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What are centripetal forces and centrifugal forces present in South Africa?

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Centripetal forces are those that, within this limited context, unite a nation that might otherwise fragment from the many fissures that exist within it, such as ethnic and religious differences. Centrifugal forces, in contrast, are those that threaten to tear a nation or other polity apart. The Republic of South Africa, as is the case with most nations, has both types of pressures or forces.

The centripetal forces that keep South Africa a cohesive, united country include a shared sense of identity among its population of 53 million people, 80 percent of whom are black, with another eight percent identified as white and the rest of mixed-race and South Asian heritage. South Africa's history has been somewhat unique for the fact that it survived the transition from a minority, white-ruled system to a majority, black-ruled one at a time when many observers believed the country would disintegrate into civil war.

While racial tensions continue to fester between the Afrikaner community of primarily Dutch descent, which had imposed the system of racial separation known as apartheid, and the black-dominated African National Congress political movement, which had violently opposed apartheid before emerging triumphant in democratic elections, the dual-sense of nationalism among both is key to holding this otherwise fractious nation together. Afrikaner bitterness about having to give up power and to subsequently be forced to endure the corruption and frequent incompetence of the ANC while being targeted for retribution by poor blacks, vengeful after decades of oppression at the hands of those whites, remains potent, but South Africa’s white populations continue to identify as South African. The majority black population similarly identifies as South African, although it has struggled to compensate for this history of oppression that condemned most blacks to lives of enforced servitude within their own country. South Africa is the most technologically-advanced country in Africa and its economy was, until 2014, the largest on the continent (it was replaced as the largest by Nigeria, which has a population of 173 million compared to South Africa’s 53 million). Its long-time status as the continent’s most advanced and productive economy is a factor in the population’s ability to retain that crucial centripetal sense of national unity irrespective of ethnicity.

The centrifugal forces that threaten to tear South Africa apart, as the above discussion of centripetal forces suggests, are strong and resilient. Afrikaner bitterness about the nation’s transition to black majority rule, despite the astonishing display of dignity and magnanimity on the part of Nelson Mandela following his release from prison, appears to be a permanent feature of South Africa’s political environment. The ANC’s continued political domination in the post-apartheid era also threatens the nation’s unity, as the black majority population is less cohesive than many assume. Even during the era of apartheid, there were serious divisions between the ANC and its white, mostly communist, supporters and allies and the KwaZulu nation, which is South Africa’s largest. Under apartheid, the white South African regime established a series of “homelands” for its black population intended to present the veneer of multiple independent nations. The most powerful of these “independent nations” was KwaZulu-Natal, a vast province dominated by Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, which strenuously opposed the ANC and, more significantly, strongly opposed the movements in the United States and Europe to diplomatically and economically isolate the white-ruled country.  While the ANC was, as it remains, the dominant political force in South Africa, the legacy of the bitter and violent feud between it and the Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party remains a divisive phenomenon in South Africa.

In short, the majority black population of South Africa has been less unified, even in its approach to apartheid, than many Americans realized, and those tensions remain, although in a far less contentious and violent manner than had existed under white rule.

While there are serious centrifugal forces in the Republic of South Africa, those forces are contained, and its problems are minuscule compared to those of neighboring Zimbabwe, another formerly minority white-ruled country and British colony. The reason is South Africa's late President Mandela’s commitment to democracy. The governing structures he ushered in in the wake of apartheid’s collapse have prevented, for the most part, the reinstitution of an autocratic form of government comparable to that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

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