DEMOCRACY allows citizens to say what they want. In South Africa, the citizens whose views are taken seriously use it only to say what they don’t want.
Since it is now considered bad manners to say anything good about the country’s politics, we never hear that democracy here works very well – which it does, for some. It is true that about two-thirds of the people are ignored by the national debate and this obviously weakens democracy. But for the one-third who are heard, the system works far better than anyone expected in 1994 – and better than many other democracies, including some in the West who are given to pointing fingers at us (and are greatly admired by many in the debate).
Stronger than we Think
Before 1994, it was common to hear lurid stories about how short-lived democracy was likely to be here.
The ANC, we were frequently told, would gather all power unto itself. If it allowed free elections, it would close them down if it it was in danger of losing. It would only be a matter of time before the media, judges or anyone else expected to hold governments to account were reduced to obedient lapdogs.
What has actually happened has been virtually the polar opposite. Election results are widely agreed to reflect accurately the way voters voted – at the next national election or the one after that, it seems more than likely that the ANC will dip below 50% and may be forced into opposition. Instead of removing freedoms to make sure it stays in office, the governing party has shown that, when it can’t form a government, it goes into opposition. The media is free, the courts are independent. The combination of the vote, media and courts brought down a President accused of abusing public trust. The right to speak is so entrenched in the debate that it is taken for granted.
Compare this country’s democracy to that in America. Here, elections are won by whoever gets the most votes, the boundaries of voting districts are not fiddled to advantage a particular party, no measures are enacted to deny many people the vote and the vote of people who live in big cities counts the same in national elections as those who live in the countryside. None of this applies in the US. No-one here is jailed without trial for political activities – there, people have been held without trial at Guantanamo Bay for over two decades. Right now, this country’s former President accused of wrong-doing is on trial. There, he is not.
Even among the two-thirds who are not heard in the debate, democracy is a help because people can use their vote to send a message – the ANC lost elections in Nkandla where it was accused of corruption and in Marikana where it was blamed when police killed strikers. The votes of people who are ignored in the debate swung the 2017 ANC presidential election and may well remove the governing party from office soon. Although they are often deprived of free speech, they are able sometimes to use democratic rights to make themselves heard: millions of people living with HIV and AIDS are alive today because a movement whose members were mainly women living in poverty organised to demand treatment.
So, for all the complaining, this country has a democracy which offers some powerful tools to those whose position in society enables them to use it, which includes everyone whose voices we hear. And, for quite a while, they have been using it to reject the governing party. In some countries, people who denounce the government pay a huge price – here, it is those who don’t denounce it who pay the price since they will be ridiculed, denounced and, in some cases, denied professional opportunities. About a decade ago, the ANC lost the black middle-class vote. In 2021’s local elections, it lost its majority. The thought of it losing power next year causes much excitement in the public debate.
Negatives Yes, Positives No
All of this seems to suggest that democracy– and the country – are in far better shape here than we are usually told.
This is partly true. Democracy is far stronger here than we might expect given the country’s deep inequalities and racial divisions, which are still with us. The debate takes for granted plusses which citizens in many countries would love to have. But democracy here still has important limits – and not only because politics excludes two-third of the people between elections. Chief among them is that rejecting the ANC does not translate into support for something which would replace it.
The ANC may have dropped below 50% in 2021’s local elections but the vote share of the second biggest party, the Democratic Alliance, dropped more sharply and it still won much less than half the ANC’s vote. The third biggest, the Economic Freedom Fighters, still won less than a quarter. Most of the people who are rejecting the ANC have little enthusiasm for the alternatives. Most do not switch parties, they stay at home.
Many voters feel as little enthusiasm for the opposition parties as they do for the ANC. Important groups of voters have no party for which they feel they can vote. There is no party which speaks for middle-class black voters and certainly none that speaks for the majority who live in poverty.
This places excitement at the ANC’s decline in perspective. The best way to sow confusion among those who announce on media platforms that they plan to ‘vote the ANC out’ is to ask them who they plan to vote in. The question rarely receives a coherent answer. Many people in the debate know which party they don’t want but have no idea which one they do.
Blaming the people in the debate for this is not entirely fair. Starting a political party is difficult, even for middle-class people, and it is not realistic to argue that they should go beyond complaining and form a party of their own. But forming parties is not the most common way citizens in a democracy make themselves heard. Citizens’ organisations, campaigns and use of media are likelier routes to saying what people want power holders to hear.
But here too, negatives drown out the positives. The chief flaw at the heart of the citizens’ groups which are heard in the national debate is not new – they don’t speak for very many people. They are, like all the other voices we hear, very much part of the one-third who are happy to speak about the rest of the country but not to listen to them. There was a time when trade unions in this country spoke for millions, even if these were the minority who found jobs. But the unions have been in decline for years and no other organisations with strong connections to large numbers of people have emerged in their place.
Because they are not in touch with most people – including most of the people about whom they love to talk – they are far more concerned with winning brownie points from everyone else in the one-third than in building movements which could challenge to power holders and ensure that the citizenry began calling the shots. Whether they are trade unionists or ‘members of civil society’, a fancy term among the one-third for ‘one of us’, they are far more present on media platforms than in the society. If we see democracy, as we should, as a system which gives voice to the people, they are far more a symptom of what is wrong than a force for change.
Besides the fact that they don’t represent that many people, citizens’ organisations can’t be accused, in the main, of new or fresh ideas which could offer a way out of the country’s problems. They are far more likely to take the line of least resistance, endlessly pointing out what is wrong without campaigning for changes which would chart a new path. (There are, of course, exceptions but they are few and don’t get nearly as much attention as those who are symptoms of the problem).
All of this means that, while this country’s democracy is stronger than many, those citizens who have the power to make a difference – which is, broadly, anyone who receives a regular wage, salary or other income from the formal sector – are using it only to complain about what they think is wrong, not to try to rally people around what they believe is right.
As long as this continues, democracy will be in danger despite its strengths because pure negativity is far more likely to make people cynical and distrustful of anyone in public life than to use their democratic rights to fight for the changes they want. The problem is not the system – it is the failure of many who could make a difference to make sure that it solves problems rather than simply giving people a platform to complain about them.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor, faculty of humanities, department of politics, University of Johannesburg.