South Africa’s rise, fall, and call for accountability

The article below explores the historical significance of South Africa, from the discovery of the world’s richest gold reef to the Anglo-Boer War, the establishment of the apartheid state, and the subsequent international condemnation of the system. Koos Malan highlights the international praise that followed the end of apartheid and the creation of the “New South Africa,” governed by a constitution based on equality, human rights, and democracy. However, Malan also notes the current state of the country, with increasing corruption, crime, poverty, and disillusionment. Posing the question of how South Africa and the world will react to this disappointment and the failure of the once-hailed “miracle.”


Reflections on South Africa’s state failure

By Koos Malan 

  1. South Africa is important to the world – once again

South Africa is important, not only to its people, but also to the greater part of the world – in particular to what we call the Western world, as well as to Sub-Saharan Africa. During the past century and a half there have been successive periods during which major events in South Africa were intensely taken note of and these events were decisive for developments far outside the borders of Southern Africa, or at least were experienced to be such major events.

The last major event of approximately three decades ago was so enormous and of such splendour that it captured the imagination of the world. This was the unparalleled South African miracle when the white minority peacefully transferred its governing power to the black majority led by the African National Congress (ANC), under the guidance of the great world icon Nelson Mandela. 

Henceforth, South Africa was to be governed in accordance with its new supreme constitution, which was generally being praised as the best in the world. The constitution provided for a comprehensive catalogue of individual rights. The once deeply divided South African population now was the much praised rainbow nation – an example worth following by the rest of the world.

Now, almost three decades later, a regrettable revolution is taking place. The supposed miracle has sunk into oblivion, and while the South African state is not a failed state, Professor Daniel Meyer, a Johannesburg development economist, explains that it is a vulnerable or indeed fragile state. This is the conclusion he arrived at after applying the criteria of the methodology of the International Index of Vulnerable States (Fragile State Index – FSI).

This drastic decline following the great miracle is the new major South African event we currently are experiencing.

Everyone – both within and outside South Africa – now is called upon to account for South Africa and its miracle and for the huge failure it has suffered since then.

But first a bird’s-eye view of South Africa’s previous major events, that resounded far beyond the country’s borders.

–  There was the discovery of the world’s richest gold reef in 1886 on the Witwatersrand, followed by the establishment of hard infrastructure across the subcontinent and the development of a mining and industrial economy, attracting scores of people and large amounts of money from across the world.

–  There was the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902, during which the Boers – the Afrikaners – earned enduring international fame for their pursuit of freedom and unwavering armed resistance against the British Empire.

–  There was the coming into being, under white control and to the exclusion of the black population, of the Union of South Africa in 1910. The state was the embodiment of Western colonialism, the roots of which may be traced back to the establishment of the first Dutch settlement under the United East India Company (VOC) at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. 

In due course, the colonial state became the “apartheid state”. Apartheid was based on white control over South Africa and the concomitant exclusion of the black majority. Following the withdrawal of the former colonial powers from Asia and Africa and the coming of independence of the erstwhile colonies, South Africa’s international importance increased sharply. 

This time round it was not thanks to the heroic struggle of the Afrikaners, but owing to the offensiveness of the system of apartheid – a kind of intractable continuation of colonialism – in South Africa, in sharp contrast to the now leading international beliefs with regard to decolonisation, equality, human rights and democracy. 

This time South Africa was important because apartheid filled the world with loathing and almost everybody in one way or another was hoping, praying and working for the end of it. The African National Congress (ANC), which, as its name indicates, was the vehicle of African nationalism, and its domestic allies were the vanguard fighters in an almost holy war against apartheid.

In due course the ANC acquired the image of the epitome of virtue and its struggle against apartheid the character of a holy struggle. Under the ANC leader Nelson Mandela, one of the most praised individuals of his time, South Africa became the moral and political embodiment of the world’s hope on and trust in a better world – a world of human rights, equality and democracy. 

– South Africa again was very important during the fall of apartheid and the advent of the “New South Africa” and of the much-acclaimed South African rainbow nation in 1994. The new South African state was embodied in its widely acclaimed “best constitution in the world”. This constitution, based on equality, human rights and democracy, was South Africa’s latest glorious event of international fame, raising unprecedented international applause for the country. The international implications of the end of the white regime are highlighted by the fact that at the same time it also concluded the five hundred years of European expansion and political domination over large parts of Africa and Asia since the first Portuguese and Spanish settlements.

-Then, unexpectedly, came South Africa’s next major event: before the eyes of its people and of the world, Afro-nationalism failed spectacularly. The hope for equality, human rights and democracy has disappointed and nothing has come of the international lead South Africa should have taken in this regard. The South African state is sliding into corruption, crime, violence, neglect and plundering of infrastructure, unemployment and worsening poverty. And the joy and optimistic hope experienced by South Africa and the world three decades ago have yielded to disappointment, despondency and depression.

Where to now with this failing New South Africa and how are its people and the world going to react to this huge disappointment?

I shall now briefly sketch this event that is currently unfolding, as well as the run-up to it.

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2. The struggle against colonialism and the white minority

Until shortly before 1994, with the advent of the New South Africa when the ANC came into power, South Africa – the apartheid state, as it often was called – was important because of its offensiveness. 

Both inside and outside the country’s borders, indignation because of the moral offensiveness was growing. The United Nations condemned apartheid as a crime against humanity. Moreover, apartheid was offensive at least to such a degree that there was virtually universal unanimity that it should be disposed of.

The ideological foundation for the struggle against decolonisation and apartheid took shape in the aftermath of World War II when the belief in universal individual equality gained acceptance all over the world. Consequently, all forms of racial discrimination and inequality were rejected categorically. This found expression in the prominent legal instruments of a developing international law for human rights, in terms of which equal rights for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, language and any other difference, was proclaimed as an unconditional principle. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948, followed by several international and regional conventions, unequivocally proclaimed the faith in equality of all individuals. In addition, there were conventions aimed specifically at racial discrimination and apartheid.

Several decisive political events during this era were on the one hand driven by the principle of individual rights and on the other hand served to further drive home the principle of individual equality. 

Three closely linked events are of special importance.

2.1.    Decolonisation

The first is decolonisation. Numerous territories in Asia and Africa that used to be under the control of European colonial powers became independent states from the late 1940s to the 1960s. 

This was brought about by the relatively low appetite for the retention of colonial territories and also, following World War II, by the weakened positions of the European powers, who no longer were capable of maintaining their colonial rule. 

Furthermore, the continuation of colonialism, based as it was on inequality and discrimination, was being rendered impossible by the ideological tide favouring equality. Accordingly, the General Assembly of the United Nations, in Resolution 1514(XV) (Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples) of 14 December 1960, declared colonialism to be unlawful and approved of the creation of new states that were still under colonial rule.

2.2.       New beliefs in the internal politics of the colonial powers

The second event was that the internal political beliefs of the former European colonial powers had also changed and the principle of equality similarly had become the cornerstone of their domestic politics. This was characterised by the changed policy with regard to immigration. While immigrants from the Third World and more specifically from the former colonies previously had been turned away, these states opened their borders for people from the Third World from the 1970s. Western states outside Europe, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, followed suit. In some cases the flow of immigrants from the Third World increased drastically during recent decades.

Since World War II, the United States also has been feeling the brunt of the demand for equality. The ideology of equality has been driven with increasing consistency since the 1960s. This became evident during Lyndon Johnson’s term of office with the acceptance of civil rights legislation and the introduction of affirmative action measures to compensate for racial discrimination of the past. (The race issue in the US is still brewing and may even be further from being solved than half a century ago. This issue, however, falls beyond the scope of the present discussion.) The core of the matter is that, since the middle sixties, the US has been running its domestic politics officially and in practice on the principle of equality.

Indeed, the belief in equality has gained so much acceptance that leading Western states in fact do not view themselves as Western any longer. In 1997, President Bill Clinton stated that the US needed a revolution to demonstrate that the US could continue existing without its former dominant European culture. 

The former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in turn stated that the Islam formed part of the German national character. France during the major part of the Middle Ages in actual fact was the core of Christian Western Europe, but its support of the principle of equality since the French Revolution more than two centuries ago put the country on the road to ridding itself of its Western character. 

The conclusion is that the belief in universal individual equality became the dominant ideology of the (erstwhile) Western world following World War II and finally since the 1960s.

2.3. The growing South African anomaly

The third event is that while many African states became independent since 1957, South Africa remained white dominated. The white government under Hendrik Verwoerd (1958-1966) aimed at guiding the various ethnic groups of South Africa to independence or a certain degree of self-government, by means of internal emancipation or separate development, as Verwoerd’s policy was also called at the time.

However, this did not happen. The reason was that the country simply had become too integrated economically. Furthermore, the territories that were to geographically embody the self-government or independence of the various black ethnic groups were much too small. Thirdly, black population growth was too much for the realisation of Verwoerd’s scheme of separate development. 

Fourthly, South Africa’s whites, convinced of the invincibility of their formidable state, were not prepared to grant the black groups more land and to reconcile themselves with a smaller “white South Africa”. The attempt at “separate development” by Verwoerd and his successors, which a projected intended to lead to South Africa’s own decolonisation, therefore proved to be a failure.

As decolonisation in Africa progressed and the former colonised territories in Africa and elsewhere became independent – colonialism of a special type (decolonisation of a special type) as it was called by the ANC – apartheid increasingly stood out as an indefensible anomaly and the struggle against it intensified. Sub-Saharan Africa (and the Third World) did everything in their power to destroy this anomaly of a white-controlled South Africa. They were eagerly assisted in this action by the then communist Soviet Union and (communist) China.

To the West, white rule in South Africa also was a tough issue. For their own reasons, they too wanted to get rid of the white regime as soon as possible. As the Western powers accepted equality, apartheid also to them stuck out like a sore thumb. However, their main problem really was that apartheid as an unexpected continuation of colonialism and racial discrimination, which they themselves had practised for centuries, was preventing them from finally closing the door on that historic period. 

The governments of these states – Great Britain, the US, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and others – therefore felt obliged to pressure the South African white government to surrender. Large parts of the populations of these states encouraged their governments to do so. Apartheid was running counter to their beliefs on equality, keeping awake their guilty consciences about their centuries-long colonial rule. For this reason, the fight against apartheid was a popular movement that aroused strong feelings among millions of ordinary Europeans and Americans.

Yet Western governments were concerned about what would become of South Africa’s Westerners – its white population. They supported the transfer of power to the black majority, but this should take place peacefully and a new dispensation should contain guarantees to the white minority.

The struggle concerning South Africa’s white regime therefore was not only a local, South African issue but also a full-scale international struggle with the major international role-players referred to above playing prominent parts. 

In South Africa the struggle, led by the ANC and its internal wing, against white rule intensified with mass demonstrations, boycotts and sporadic violence. In addition, the white regime increasingly was targeted by especially economic sanctions and general international isolation.

Notwithstanding the enormous pressure on the white regime, it is generally agreed that the regime would be able to hang on for at least another decade.

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3. Triumph over evil – the South African miracle

At the beginning of the 1990s there was a sudden volte-face when the white government and the ANC started negotiating. Still under tremendous pressure from local mass action and international isolation, the white government agreed to a transfer of power to the black majority. This resulted in South Africa’s new constitutional dispensation, which came into effect on 27 April 1994. 

This marked the end of the huge struggle over apartheid and white minority government. It was an event of epoch-making historic importance, not only for South Africa. Several centuries of white political domination in Southern Africa have come to an end, but not only in Southern Africa. The end of the white regime in Southern Africa also marked the end of five centuries of Western geopolitical domination across the world, in other words the end of the half a millennium of the Vasco da Gama epoch, further underlining the global significance of the end of the white regime in South Africa.

The transfer of power in South Africa to the ANC provided the new Afro-nationalistic government a golden opportunity to make a huge success of the country. South Africa’s economy was the biggest in Africa. The country was a significant role-player in the international economy, with an advanced industrial, banking and services sector and excellent hard and soft economic infrastructure. Furthermore, the ANC was the darling of the world, meaning that it could benefit economically from all quarters.

With the transition to black majority government in terms of the new constitution, South Africa reconciled itself with the principle of equality. Its constitution – the interim constitution of 1993 (which came into operation in 1994), soon to be replaced by the 1996 constitution, generally known as the final constitution – embodies a passionate embrace of the principle of equality – precisely what the white regime had endured so much pressure for. Justice Kriegler of the Constitutional Court, in the widely quoted judgment in President of the RSA v Hugo, stated as follows:

“The South African Constitution is primarily and emphatically an egalitarian Constitution. The … Constitution was written with equality at its centre. Equality is our Constitution’s focus and organising principle.”

The principle of equality has been further rounded off with altruistic social rights, and the new South African state established itself as a caring state.

Everybody was overjoyed and proud of this. South Africa overnight became the darling of the world. While South Africa for long had been the general embodiment of the evil of colonialism, inequality and discrimination, its constitution now had turned the country into the loadstar and symbol of equality, human dignity, and reconciliation.

In its solemn words “a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex.”

South Africa’s conversion to and newly-found leading role in the doctrine of equality and human rights were highly praised all over the world. In its foreign policy, the new ANC government of the New South Africa would prioritise the promotion of human rights. The former colonised world rejoiced at the healing of this last painful sore of colonialism. 

The Western world was equally relieved and joyful. They had successfully complied with their responsibility to get rid of apartheid and the last major legacy of Western colonialism. In doing so, they also were delivered from the tormenting conscience of their own colonial history. It is no exaggeration to say that they were ecstatic about South Africa’s constitutional compromise and were also rejoicing at South Africa’s shining new constitution.

Those who did not themselves experience this will find it difficult to imagine the exuberant joy that accompanied the end of the white minority government and the advent of South Africa’s new “best constitution in the world”.

Several South African academics waxed lyrical about the wonderful metaphor of the bridge provided by the interim constitution quoted above: the historic bridge heralding a shining future of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all.

Pilgrims from all over the world travelled to South Africa to pay homage to South Africa’s commitment to equality, democracy and human rights – also from the European and American university sectors. At the forefront were people such as Karl Klare of Northwestern University in Massachusetts and Drucilla Cornell of Rutgers. In a widely praised article the constitution was adulated by Klare as a trendsetting “transformative constitution”. People such as Klare and Cornell were at the forefront of the (Un)Wise Men and Women from the West who paid homage to the constitution. 

The ending of apartheid and the acceptance of South Africa’s constitution were a global event of the highest order. While the country for long had been the embodiment of evil, it now had become the symbol of the loftiest values of equality, human rights and democracy. While it had long been the source of pessimism, depression and suffering, it now was the fountain of hope for the world.

4.   Failure and disappointment

Innumerable words have been uttered about the South African cum world miracle of the middle 1990s. 

Since then, almost three decades have come and gone, during which the results of the miracle have been put to the test. And alas, while South Africa used to be the inspiration for its people and hope for the world, this is no longer the case – not at all. 

Measured against virtually all criteria for a successful modern state, the South African state has been failing miserably.

In judging the ironical culmination of the supposed – but now obviously failed – miracle, I will begin with the three core values that earned the New South Africa so much praise, namely its commitment to equality, human rights and democracy.

4.1. The three core reasons for praising the miracle

Equality

The South African Constitution with its forthright egalitarian character, where equality was to be the “focus and organising principle”, has not resulted in the equality it should have brought about. On the contrary, South Africa currently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and almost 40% of the population have to try to survive on meagre government allowances. 

Inequality at present is deeper than it was three decades ago, and national economic growth, which should be the driving force for greater general well-being, has been virtually absent over the past number of years. In addition, basic education is experiencing a serious crisis, with a significant percentage of learners leaving school without being properly literate and able to take part in the economy.

Human rights

The general commitment to human rights, as stated in the comprehensive catalogue of rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights as part of the Constitution, is not bearing the fruit that it is supposed to bear. This can be ascribed to the combination of a dysfunctional state administration, poor policy and decay of infrastructure, as will be explained below.

Democracy

Thirdly, South Africa’s democracy has turned into a violent democracy, as was described by the University of the Witwatersrand sociologist Karl von Holdt way back in 2013. Judging by the thousands of often violent so-called service delivery uprisings occurring in South Africa every year, this description appears to be valid. 

To this should be added South Africa’s ongoing epidemic of political assassinations, the intimidation campaigns and politics of extortion with impunity by one of the opposition parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and the repeated disruption of proceedings of democratic institutions such as the national assembly and activities of several municipal councils.

4.2. Transformatism and patronage and cadre deployment

The core cause of South Africa’s decline is the Afro-nationalism ideology of transformatism (also referred to as the National Democratic Revolution), as applied by the African National Congress. This involves centralistic control by the ANC over all levers of authority, including all legislators, the centres of executive power, the judiciary, the public service, public utility companies, the defence force, the police, educational institutions and finally also civil society and the (private) economy. 

This in turn involves a comprehensive system of patronage – cadre deployment in the ANC’s lexicon. Accordingly, people are appointed and promoted not in the first instance based on their suitability for the post involved, but because they are loyal supporters of the ANC or a specific faction of the ANC. This means that the specialisation and professionalisation as cornerstone for maintaining a modern state have been exchanged for the demodernisation and neo-primitivism to which South Africa is now being subjected. 

Consequently, virtually every organ of state, within and outside the national, provincial and local spheres of government, has experienced moderate to serious decline under the aegis of the ANC over the past decades.

However, the pathology of the present South African state even goes beyond this. Under the Afro-nationalism of the ANC, corruption, theft, neglect and plundering of state assets and infrastructure, foolish policy and the inability to run the administration of a modern state have become the distinctive characteristics of the South African state.

The Commission of Inquiry into State Capture and Corruption (the Zondo commission) found that billions of rands’ worth in assets of the state, more specifically state-controlled enterprises such as Eskom (the electricity supplier), Transnet (the national rail network) and several other state institutions, have been looted. Senior government officials and public servants are among the main beneficiaries. 

In spite of these findings there has been virtually no turnaround. One reason is that the criminal justice system (the police and the prosecution authority) have been weakened to such an extent that prosecuting the guilty has become excessively difficult. Another reason is that corruption apparently has become part of the governing ANC’s culture.

4.3. Crime

In addition, South Africa has been ravaged by crime, specifically violent crime, over the past decades. This situation is still getting worse. South Africa currently has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The weakened criminal justice system is experiencing serious problems in combating this. Private and civil security to a considerable extent has stepped into the resultant void. The country’s private security industry is one of the largest in the world and is still growing.

Furthermore, as appears from a comprehensive report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), South Africa has in recent years become a playing field of (international) organised crime, so much so that it is threatening the South African state.

The report states:

“Organized crime has become an existential threat to South Africa, impacting the lives of millions of people together with the country’s economic health and political integrity.”

Particularly destructive are extortion networks, specifically the so-called construction mafia, which has caused enormous economic damage since 2014. The police are not capable of dealing with the situation. In this regard, the GI-TOC report noted:

“SAPS remains an institution without strategic direction when it comes to organized crime. It is still committed to a high visibility, low-impact approach that centres on taking down ‘high-flyers’ and making big seizures and large numbers of low-level arrests. This has enmeshed SAPS in a cycle of reward and focus that disincentivizes intelligence, analysis and investigation. Promotion is based on stats, and not impact, while there is poor to no training in intelligence or detective capabilities.”

4.4. Decay of infrastructure and foolish policy

Erratic economic policy, including lack of certainty about property ownership, together with crime and serious decay of infrastructure, have caused enormous damage to the South African state’s once shining reputation of 1994. Economic growth has declined; there is little foreign fixed investment; there is an ongoing outflow of professional people owing to emigration and capital outflow, and the country’s tax base is shrinking. South Africa has been lagging far behind its international economic peers.

In the fourth report by the South African Institution of Civil Engineers (SAICE) in 2022 it is stated that South Africa’s infrastructure currently is weaker than at any time since the SAICE issued its first report in 2010.

Characteristic of the failure of the South African state is the neglect of the power supplier Eskom. While Eskom still enjoyed international recognition as a leading utility company in 2001, it has run into an unprecedented crisis over the past decades.

Notwithstanding the fact that all modern economies in essence are electricity economies, there has been no long-term planning, constant investment or maintenance for at least two decades. 

In addition, sound management and professional, technical and similar expertise have been replaced by cadre deployment because, as was stated by a former chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng (referring to the appointment of judges), it was “not all about merit” and “transformation is just as important” and the Constitution does not require that the ”best of the best” be appointed. Furthermore, there is a crime-ridden environment and a tattered police service and prosecution authority that have led to the plundering of Eskom’s infrastructure and the hard infrastructure of other sectors. 

The result is that the country currently is experiencing serious power shortages and ongoing power outages, seriously hampering economic activities and disrupting people’s daily life. 

Water shortages owing to insufficient maintenance of infrastructure and unreliable power supply now also are becoming a growing problem.

There also is a decline of infrastructure in other sectors, such as that the country’s rail transport system has been weakened seriously and that numerous roads are not being properly maintained and, in many instances, have in fact become impassable. 

There is just no end to the dismal record of the wide-reaching decline of South Africa under Afro-nationalism.

In a nutshell, the current major new South African event three decades following the miracle of the “best constitution in the world” looks like this: a spectalular failure following the unprecedented and overwhelming success.

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5. Taking stock 

South Africa currently finds itself in a deep policrisis – a variety of crises. The ANC falls short in all aspects of running a modern state, and the South African state is decaying over a wide front. The population is suffering under crime to an increasing extent. Economic infrastructure is in disrepair and there is growing poverty and unemployment. Institutions a modern political dispensation cannot do without, are not really functioning. Hardly anyone with relevant knowledge and insight does not react in a negative way to the condition of the South African state. I refer to only two of numerous commentators. 

The nirvana we hoped to inherit during the 1990s, wrote Barney Mthombothi in the Sunday Times of 26 March 2023, has changed into a nightmare of plundering, crime and corruption.

In the same edition, the columnist S’Thembisoi Msomi wrote that the dispensation that was established in the 1990s (the claimed nirvana) no longer is enough to keep the country afloat.

These comments form part of the general state of depression among the South African public concerning the condition of the South African state in the present dispensation and a justified and growing unanimity regarding the failure of the New South Africa.

All the reasons for the exuberant elation of almost three decades ago concerning the New South Africa that had the world swooning, have disappeared: the “best constitution in the world”, the rainbow nation, equality, human rights and democracy.

The ANC which was so zealously supported more specifically also by governments and populations in thje Inited States, the United Kingdom and Western Europe proved not to be the saviour, but rather the agent paving the way to decline and decay. The much praised supreme Constitution is witness to its own powerlessness and irrelevance. The New South Africa ultimately proved to be the supreme anticlimax and failure of Afro-nationalism and the current government the prime agent of neo-primitivism and the decaying patronage state.

In view of the fact that the advent of the New South Africa at the time was such a breathtakingly major event of global importance, the implosion of the South African state likewise is a globally important event, because this implosion reveals that the source from which the world drew so much inspiration at the time, in fact was unfounded. Some leading opinion formers, media and governments have been slowly awakening to this. 

Lord Peter Hain, British member of parliament and former leading anti-apartheid activist and thorn in the flesh of the South African minority government, has had to suffer a serious disillusionment in recent years. Hain now has turned into an outspoken critic of the ANC government. He is despondent about South Africa and has warned that the country is moving towards becoming a failed state. And leading media such as The Economist reporting on the destruction of South Africa also have realised that the New South Africa has failed.

So the Western world and Sub-Saharan Africa have been wrong in the exuberant expectation of what the New South Africa would produce. This truth is only now beginning to be appreciated. The culmination of this world event – appreciating the miserable major South African failure – is yet to come.

Koos Malan is a constitutional jurist, from Pretoria.

His publications include: Politicracy – a assessment of the coercive logic of the territorial state and ideas around a respose to it Pretoria: Pretoria Univ Law Press 2012 ( freely accessble on the Internet); and

There is no supreme constitution – a critique of statist-individualist constitutionlaism Stellenbosch: African SUN Media 2019.

This article was initially publised in Afrikaans on Litnet.

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