Is your democracy more flawed than mine?

  • Geoff
In spite of the doom and gloom which characterises South Africans’ mood these days following the catastrophe of former President Jacob Zuma’s tenure, South Africa’s democracy is still relatively healthy, although with shortcomings.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Apr 18, 2019

According to the Democracy Index of The Economist magazine, which ranks the democracies of 167 territories based on a wide range of indicators, with Norway the most democratic at number 1, South Africa is placed 40th in the index. This is a remarkable achievement given its apartheid and colonialist history, and its difficulties.

Both South Africa and Israel are regarded by the index as “flawed democracies”. They hold free and fair elections, and though there may be problems, basic civil liberties are respected.

What about the world’s other democracies? Does America still qualify as the leader of the free world? No, it doesn’t. The ranting of loose-cannon President Donald Trump makes this idea unconvincing today.

The index regards America also as a flawed democracy, although ranking higher than South Africa, at number 25. For comparison, Japan ranks 22 and France 29. The problem in America is not so much Trump, but the erosion of trust in government and elected officials.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will try desperately to increase his hold on power in South Africa’s crucial national elections on 8 May. Warring factions in the African National Congress threaten to undermine him, and unrest and political dissonance are flaring up countrywide. Rising social tensions and economic populism are challenging his “new dawn” vision for the country.

The diversity of South Africa’s population is its richness, but there is a flip-side. This is that the country lacks a clear sense of what it means to be South African, and the violence inherent in the society makes this dangerous.

Public protest often turns violent and racist. Last week’s unrest, which began in Alexandra township in Johannesburg and has spread elsewhere, is the most recent example. The tone of political debate is often threatening. The positive side is that popular interest in politics is high. Everybody talks politics, from the taxi driver to the housewife.

What about Israeli politics, which last week handed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a fifth term? To the chagrin of many supporters of Israel, the index consistently ranks Israel as a flawed rather than full democracy. Knee-jerk defenders of Israel would claim it is because of anti-Semitism, but it is primarily about the Law of Return – the right of every Jew to emigrate to Israel. Arab citizens are guaranteed the same civil rights, but only Jews have the “right” to citizenship.

This analysis of Israel does not account for the simmering conundrum of the Palestinians under its control. They have no vote. Does this reduce Israel’s democracy ranking? Without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would have to do that.

Notwithstanding these issues, the index ranks Israel’s democracy 30th out of 167, between France and Belgium. In spite of the divisiveness of Israeli politics and the shift to the right, the country is moving in a liberal direction in areas such as improvements in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights and women’s rights. However, because of history, ideology, and security challenges, it cannot be more than a flawed democracy.

The internet is the new kid on the block when it comes to measuring democracies, where validation can be found for almost any belief, and “facts” are a matter of personal preference.

In America, South Africa, Israel, or elsewhere, it is getting harder for voters to make informed, rational choices about crucial matters. On this roller-coaster, voters will have to work harder to distinguish between fact and fiction. It’s not an easy ride.


  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
    Toolbar's wrapper 
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.

Follow us on