not quite so dire.
First, it's useful to identify the parallels so I can't be accused of a false optimism.
The explosion of protest against racial injustice and police brutality across the United States that followed the killing of George Floyd, and the over-militarized police response to it, mimic the caught-on-tape, globally inspiring demonstrations in 1970s and 1980s South Africa. Like many social movements before and since, they have in common a complex fusion of a majority of nonviolent protesters with violent radicals, outside agitators, and opportunistic looters.
They also share the morally unambiguous objective of ending systemic racism, and they were both propelled by a cascade of political and economic events that pushed this objective from socially marginal to the center of debate. In the United States, those events include Trump's divisive presidency and the Covid-19 crisis, which disproportionately affected black American communities. In South Africa, they included the 1976 Soweto uprising, a global commodities slump that shook the South African economy, and the end of the Cold War.
All this speaks to another, broader historical alignment between the United States and South Africa: the collapse of white rule. To be sure, the end of apartheid in South Africa was preceded by decades (if not centuries) of institutionalized white minority rule, while in the United States, white Christians have only recently become a minority. But the threat of losing power to people of color is a striking common thread.
In the United States, the election of the first black president in 2008 and declining faith in an increasingly unequal and unstable American economy brought the country's recent demographic shift into sharp relief. As has been well catalogued, both issues were ripe fruit for Donald Trump's ethnonationalist presidential campaign and the transformation of the Republican Party into a movement motivated by preserving the political, economic, and social status of white Christian America. Although the institutional infrastructure for this effort was already well established, the Republicans under Trump have gone all-in on defending what is—to be blunt—white rule.
Of course, exploiting ostensibly democratic institutions to preserve minority rule could have been a page taken from the South African National Party's playbook. The latter used a series of blunt legislative instruments to effectively disenfranchise black voters by law. Trump and the Republicans have an Electoral College and U.S. Senate that overrepresent predominantly white rural states, gerrymandered election districts that dilute urban and minority votes, and a wide range of other measures to suppress minority voting. Other similarities include rallying conservative church networks, promoting ethnonationalist narratives and iconography (Manifest Destiny promising the land to white people here, the armed Afrikaaner frontiersman there), co-opting financial elites and the white middle class with artificially high returns on capital, and fomenting racial discord in highly visible institutions like sports.
This mountain of parallels is why the past four-odd years of Trumpist politics in the United States have felt like two decades of South African politics, and why the events of recent weeks look like the dying phase of apartheid, sped up at a dizzying pace.
Just as South Africa's economic and political elites split over the government's attempts to suppress the anti-apartheid movement, the past 10 days have seen fractures among the U.S. ruling class. Prominent figures in the U.S. military have defied and condemned Trump's efforts to crack down on protesters; Republican leaders have taken postures of defection from his reelection campaign; and a growing collection of U.S. corporate and financial institutions have voiced support for the protesters despite the looting and economic damage. Strikingly, even the National Football League has reversed course in its opposition to players protesting anti-black police brutality, defying Trump and echoing the infighting in South Africa's white-supremacist rugby culture around 30 years ago (known in the United States primarily via the hit movie Invictus, in which Morgan Freeman memorably plays Nelson Mandela).
We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of American democracy, but there is still a way to stop the descent.
Like South Africans before them, Americans rightly are concerned about violence and instability as the 2020 election approaches.
Egged on by the White House, clashes between protesters and police risk being reframed as a confrontation between "thugs" and "patriots," Democrats and Republicans, multicultural and "real" Americans, people who want to change an unjust system and those who want law and order. That some protests have been violent and that right-wing militias had already mobilized against public health measures to contain the coronavirus certainly add fuel to the fire. As do Trump's farcical but dangerous threats to declare any adverse electoral outcomes in November as having been rigged against him.
Yet again, the South African experience is instructive. Notwithstanding a series of killings, bombings, and high-profile attacks instigated by white supremacist groups and militias, the feared race war did not materialize. Even though white South Africans stood to lose their legal monopoly on political, military, and economic power, the end of apartheid proceeded in relative peace. Indeed, South Africa became the first country to voluntary dismantle its nuclear weapons, while most political violence during regime change occurred within racial groups, not between them.
Sadly, post-apartheid South Africa still suffers from massive economic inequality, high crime rates, and frequent bouts of social unrest. But it did not descend into civil war and has maintained core political and economic stability, even in conditions far less auspicious than those in the United States.
The critical effort to root out systemic racism will be painful and hard—but it will not require a new constitution like in South Africa, nor a complete overhaul of the economy, not even in the case of reparations. Even though democratic institutions have taken a beating under Trump, the fact that the historic demise of white rule will occur in the world's oldest democracy, with the world's largest and most dynamic economy, is a significant boon for the future.
Sometimes there are weeks when decades happen. Such weeks are upon Americans today. The South African experience can help guide them through the turbulence.
Mark Y. Rosenberg is a professor at Columbia University