“Americans fought a revolution to preserve democracy, while South African blacks fought for freedom,” noted a medical doctor who now works for USAID in southern Africa.
I had a chance to converse with the doctor and her husband while visiting with my daughter and her family in South Africa.
The couple had participated in the anti-apartheid movement that saw the end of apartheid (legal segregation of the races) in 1994 with the election of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela to the presidency. They participated with a great deal of hope 23 years ago; much of that hope has faded.
At the same time, many Americans are feeling their democracy is under siege with the Donald Trump administration, but the U.S. government is very different from that of South Africa. Americans fought to preserve democracy in their revolution. South Africa fought to end oppression.
First, let’s begin by examining the state of the South African government. Today, the government in South Africa is corrupt. President Jacob Zuma, who leads the ANC, barely survived a recent vote of no confidence by Parliament. Scandals abound.
There is still strong support, however, among poor blacks for the ANC, because the ANC is viewed more like a sports team than a political party, according to my source. Even when the team is losing, fans support it. During the era of apartheid, whites had an exclusionary democracy – the blacks and other minorities were oppressed with no rights to vote or participate in the government. Blacks, who now control the government, have no tradition of democracy. Their tradition is patriarchy and tribal patronage.
In spite of the blind devotion to the ANC, South Africa’s government still has a strong and independent court system that has challenged Zuma and the ANC. The courts may yet preserve democracy.
Now, let’s look at America’s democracy.
Democracy will survive and prosper in America because Congress and the courts have only just begun to exercise their power to check Trump. It will also endure because of the American tradition of preserving democracy. Americans, after all, have fought several major wars to “Make the world safe for democracy.”
Congress has deferred to presidents for a long time, both Democratic and Republican. Congress has become complacent over the years. Members have potentially more power than the other two branches combined. If Trump continues to go against the will of his own party in Congress, and Republican members of Congress see that their seats are threatened in the 2018 election, they will act. Self-preservation is their No. 1 priority. A tipping point may be reached as each new tweet and controversial presidential decision add up.
Congress has several options: It can impeach Trump. Members can cut off funding or refuse to pass his legislation. They have the power to eliminate Cabinet positions and block his appointments. They can limit his foreign affairs decisions as they recently did with bipartisan support over Trump ending sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Congress may reassert its constitutional prerogatives regarding military actions overseas. It is Congress, not the president, who has the power to declare war. That power has been abrogated since World War II.
South Africans may see their nation slide toward dictatorship because the fight against apartheid was a struggle for freedom, not democracy. Americans, on the other hand, have spilled blood over the past 2.4 centuries to preserve democracy. Our foundations are a great deal more deeply ingrained than that of South Africa in its 23rd year of independence from oppression.
American values and constitutional checks and balances are being challenged as they have never been challenged before. There is room to hope that Trump’s presidency will actually make American democracy great again, just not in the way he envisions.
Richard Elfers is a professor at Green River College.