Inside USD

Professor’s Book Explores Democracy in South Africa

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

africa-bkTwenty years ago, the world watched Nelson Mandela walk free from an apartheid prison in South Africa. His release helped reunite the fractured nation and turned the leader into an international Icon. USD professor J. Michael Williams ’92 (B.A.) traveled to South Africa a year after Mandela’s release.

“It was after that visit that I knew I wanted to study South African politics at some point in the future,” said Williams.

These days, South Africa remains in the news, in part due to the election of its controversial president, Jacob Zuma, as well as the looming advent of the 2010 World Cup. Of course, as the largest economy in the continent, many leaders have looked to South Africa to become a model for the rest of the region.

Since his visit, Williams has researched the nation extensively. His recently released book, “Chieftaincy, the State, and Democracy” focuses on political legitimacy in post-apartheid South Africa and explores the relationship between the more than 2,000 tribal chiefs and the South African Government.

“In South Africa, like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the chieftaincy continues to exert considerable authority at the local level,” he said. “For many state officials, ceding authority to chiefs is difficult. They would prefer to have officials at the local level in charge because [the officials] are more likely loyal to the central government.”

However, in South Africa, the government has recognized the authority of local chiefs. It’s a policy that Williams believes is correct, even though it has strained community relations; since many look to both chiefs and elected officials for guidance, a power struggle results.

“From the government’s point of view, while they would rather implement projects without going through the chieftaincy, they know that the chieftaincy has legitimacy at the local level,” explained Williams. “They must consult with chiefs to get anything done.”

Williams hopes his book will clarify the role chieftaincies have in shaping South African policy. ”I want [my readers] to understand how hard South Africans are working to improve their society and the enormous challenges that continue to exist for them.”

— Anthony Shallat ‘10

  • Share/Bookmark