Following events of the last two weeks and, perhaps, more importantly since the negotiated transition of 1994, the country’s democratic dispensation has been constantly tested in terms of its rationality. While some may see state corruption, financial malfeasance, and the overall governance deficit as tipping points, the prevailing structural conditions that have defined the architecture of the post-apartheid state remains a significant driver in shaping the rational actor test for our democracy.
The dynamics of the country’s constitutional democracy is premised on a wide berth of assumptions that tend to presume, especially at a cursory level, that all levers of government, society and behavior operate in tandem and harmoniously with one another. In practice, however, these assumptions become a complex web of competing and entangled interests/issues, underpinned by complicated questions of what constitutes the sustainable consolidation of South Africa’s democracy. These can be found in the factors identified below, which in this author’s view, are considered as some of the most important points of reflection.
Test Factor 1: The Complications of an Electoral Model
Since the inception of the democratic state in 1994, the issue of the electoral model has become a compelling feature in terms of the nexus between majority rule versus the protection of minority rights. It is within this context that the first democratically elected government had to be constructed on the framework of political inclusion grounded along the lines of the Government of National Unity (GNU). To mitigate fears that majority rule will undermine the interests of the minority, the GNU was characterized to be an inclusive democratic model where, at least in principle, electoral rights were entrenched and upheld in the Constitution.
As much as the project of the GNU disintegrated and the prevailing view of electoral competition and the will of the majority became the status quo, the disconnect emerges when it comes to how electoral rights are articulated in practice. This becomes explicitly evident when we start to interrogate the right to vote with who we vote for. It is not that the electorate is unaware of the nature of the electoral process or the way it operates. Rather it is the nuance in the manner in which the electoral model is designed that catches the electorate in a set of unintended consequences.
And this is where the complexities begin to arise regarding how the vote can be used to actually hold political parties and, of course, those that are in state power accountable to their electoral promises and in line with the mandate of the Constitution.
It is not enough to assume that by using the vote as a punitive measure, that the electoral system allows for enough self-correction to easily vote politically actors out of office.
To be clear the way the electoral system is structured as a Proportional Representation framework has less to do about whether We the People have the power to use the vote for precisely what it is intended to do, namely Government by the People, For the People and Of the People. Instead, it acts as enabler for those in power to test how far they can go in their gerrymandering and push their interests vis-à-vis the rights of the electorate.
The end result is that as much as the electorate becomes frustrated, the quintessential issue is: Does my vote make a difference?
Even in instances where voters have punished parties by remaining apathetic or switching their support to another party as a sign of a protest vote, the inherent contradictions have remained. Just look what is happening in the ruling Party and the issues that have surrounded its performance in elections.
Then there is the assumption that the leader of the Party will automatically be the President of the Republic. But again this is another nuance that misleads the electorate. While there has not been a case where there were two different individuals leading Party and State, the possibility cannot be ruled out. Once again drawing into question whether what you see may not be guaranteed when the winning Party nominates the President in the Parliament.
So with the approaching local government elections, and as much as it is probably the closest we come to having a direct participatory democracy, the final say of party lists and nomination of mayors and councilors and so forth ultimately resides with political parties. And we know how these processes can become manipulated.
Indeed, begging the question of whether a reform of the electoral model allowing independent candidates to contest elections or even a mixed framework of PR and Constituency is a sufficient condition in making this democracy more sustainable and accountable to the electorate.
Test Factor 2: Blurring lines between Party and State
Linked to the first factor is how the electoral model actually expands the one party dominant system. The first past the post model allows for this dominance to manifest and peculate. Not only does this raise and the blur the lines between Party and State, it also reinforces some of the disturbing revelations made at the Zondo Commission.
When factionalism and paralysis sets into the Party this inevitably extends into the bureaucracy of the State. Hence halting the functioning of an effective state, which gets caught in the cross-hairs of capture, tender irregularities , lack of service delivery, looting of funds for development, and other governance deficits.
The unconscionable happens: the state becomes a battleground of patronage networks where rent-seeking behavior is aligned to factional groups with the endgame being not just control of the Party but also that of the state.
As a result the electoral model becomes compromised precisely because of the way it is designed.
Test Factor 3: A Viable Opposition?
For any democracy the rationality of its existence remains vested in the presence of a viable opposition. In the case of South Africa, it is probably more pertinent given that the democratic model is defined by its multi-party democratic character.
As much as this may be seen as kudos for the country embracing its democratic identity, such diversity makes the opposition landscape overcrowded and at times overburdened. The difficulty with this kind of multi-partyism is that the opposition becomes more fragmented than holding at the center to become a viable alternative.
Notwithstanding race as a factor in electoral behavior, opposition parties, at times, find themselves in a contestation battle with each other in trying to deepen their electoral footprint.
At present the significant litmus test would whether the opposition in the country would be able to capitalize on the weaknesses of the African National Congress (ANC) and gain greater traction among ANC voters and the electorate in general.
The difficulty again that confronts the opposition is voter fatigue. With the political and socio-economic landscape in an abysmal situation, to what extent will the opposition capture the imagination of the electorate remains a watching brief. Right now the electorates’ low levels of distrust with the system is probably greater than seeing a viable alternative in the opposition.
Test Factor 4: Democratic Consolidation
The final test for this democracy is to ask to what extent our democracy is consolidating. For instance Guillermo O’Donnell notes is his work:
[The] … important interaction effect [where] the deep social and economic crisis that most…. countries inherited from their authoritarian predecessors reinforces certain practices and conceptions about the proper exercise of political authority that lead in the direction of delegative, not representative democracy.
More importantly O’Donnell highlights that:
The installation of a democratically elected government opens the way for a “second transition,” often longer and more complex than the initial transition from authoritarian rule. This second transition is supposed to be from a democratically elected government to an institutionalized, consolidated democratic regime.
With this mind where does South Africa fit in this spectrum of democratic consolidation?
Some scholars may argue that we have a strong set of state institutions that illustrate that our democracy is consolidating. But the question that needs to be asked is are these institutions as strong as they allowed to be and to what extent does their endurance rely on the way the electoral model is designed. And so any re-design of the electoral model will also have to consider how shifts in the power arrangements of the state address the way institutions are considered as important trajectories in how the representation of the state is constructed.
Of course, we should not ignore the vibrancy of the media and the role of the judiciary in strengthening our democracy. And their independence is vital in sustaining the democratic architecture.
The rational actor test for our democracy hinges on the way we interpret and understand the dynamics that shape our democracy. Expectations that democracy is a necessary condition is critical but so too is the fact that it may not always be a sufficient condition. This is where the Advisory Panel tasked with reforms of the electoral system has to be clear that its recommendations synchronize cohesively with the anticipations of the electorate. It will require a coherent reflection of how the democratic architecture will evolve in terms of demographics, gender, class, and the urban-rural divide, among other variables. Therefore, in defining a set of recommendations on the electoral reform process, the Panel should consider how the system it proposes meets the rationality of consolidating and institutionalizing the electoral system going forward.
Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Associate based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed here are personal.