Thursday, October 17, 2013

How new is your democracy? - South Africa and Brazil

As promised (or threatened, depending on how you look at it), I am going to spend a few posts talking about Brazil and South Africa. Both are BRICS, both have the largest and richest economies on their continents (let's just call South America a continent--I just know someone is going to argue with me about the Americas, dad), and both have issues of income distribution and corruption. Of course the differences are large: to name just a few, South Africa is the 28th largest economy by GDP, Brazil is sixth  and while South Africa's population is 51 million, Brazil dwarfs it with 199 million.

One of the things that really struck me during my trip to South Africa last week (and the two times before as well) is how new it is. Meaning the current political system is only 20 years old (if you count from Mandela's election in 1994). Apartheid ruled the country from 1948 to 1993. It's incredible to think about: 80% or more of the country disenfranchised for almost 50 years. Assassinations of dissidents, imprisonment of a man for 27 years (among many others), the complete subjugation of people based only on color. And a civil war to right those wrongs.

And then I think about Brazil, which I have gotten to know better in the 8 years I have lived here. Its scars are more apparent to me, and they are somewhat similar to South Africa's. The current political system here is only 25 years old (if you count from Collor's direct election in 1989). The military dictatorship ruled this country from 1964-1985 when the first president was indirectly elected. Assassination of dissidents, imprisonment of many student and university leaders (my in-laws among them), the rule of uncertainty and a shattered economy. The end of the dictatorship was long but relatively peaceful.

US participation creating or supporting apartheid was minimal. On the other hand, the USA largely ignored the situation which is in itself harmful. While urged for economic sanctions since 1962, the US did not implement sanctions until 1986. Which was the year I entered college and protested for it to divest as well.  

There is nothing to be proud about in the USA's actions in Brazil--past and current. The US supported the military dictatorship at first and of course, we are in the middle of a spying scandal here that had Brazil's president canceling a state visit to the US. I'd say more but the NSA is reading this.

Clearly I am touching only a tiny bit of the complexities that formed each of these countries--the main point is how new they are. How incredible their histories. And that says nothing of the complexities they each face now--South Africa's lion of forgiveness, unity and probably the one that saved a country from falling into recriminations and revenge is nearing the end of his life. The country has had a succession of not-great presidents since Mandela. The ANC has become invincible, and therefore a danger--all governments need great opposition.

Brazil too has had fits and starts. Collor was impeached for wrong-doings, yet returns as a senator years later (I will talk about corruption in another blog). The justice system is unworkable. I personally think Brazil has had an excellent president in the middle--Fernando Henrique Cardoso--but the latest ones seem a bit like the cronies of Mandela. Not great, but heroes of their generation.

Both countries have elections next year. Barring any great surprise, I would say that the ANC will win in South Africa (parliamentary elections) and the PT will win in Brazil. I'm not too far out of a limb with those predictions.

Much left to think about. South Africa kept its races apart. Brazil is famed for miscegenation. South Africa has 11 official languages. Brazil has one (though I would argue that Ceará is creating its own ;)).  Brazil is rich in agriculture, South Africa in minerals. What about education, health care, a chance to get ahead? Do any of these comparisons make sense given their much-different histories? I don't know but would appreciate your feedback.

Brazil and South Africa in My Eyes.


  1. I have very little knowledge of South African history but it's good to mention that in both cases, you are only referring to recent times (Ok, maybe my definition of recent is longer than yours). Brazil has been a democracy for the most part, since its independence in 1822, with two (relatively small) periods of dictatorship (30s-40s and 60s-80s).

  2. Good point. I guess I mean "how new is your current government system?" or maybe "how re-newed is your government system?" And yes, I was only talking recent. "Current political system" is how I put it. But I guess I mean renewed from the past political system. The dictatorship may have been short term (though I doubt my jailed and tortured father in law would agree with that term) but it was scarring.

  3. Agreed. I didn't mean to downplay the dictatorship. It wasn't short term for the generation that lived through it, especially as adults.