As we emerge from one tumultuous event after the other with more being put on our collective plate with each passing day, we may quite rightly wonder whether our once widely hailed “miracle” South African democracy is still safe and secure.
Or have these tumultuous events and a variety of other developments and bad actors already significantly chipped away at its foundation, leaving it exposed to serious danger? Might it collapse and vanish like ancient Rome at some not-too-distant future point?
The Constitution is still there, and so are the institutions, although both have been questioned, threatened, and sometimes dismissed. So, it’s arguably not so much these that are imminently at risk. The risk lies more in incremental encroachments and gradual erosion, changing attitudes, misguided populism and radicalism, underlying fault lines, consistent failures, and moral degradation.
Nonetheless, after the groundbreaking achievements immediately before and after 1994, South Africa produced a new democratic constitution that was widely praised around the world as being one of the best that was ever written. The events of the time inspired the late, much-beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu to coin the term “the rainbow nation” when referring to South Africa and its people. It was widely embraced by all South Africans across whatever social or other divisions existed. There was much harmonious pride, hope and expectation in the air.
Those events also inspired our late first democratic president and father of the modern South African nation, Nelson Mandela, to include in his inaugural speech to our new democratic Parliament an extraordinary tribute to an Afrikaans poet, Ingrid Jonker – the absolute unthinkable just a few short years before.
He recited her poem, ‘The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga’, written in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, an event that we just recently commemorated but with seriously blunted memories, senses and morals. Mandela said about Jonker that she “gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and that we are citizens of the world.” That spoke to the very fibre of our fledgling new democracy back then. Does it still?
But then we were treated to the first bitter taste of corruption that emerged from a multi-billion-rand arms deal and a different, shockingly evil wind of change started blowing across our still beloved country. One of the main accused would soon become our president and has to this day managed to delay facing his criminal trial, while constantly trying to subvert another foundation of our democracy – the independent judiciary.
The devastating era of AIDS denialism followed. But while the president responsible for that one did well on the economic front, his successes there were short-lived. He was removed from office for ideological reasons through the efforts of the governing ANC’s communist allies as well as by the growing forces that started aligning with Jacob Zuma. And so the poor and the unemployed were left to continue in squalor.
Then, coinciding with a destructive global financial crisis that also wreaked havoc in South Africa, came a decade of wholesale theft, corruption, and state capture. This ignominious period severely weakened the state and our economy, and deepened unemployment and poverty. In a sense the misery had only just begun.
Next came a promised ‘new dawn’ that never saw the light of day bar a few mostly superficial changes in which ‘captured’ personnel were replaced but no serious structural or operational reforms resulted. Instead of the ‘new dawn’, we had to be content with a global health pandemic that confined us to an at times bizarre state of disaster and national lockdown that destroyed businesses, jobs and lives and gave us more corruption and theft. And furthered the centralisation and other questionable agendas of the governing elite.
We also almost reached the tipping point with a week of unprecedented riots, destruction and violence. This was ignited by callous political power games, fanned and fed by mass hunger and poverty, and was marked also by the inefficient collapse of our security services and a Cabinet that still abstains from taking full responsibility.
At the same time our president was enthusiastically waving the banner of the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA), presumably as a kind of feel-good psychological antidote to our many ills when we could barely keep the lights on back home.
But the rest of Africa hardly set a shining example – more than 40 coups and attempted coups since 2010, with 5 successful coups and two failed ones since the beginning of 2019, mostly during the Covid-19 pandemic. And while our army struggled to quell a domestic riot in two of our provinces, it is expected to squander its scarce resources and dilapidated equipment on peacekeeping in the Congo in what is essentially a factional power struggle and political civil war intertwined with sheer banditry.
The same in Mozambique, where the local army fails to keep Islamic terrorists at bay because of ill discipline, low morale and corrupt leadership. Other countries, including South Africa, had to step in. And our frequently out-of-commission naval ships have to patrol the Mozambique Channel looking for pirates when they cannot even properly protect our fishing waters. Meanwhile we turn a blind eye to the undemocratic atrocities in Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
And on the global stage our government once again sides with international criminals and murderers in respect of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and then blatantly lies to its own people that it is doing so in the interest of neutrality and promoting peace.
Can any democracy created and driven by the immense idealism of great visionaries in the miraculous harmony and hope of 1994, survive such utter plunder, devastation and loss of integrity while its problems continue to grow like a mountain of Pol Pot’s Cambodian skulls and bones?
It is therefore quite legitimate to ask, is South Africa’s democratic being still safe and secure, or is it in grave danger or already terminally ill?
To correct the plunging curve of our national political graph and save the country from total collapse, a few non-negotiable things need to be done. And urgently so.
Social harmony and a new compact. Our government and other actors should stop claiming we have a new social compact and that all will be well when there is none. There is no national agreement or broad, inclusively supported strategy on issues like economic strategy, land redistribution, creating jobs, removing poverty, and more. Different political actors and interest groups all shout their demands from the rooftops, while government imposes its will from the top down with scant concern for those who get trampled on. Or does nothing.
There have and continue to be plenty of disruptors that militate against social harmony on the basis of a great variety of narrow agendas, outright misinformation and abuse of retarded prejudices. The last truly national social compact was achieved at CODESA in 1994 and it briefly reared its head again when civil society rose to demand the removal of Jacob Zuma. We talk a lot about structural economic reforms and new economic strategies, but we do little and without a new social compact in this regard, it will simply remain pie in the sky.
The moral fibre. Perhaps our biggest challenge is to restore our moral fibre. We had plenty of that when Mandela was still around. But since then, this precious foundation of any well-functioning democracy has been systematically weakened by the governing party’s monopolistic hunger for power and control through cadre deployment and other ills, infused with growing greed, entitlement, self-enrichment, violent appropriation, the spin-off effects of government’s non-delivery, and a hugely expanded babysitting social welfare net that discourages entrepreneurship and hard work.
These conditions facilitated state capture and corruption at levels never seen before. And nothing is made any better by the constant defensive refrain of, oh but there was corruption under apartheid too. Wake up – it’s almost 30 years later. A side effect of all of this is ever widening political, social and economic polarisation that will most certainly eventually reach an explosive breaking point.
There is much talk of ending corruption and bringing the culprits to book. But while there may have been a slow uptick in prosecutions with a National Prosecuting Authority that’s under new management, the fight against corruption remains seriously underfunded and lacking proper due political support. Perhaps all corruption funds and other assets recovered by the state, should go to the NPA to employ more good lawyers and increase the number of appropriate investigations and prosecutions.
The economy. This is our big Achilles heel. Without a strong and vibrant economy, we can hardly do any of the other things so desperately required. Everybody knows we should have fundamental structural economic reforms and a new comprehensive, growth-focused economic strategy. But nobody does it. It remains debilitatingly contested terrain, with outdated ideological demands competing with a host of other unrealistic positions, from quasi-Nazi socialism and Soviet-style collectivism, to far left Workerism, neo-liberal capitalism, and everything in between. Where is the national debate and the social contract?
When the president correctly points out that creating jobs is not a government function and that government should only create and facilitate the conditions in which the private sector can create jobs, a howl of protests from his own political companions stops him dead in his tracks and he walks his words back. When the previous finance minister tried to launch a discussion around his proposed new economic strategy, his own party colleagues and allies almost buried him alive and produced an alternative script of pure hogwash.
Meanwhile minority groups, fed up with the corrupt and dysfunctional status quo, through their own efforts, money and organisations are successfully creating a functioning alternative state within a state. But that excludes the mass constituency of the governing party who apart from a small harvesting elite are left with worsening poverty, unemployment, and poor education. Who will take care of them?
And while setting investment targets, deploying investment envoys around the world, holding annual investment conferences, and then claiming to have successfully secured massive investment pledges is all good and well. If only it were true and the people on the ground could see it. We should be honest with ourselves, or we will never get there.
When the president hails the 4th South African Investment Conference as having secured major investment pledges, bringing them to 95% of his investment target of R1.2 trillion over 5 years, he was being disingenuous. Most of those pledges were old, rehashed expansion and investment plans, dusted off or reimagined to look new. Without a sound economic strategy or the proper political will to implement it, or without socio-economic and political cohesion to create conditions attractive for investors, the country’s true investment potential will not be reached.
Poverty, unemployment and inequality. These continue to be our socio-political tinderbox as last year’s riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng showed us. It’s a ticking time bomb. Especially the massive youth unemployment. Resolving it goes hand in hand with what’s been said above.
Safety and security. As touched on above, our protectors and the guardians of our safety and security need a serious overhaul. Last year’s riots showed up their dysfunctional state, as well as the abject unsuitability of those politicians in charge. If you cannot guarantee the safety and security of your people – the government’s first constitutional duty – or effectively contain and minimise runaway crime, how do you expect anyone to come and invest here, or those already invested here to remain here?
International relations. And finally, you are judged by the company you keep. If your idea of good international relations consistently has you supporting and siding with international scum, killers and crooks – the likes of Putin and Al Bashir, for instance – how on earth do you hope to earn respect, investment, trade and developmental relations? A sensible, cohesive, balanced, consistent, and beneficial foreign policy devoid of narrow, emotion-based alliances, ideological baggage, or possible personal gains for a few, is long overdue. It’s time for South Africa to again set the standard for the rest of Africa and lead the renaissance; and to stand up and again be counted among the best of nations, which was the case not so long ago.
But if we consider all of the above and do nothing to address it, can we really say this is the South Africa in which our democracy will be safe and secure?
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist.