In recent years, our nation has experienced tremendous “political events” that have shaken our democracy to its core. The reality is we are still deeply divided as a nation, not just by race but also by class, socioeconomic status, employment, religion, gender, as well as political ideologies, and affiliations, writes Paul Kariuki.
This Freedom Day, we celebrated 29 years of freedom from a terrible political dispensation that limited the rights of citizens and their privileges. As Freedom Month comes to a close, citizens must take the time to reflect on how far we have come as a nation. While the government has taken significant strides in setting up laws and institutions to safeguard our hard-won rights, our democracy has faced threats that seek to undermine the Constitution and the institutions meant to protect it.
In recent years, our nation has experienced tremendous “political events” that have shaken our democracy to its core. The reality is we are still deeply divided as a nation, not just by race but also by class, socioeconomic status, employment, religion, gender, as well as political ideologies, and affiliations. The division is so intense that the ideological war among the ruling political elite has shifted the government’s attention from service delivery to political survival. Moreover, the state has become the site of contestation, not for ideas but for positions, privileges, and power, further deepening the divisions.
Moreover, the triple challenges of poverty, inequality, and unemployment continue to weigh heavily on our nation largely because the vestiges of inequalities and divisions imposed on society over some three centuries persist almost three decades after the country’s democratisation. This impact reverberates across the land and, if left unattended, threatens to destabilise our hard-fought-for democracy.
Threats to our hard-won democracy
Furthermore, while the Constitution and its Chapter 9 Institutions have laid the foundations for an inclusive and viable social contract between the public and the state at different levels of government, the ongoing energy crisis facing the nation threatens our social stability. Economic analysts claim that the problem costs South Africa four to six billion rands a day, pushing more and more people into poverty, unemployment, and crime and driving away investment. While the government is doing all it can to resolve the crisis, the reality is that if not resolved urgently, it will create conditions threatening our hard-won democracy.
Against this background, what can be done to ensure the next 29 years are different and filled with hope? Firstly, our democracy must be protected by all citizens from all forms of threats. Secondly, the government, in partnership with all social partners, must work speedily to address the triple challenges that undermine our social stability and interrelationships. There can never be peace among citizens as long as income inequalities remain at the same level that they are present. There can never be peace as long as racial challenges are left unattended or as long as unemployment remains at the current levels.
Moreover, the increasing economic marginalisation of the poor and disadvantaged constitutes the biggest threat to forming a cohesive national identity in South African society. And the list goes on. The time to act decisively and speedily is now.
Third, our political discourse must be about collaboration among political parties for the interests of the public. The time to jostle for power, privileges, and positions is over. One of the many reasons why there are high levels of pessimism among citizens is the lack of interest by politicians to serve their interests. Politicians have long shown that their personal interests are more important than those of the electorate. It is time that they realise their political capital is waning out first. Come the next election in 2024, citizens will exercise vote wisely, informed by their realities, and elect political parties that have demonstrated interest in their plight.
Fourth, the government at all levels of governance must prioritise better service delivery and work tirelessly towards improving the delivery of these services efficiently and effectively. While delivering essential services sustainably and equitably is a daunting task, citizens in many parts of the country have lost patience with the government and have increasingly embarked on protests over the past decade. A few years ago, the government embarked on a “back to basics” strategy aiming at addressing some of the most pressing problems, such as the lack of managerial skills in most municipalities, too much party-political interference, financial problems, corruption, and a tradition of non-payment for services to mention just a few. Sadly, the situation has slightly improved in most municipalities and communities. This situation needs urgent attention; otherwise, it will continue undermining social stability and democracy.
In conclusion, it is crucial that we collectively safeguard our democratic gains and protect our fundamental rights and institutions from being abused and eroded. Doing so will honour the legacy of our forefathers and mothers who laid down their lives and made sacrifices for the rights we celebrate. We must ensure that these rights and the freedom they brought us are preserved so future generations will enjoy them.
Dr. Paul Kariuki is the Executive Director of the Democracy Development Program (DDP) and writes in his personal capacity.