Exploring Democratization and political reconstruction: The case of South Africa and Rwanda


ESSAY  Pablo Arbuniés


In 1994 both South Africa and Rwanda embarked on a journey of political change that to this day seems unfinished. The first saw the end of apartheid and the beginning of a transition to non-racial democracy, while the latter saw the end of a civil conflict that sparked a genocide.

Both countries faced fundamental changes of a political and social nature at the same time in two very different ways. South Africa faced such change from the perspective of democracy, while Rwanda saw the collapse of a radical ethnic regime under Habyalimana after the civil war in 1994.

Understanding that countries move in a wide spectrum between democracy and non-democracy, that is, that they often are in a liminal political status, is the very basis to study these processes. Comparing these countries that experienced monumental political change at the same time can be useful to understand how societies can be rebuilt after a dark period. Depending on how the transition started, either through force as is the case in Rwanda or via political consensus or constitutional change as in South Africa, the path that the country will follow can vary greatly. It is also worth exploring how a post-conflict consensus can be the basis of a renewed system. Of key interest is how long such dispensation go uncontested and how stable it can sustain the project.  

The case of South Africa and Rwanda

South Africa is classified by some as a Flawed Democracy[1], meaning that there are free and fair elections but there are factors that prevent it from arriving at a full democratic rule. In 1990, the government re-established multi-party politics. Then, the 1992 referendum approved universal suffrage, including black people in the democratic process, and the 1994 general elections were the first democratic and universal vote in the history of the country. The African National Congress (ANC) came to power and has won all the following elections.

The ANC—and similarly, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)—has a sense of exceptionalism, a belief that it has an extraordinary mandate to finish the revolution that only it can fulfil[2]. However, recent elections have shown a decrease in popular support for the ANC. Yet the fact that, over time, the ruling party during a transition process eventually loses free elections is a sign of a consolidated democracy[3].

Rwanda on the other hand is deemed an authoritarian regime by the EIU[4]. In the aftermath of the civil war and the genocide, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) positioned itself as a guarantor of security, consolidating control over all sectors of society. This provision of security and stability in the wake of a conflict, accompanied by an authoritarian use of power, can be referred to as the authoritarian social contract, prioritising security over democracy and fundamental rights, but with a sufficiently transparent and accountable government.

This article will proceed to explore a few indicators like transitional justice, legal framework and institutions, separation of power and rule of law, transparency and accountability plus civil society to test whether South Africa and Rwanda have attained democratic transition through building sustainable political institutions.

Transitional justice

The South African Constitution highlights the importance of healing the consequences of apartheid and establishing a society based on human rights, democracy and social justice. Thus, in 1995 the Government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), tasked with uncovering past injustices and establishing the truth about the apartheid.

The TRC was composed of three committees: Human rights violations, Reparation and Rehabilitation and Amnesty. Their ultimate goal was to restore the dignity and encourage the spirit of forgiveness between the victims and the perpetrators.

However, in terms of accountability, the TRC has fallen short. The offer of “amnesty for the truth” as well as the de facto back door amnesty provided by the National Prosecuting Authority’s Prosecution Policy have meant effective immunity for apartheid-era perpetrators even if they did not apply for amnesty nor helped the TRC. Even after the “back door” was declared unconstitutional in 2008, none of the cases affected has returned to the courts.[5]

In Rwanda, the priority after the civil war and genocide was also rebuilding social peace. Civil war crimes and genocide were treated differently from each other in transitional justice, partly due to the reluctance of the RPF to judge its crimes as a belligerent actor in the civil war, and also because of the prioritising of genocide prosecution.[6]

Rwanda’s main challenge for transitional justice was the vast number of people that took part in the genocide. Despite other countries facing similar problems and opting for amnesties or selective prosecution, Rwanda chose the way of accountability through criminal trials. To achieve this, the government had to create community courts (Gacaca) to make accountability possible for low-level genocide suspects.

This choice of criminal prosecution was defended by the RPF as a measure to end impunity culture that led to the genocide. However, the massive prosecutions have ended up overwhelming the system and hindering the rule of law.

Legal framework and institutions


In its transition to democracy, South Africa chose to completely re-write its constitution. The 1996 Constitution was promulgated by Nelson Mandela and entered into force in 1997, in place of the 1993 interim constitution. The interim constitution set the bases for the final one, including universal adult suffrage, the prohibition of discrimination, multi-party democracy, separation of powers, etc.

However, the biggest achievement of the South African transition is how the institutions in charge of the elections have been built on consensus and with the guarantee of non-interference by the ruling party, making the Electoral Commission a body publicly perceived to be neutral and impartial.[7]

Rwanda held a referendum in 2003 to approve a new constitution, after a deep public consultation process. A new constitution was approved, prohibiting ethnic politics along with other forms of discrimination. This clause has been widely used by the government to maintain a one-party system by illegalising opposition parties and attacking any form of political dissent under the façade of preventing another genocide[8]. In 2015 term limits were abolished by referendum, allowing president Kagame to run for a third 7-year term.

Separation of powers and rule of law

In terms of separation of powers and checks and balances, South Africa ranks above the average of its region according to the world justice and rule of law index. Its overall score in the Rule of Law Index is of 0.59, making it the 45th country out of 128.  The lowest rated indicators for the country are absence of corruption at 0.48 and criminal justice at 0.53. In terms of fundamental rights, all indicators are above average and above the upper-middle threshold except for no discrimination, valued al 0.54.

Constraints on government powers are measured at 0.63, and all indicators are above average and above the “upper-middle” threshold. Legislative and judiciary checks and balances are valued at 0.58 and 0.67 respectively, meaning that there is an effective separation of powers. However, and despite the absence of corruption ranking above average, in the legislative power is below the upper-middle threshold and valued at a worrying 0.23, and in the executive branch it is also below said threshold at 0.4. Corruption in the executive and the legislative powers can be explained as a consequence of the political dominance of the ANC and its firm grab onto power, and it should eventually fade away when a new party reaches power.

On the other hand, Rwanda is a fascinating case, since it presents a very low score on the democratic index[9] but an overall decent rule of law index.[10] In other words, Rwanda’s government might not be democratic, but it does play by the rules, hence reinforcing the idea of an authoritarian social contract that is indeed being fulfilled by the government. In fact, despite being an authoritarian country, Rwanda’s rule of law index is higher than South Africa’s, and the second highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, only bettered by Namibia (one of the best-ranked democracies in the region).

To further prove the point of the authoritarian social contract, looking at the different indicators of the Rule of Law Index, one can notice that its lowest-rated indicators are the fundamental rights ones (0.51, ranking 81st in the world) and it’s the best indicator is order and security (0.84, ranking 22nd in the world) with a perfect score in absence of civil conflict (1.00).

Limits to governmental power by the legislative and judiciary powers are worth mentioning too. In the case of legislative checks and balances, the country ranks below the Sub-Saharan average, partly due to the predominance of RPF parliamentarians dominating the legislature. Hence they provide little checks on the executive. On the other hand, Judiciary checks and sanctions for official misconduct are above the Sub-Saharan average, showing a surprising level of judiciary independence for a country deemed as authoritarian.

Transparency and accountability

Transparency indicators show South Africa leading the regional chart, well above the Sub-Saharan average and also above the upper-middle threshold, which means that the government can be considered transparent enough. In the other hand, persistent levels of corruption in the executive and legislative power, as well as in the police and military (ranked above regional average but below the upper-middle threshold) show worrying signs that could obstruct the accountability of those holding power. Indeed, sanctions for official misconduct are the weaker link in constraints on government power, showing a limited action taken against corruption, but still ranking above the Sub-Saharan average.

In Rwanda, judiciary independence and sanctions for official misconduct are also above average for the region, showing an acceptable degree of accountability in the exercise of power that yet again can be surprising in an authoritarian country.

In terms of transparency, Rwanda ranks above the Sub-Saharan average in all indicators: publicized laws and government data (0.60), right to information (0.61), civic participation (0.53) and complaint mechanisms (0.60). Corruption indicators are above regional average as well with corruption in the legislative power being the worst of the lot despite still being better than that of its neighbouring counterparts.


Civil society

The ANC has, in a similar fashion to the RPF, tried to become a gatekeeping power, attempting to draw the limits of what is acceptable opposition or an acceptable discourse. This allows the parties to monopolize the social cohesion discourse by presenting themselves as the only legitimate actor to tackle the issue.

In South Africa, the ANC accuses the opposition parties of trying to bring back apartheid; for instance, it claims that the Democratic Alliance aims to return to a minority rule system. Thus, the party presents itself as the only one that can prevent the Boers from returning to power. A state of constant alert is promoted by the ANC, not only within national politics and against civil society actors, but also claiming that foreign agendas are seeking a regime change in the country and trying to turn the people against their leaders.[11]

In Rwanda, the government took advantage of the post-conflict situation to limit public participation in the political sphere. Those opposed to the government are marginalised and their discourse is rejected as genocide-promoting or supportive of ethnical divisions. This is key for the government to retain popular support, as any dissenting voice will be delegitimized and presented as a call to go back to the worst moments of Rwanda’s history, and thus publicly rejected. As for dealing with foreign civil society actors, Kagame tends to delegitimize them by associating any dissenting foreign opinion with colonialism.[12] This overall helps the RPF sustain their rhetoric of the Rwandicity of the people as the only way of keeping social peace and cohesion.

This discourse that attempts to create national unity as well as within the parties, has a constant “rally around the flag” effect, silencing dissenting opinions and deterring potential civil society actors, in fear of being singled out as apartheid or genocide promoters. This results in a weakened civil society often deterred from criticising the government in fear of being marginalised and portrayed as either a colonialist or a promoter of ethnic division and genocide. Dissenting voices are turned into enemies of the nation and used for an “us versus them” political discourse.

Despite this, non-governmental checks on the exercise of power in South Africa are valued at 0.71, well above the Sub-Saharan average as well as the upper-middle threshold. Freedom of expression has the same score and again y both above the regional average and nearly reaching the higher threshold.

Overall, South Africa has a robust civil society that plays a key role in creating and sustaining political culture, tackling the gaps between national and local politics, as well as holding public officials accountable and checking their use of power. This can be seen in the outing of former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma through consistent mobilisations and lawsuits.[13]

For Rwanda, as expected in an authoritarian country, civil society is not a key actor. Non-governmental checks to the use of power are low (0.45), and likely limited by an also low freedom of expression indicator (0.45).


Treating democracy and non-democracy as a dichotomy instead of the two sides of a wide spectrum would not allow us to look at how different variables are key to understanding national politics. Instead, it is crucial to understand that many countries occupy a liminal space between democracy and non-democracy without necessarily moving towards either. Therefore, it is in that space that they should be analysed in order to be fully understood. That being said, South Africa and Rwanda both occupy very different liminal spaces, with the first being much closer to full democracy than the former.

The civil society indicators, as well as the role of transitional justice, show a very clear difference between South Africa and Rwanda, which is rooted in the legitimation of the power of the ruling party, as well as in the background of their political changes. The RPF came to power by winning the civil war and used transitional justice to whitewash its image as no RPF member has been investigated for alleged war crimes[14]. Thus, the lack of accountability and the militaristic nature of the transition can be seen as factors that discourage citizen participation in politics. On the other hand, South Africa had an easier task with transitional justice, but the result cannot be considered perfect or ideal, and many criticise the South African model of transitional justice for being too superficial and symbolic and not providing the needed social healing. Also, South Africa’s transition is built on political consensus instead of the outcome of a civil war, and that spirit of consensus can be seen in the much bigger role of civil society nowadays. The ability of civil society actors to hold political ones to a high enough standard is key in rebuilding a country.

The transparency indicators show that both countries have open and transparent governments, with Rwanda scoring better than South Africa in the publicized laws & government data as well as the right to information indicators, which can be surprising due to the authoritarian nature of the Rwandan government.

Although both countries seem to be in very different positions, they share a political discourse based on party exceptionalism and rejection of dissenting voices as encouragers of genocide or apartheid. The fear of ethnic conflict is the very basis of the traces of an authoritarian social contract that still prevails in the South African and Rwandan politics.

In terms of institutional transformation, South Africa shows how important it is to build trustworthy institutions, with the best example being the Electoral Commission. Also, political trust in pacific transitions of power after an election is a sign of a consolidated democracy and shows the success of South Africa.

The level of transparency of the Rwandan government, added to its success in the accountability and security aspects and the high civil and criminal justice indicators (all above regional average) show how an authoritarian country can effectively deal with a post-conflict situation without abandoning its non-democratic model. Rwanda is a fascinating example of a successfully fulfilled authoritarian social contract in which civil liberties are given up in exchange for a peaceful and stable environment in which the country can heal economically as the quite positive GDP per capita projections show.[15]

[1] The Economist Intelligence Unit; Democracy Index (2019)

[2] Beresford, A. Liberation movements and stalled democratic transitions: reproducing power in Rwanda and South Africa through productive liminality 

[3] Huntington, S. P. (1991). The third wave: Democratization in the late 20th century.

[4] The Economist Intelligence Unit; Democracy Index (2019)

[5] International Center for Transitional Justice, South Africa

[6] Waldorf, L, Transitional Justice and DDR: The Case of Rwanda, International Center for Transitional Justice

[7] Ahere, J. R. (2020). Africa's dalliance with democracy, but whose democracy? In N. Sempijja, & K. Molope, Africa rising? Navigating the nexus between rhetoric and emerging reality (pp. 37-54). Pamplona: Eunsa.

[8] Roth, K. The power of horror in Rwanda,

[9] The Economist Intelligence Unit; Democracy Index (2019)

[10]  World Justice Project, Rule of Law Index 2020

[11] Beresford, A. Liberation movements and stalled democratic transitions: reproducing power in Rwanda and South Africa through productive liminality

[12] Beresford, A. Liberation movements and stalled democratic transitions: reproducing power in Rwanda and South Africa through productive liminality 

[13] Gumede, W. How civil society has strengthened South Africa’s democracy

[14] Waldorf, L, Transitional Justice and DDR: The Case of Rwanda, International Center for Transitional Justice

[15] IMF. "Rwanda: Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in current prices from 1985 to 2025 (in U.S. dollars)." Chart. October 12, 2020. Statista. Accessed January 25, 2021.

Más entradas de blog