Nelson Mandela ((Denis Farrell/Associated Press, file photo, Dec. 7, 2005)
Nelson Mandela ((Denis Farrell/Associated Press, file photo, Dec. 7, 2005)

On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s death, we will witness a showering of praise for this monumental historical figure, as well we should.

Foremost among Mandela’s many legacies is of course the role he played in South Africa’s transition away from apartheid. For political scientists – and of course policymakers, business leaders, and civic activists — the question of why countries transition to more democratic political systems is a profoundly important one. On days like today, the answer that often seems simplest is the “great person” theory: no Gorbachev, no collapse of the U.S.S.R.; no Wałęsa, no Solidarity in Poland; no Mandela, no end to apartheid in South Africa.

But of course there are myriad factors that political scientists have identified that contribute to democratization in addition to the actions of particular individuals. These include:

– Broad structural factors such as socio-economic development in the country, especially focusing on GDP per capita

– The extent to which opposition forces in a country are unified and/or connected to or isolate from the broader mass public

– The extent to which the regime itself remains unified in the face of demands to democratize, or splits into different factions (often referred to as “hard liners” vs. “soft liners”)

– Pressure from forces outside the country — including foreign governments, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations like the European Union, and international financial organizations like the IMF or World Bank — to democratize, often as conditions for future aid and/or membership.

– Removal of external forces that had either directly exerted pressure not to democratize in the past (e.g., glasnost in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe), or that had previously restrained from criticizing an authoritarian regime because of geo-strategic considerations (e.g., the end of the Cold War)

I leave it for others to sort out exactly which of these factors — or which combination of factors — was most important in the South African context. As we praise Mandela and his undeniable impact on South Africa’s political development, though, it is important to keep these other potential explanations for the dramatic changes that have come to South Africa in the past two decades in mind. For if we don’t, we run the risk of simply waiting for “great people” to come along and change history, which, at best, is a difficult strategy for which to plan, and, at worst, has the potential to lead to dramatic lost opportunities.