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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

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