outh Africa is justly proud of its democratic transition and no one can doubt that President Jacob Zuma has won two elections with the support of the majority in the country.
Yet Zuma’s clear victories at the ballot box alone do not confirm him as a democratic leader. In fact, in his six years in office, President Zuma has taken a number of steps that weaken rather than strengthen the independent institutions that are the hallmarks of political life in a democratic state. He has consistently used heated rhetoric to delegitimise any sector of society that is not elected, particularly the judiciary and the media. His goal seems to be to discourage their contribution to public policy and practice, and to prevent them from challenging his authority.
Zuma’s style of government highlights a global trend in which leaders who win national elections do not respect the institutions of the democratic government, most notably independent media. I call this new breed of popularly elected autocrats democratators. Democratators use their mandate at the polls to justify their repressive policies, which they insist are being carried out with the support of the majority. Unlike traditional dictators, they do not rely on brute force and direct control to get their way. Instead, they use stealth, manipulation and subterfuge.
Globally, the leading examples are President (formerly prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia and the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. All three are – or in Chávez’s case, were – genuinely popular and won landslide victories at the polls. All three used their electoral mandate to eviscerate the independent institutions that constrained their power. All three brought the media to heel.
In Venezuela, Chávez used regulatory controls, legal pressure and strident public denunciations to force the sale of critical media outlets to new owners more closely aligned with his government. Putin relied on punitive tax audits to bring independent broadcasters under Kremlin control. Erdogan rounded up and jailed dozens of critical journalists on trumped up antiterror charges, earning the distinction of