In South Africa as indeed in Africa and around the world, many commentators are of the opinion that democracy finds itself in something of a crisis as it seems to be losing its popular appeal or is undermined. As social and economic pressures mount globally, various surveys seem to show that more people may be losing faith in democracy or democratic governments and their institutions. On the other hand, many authoritarian governments are eroding democratic freedoms and practices against the will of the people. These trends have also been identified here.
The question arises: has the price of democracy become too high in South Africa? Do we need to start looking at alternatives? And what might those alternatives be?
Over the last decade or two, a seemingly growing loss of trust and faith in South Africa’s democratic government has coincided with a long series of negative events and trends:
high crime levels that remain out of control;
state capture under the Zuma administration and large-scale corruption in government and the private sector that still continues;
rising unemployment to one of the highest levels in the world, together with worsening poverty and inequality;
massive student protests at universities that still sporadically continue, along with deteriorating health and education services;
the violent and destructive riots of July 2021 in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng;
successive floods and droughts, coupled to water shortages in different parts of the country;
the Covid-19 pandemic and government’s unpopular shutdowns and regulations;
the 2020 economic recession, stagnant growth and a credit downgrade to junk status;
the ever-worsening escalation of rolling electricity blackouts called loadshedding;
collapsing municipalities, ineffective public service, service delivery deterioration, and crumbling infrastructure; and
mismanaged, looted and debt-laden state-owned public enterprises swallowing money that is much needed elsewhere.
No normal society can be expected to tolerate such high levels of social and economic pressure and lack of effective governance and delivery without becoming despondent. It’s no wonder that South Africans have become increasingly frustrated by a government that appears incapable of governing effectively and resolving all these problems. Testimony to that is also the high number of community protests.
The price of democracy – as bestowed on the country in 1994 – has become prohibitively high. But instead of resorting to the democratic remedy – voting the government out of office and replacing it with a new one – South Africans appeared to be turning their backs on the democratic system and its institutions. Alarm bells should have been ringing loudly when in the 2019 national and provincial elections, South Africa experienced the lowest voter turnout in any of the country’s six general elections since the end of apartheid in 1994 – a mere 49% of the voting-age population bothered.
Already back in mid-2018, even before Covid-19 sunk its ugly teeth into us, an Afrobarometer survey showed support for democracy in South Africa weakening and acceptance of authoritarian alternatives growing. The most frightening part was that a majority of respondents showed a willingness to forego democratic elections in exchange for security, housing, and jobs. For them, the cost of democracy had already become too high, it seemed. Some of the less appealing findings of the 2018 Afrobarometer survey included:
Only 54% of South Africans chose democracy over any other form of government – one of the lowest levels of support for democracy recorded in 34 countries surveyed in 2016/2018.
Opposition to authoritarian alternatives weakened to 69% against presidential dictatorship, 62% against one-party rule, and 57% against military rule.
South Africans perceived political space to be closing, with two-thirds (64%) saying they now have less freedom than “a few years ago” to join any political organization they want.
Satisfaction with the way democracy is working declined steadily, from 60% in 2011 to 42% in 2018 who said they were “fairly” or “very” satisfied.
These were alarming warning signs of a system going awry. One can expect that since then the impositions of the Covid-19 lockdowns, rising cost of living, and a worsening electricity crisis may have further hardened attitudes.
Where does this position South Africa in respect of a perceived democratic regression across Africa and the wider world? To answer, one must distinguish between a voluntary democratic reversal versus imposed democratic regression.
While the Afrobarometer survey suggests the former in South Africa, in reality the country is probably being subjected to a hybrid of both. Massive governance failure is pushing many people to favouring an undemocratic alternative, at least on paper; at the same time many factors and developments in South Africa have cramped or narrowed the democratic space or options, in what the latest Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) calls a “flawed democracy”.
In assessing the state of democracy in South Africa, the country scores well on all the formal requirements of a democracy. But when it comes to the actual quality of democracy as it is experienced daily by its citizens, opinions begin to falter.
It’s difficult to fathom a dominant global trend based on news events. Unprecedented demonstrations in Iran and China (Hong Kong) lean democracy’s way, while Vladimir Putin’s popular support in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine leans the opposite way. In Brazil the political pendulum swung from the hardliner Jair Bolsonaro to the liberal Lula da Silva, but only just; the same in the United States from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. But neither swing is cast in stone. And these are by no means definitive, scientific observations, and shifts in any direction could yet happen. The state of democracy around the world remains, at best, a highly fluid thing. The determining factors in every case are on the ground, at home, in the daily lived experience of people, just like currently in South Africa.
But will the cost of democracy outweigh the likely cost of an authoritarian or undemocratic alternative? For one, a dictatorship of efficiency and delivery seldom remains that for long, becoming itself corrupt and inefficient. And this time there won’t be any checks and balances, and no return. Once all power is surrendered to such an authoritarian or dictatorial regime or institution, returning it back into the democratic arena if the exercise fails, will prove near impossible, at least by peaceful or democratic means. Authoritarian rulers and dictators don’t easily give up power without violent struggle.
And, in the South African context, whence will such an authoritarian alternative derive from? There are not many existing political parties, organisations or movements that will lend themselves to such a role in any configuration. Almost all South African political organisations are firmly rooted in the multiparty, constitutional democratic tradition and would be vehemently opposed to scrapping the Constitution in favour of such a system. But there are one or two who may possibly opt for such an alternative, if given the chance.
Given its existing ideological construct and goals revolving around the so-called National Democratic Revolution, its historical claim that it is the sole legitimate representative of “the people”, and coupled to its experience of having tasted power as a majority party that has ruled with little effective opposition for almost 30 years, the current ruling party might just be a candidate. Especially if, after 30 years of uncontested rule, it were suddenly to be dumped by the electorate and driven from power, as could possibly happen in next year’s general election.
The problem with this scenario is, however, that it would be like giving carte blanche to a party that is already characterised by gross inefficiency and rampant corruption. Nothing good will be gained – no security, housing, and jobs in place of democratic elections, as per the Afrobarometer survey. It will be an exercise in abject regression.
Waiting in the wings is perhaps the only other serious contender for such an undemocratic role in South Africa’s political enterprise – a party that would benefit immensely from any possible serious defeat to be suffered by the current ruling party in next year’s polls. This party, which has premised its guiding political culture on a mishmash of radical socialism, fascism and racial nationalism has already aptly demonstrated its authoritarian, undemocratic tendencies – thuggish disruptions of Parliament and other legislatures, intimidation, threats of violence, destruction of property, racial intolerance, disrespect for minorities, and more. But for now, it needs a democracy in which to function while it seeks to claw its way to power… just like Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party once did. It’s true; democracy can be its own worst enemy.
There may be one or two other very small parties that would entertain such a notion, but they won’t succeed due to a lack of support. So, one should ask the question, is this the price South Africans would be willing to pay instead of alternatively paying the current price of democracy? It seems unlikely, but not impossible. But with public levels of frustration over the failures of the current democratic government running extremely high, it may be tempting to state in an opinion poll a preference for authoritarian rule without elections if it meant delivery. But put before such a choice in a real-world context outside the safety of a paper-based survey, the reaction may be very different.
But the alarming responses to these questions do underline that there is a problem and that some serious reforms are needed. Allowing voter apathy to fall below the 49% level recorded in 2019, is to invite serious, even irreversible trouble. Current legislative efforts at electoral reform in South Africa are a good start, but much more will need to be done.
Communities and individuals are demanding much higher degrees of direct political representation and accountability, greater transparency, effective service delivery, and effective mechanisms to punish and remove corruption and inefficiency. Representative thresholds, among other things, should be considered as a means of eradicating governing paralysis caused by competing, ever-shifting governing coalitions interested only in power. And entities advancing or practising democracy in South Africa, should receive sufficient public funding. The state and private sector also needs to do much more educational work around the practice and benefits of democracy.
Perhaps another CODESA is needed to move South Africa away from the encroaching possibility and potential horrors of an undemocratic alternative. Until the world invents new and better systems, the price of democracy can never be too high.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist. He writes in his personal capacity.