For the people in South Africa whose voices matter, democracy is working far better than expected. All it needs is citizens who appreciate it and use it instead of trashing it.
It is now fashionable for anyone who wants to be taken seriously in polite society to declare this country a basket case that is doomed to decline. Some in business and the media have declared the country a ‘failed state’. The fact that they know nothing about this meaningless term matters little – any way of expressing despair will do. Others at conferences or other forums where the better off gather declare that they have lost all hope. These examples may be a little extreme but they reflect a widespread mood among the minority who have the means to make themselves heard.
Anyone who knew nothing about this country and listened to all of this would naturally decide that its citizens have no rights and are powerless to influence the decisions which affect their lives. They would be very surprised to learn that, almost thirty years after democracy was introduced, it is not only still functioning but doing better than most democracies around the globe. And they would want to know why the citizens who enjoy the rights that democracy brings are so determined not to value it.
Better Than Expected
A useful way of looking at the state of democracy here is to compare it to what many expected before 1994.
Had you then told most people who follow politics that, thirty years later, elections would still be accepted as free and fair, that citizens would enjoy the right to speak their minds and to join with like-minded people to demand changes, that the courts were independent and the media free, they probably would have dismissed you as a mindless optimist? And yet, that is today’s reality.
Not that long ago, a President, Jacob Zuma, was brought down by democracy. Despite a comfortable majority in Parliament and control of eight provinces, he was defeated by the courts, the media – and by the very real possibility that his party would lose its majority support among voters if his chosen successor was elected to lead the governing party.
It is always important to point out that democracy in this country works mainly for the one-third or so of the people who receive a regular wage, salary or other income and their families. Everyone else votes but is ignored by political parties and those whose voices are heard. But it is those for whom democracy works who pretend that it does not exist or denounce it as a fraud.
We might also compare democracy here to that in the one superpower which claims to be democratic, the United States. In this country, you become President by leading a party which wins most votes – there the head of government is often the candidate who received less votes. Here, each vote has the same value – there, the rules and the way in which politicians can use them ensure that some votes count for far more than others. Here, no-one makes up rules which make it difficult for people who don’t look like them to vote. There, it is standard practice. Our courts are independent of political parties – there, the highest court has become a weapon of war in the political battles waged by the minority. Here, no-one can be jailed without trial – there people have been held in Guantanamo Bay for over two decades without charge.
The US, to be sure, is far less democratic than most other countries which call themselves democracies. But, for those able to make use of it, South African democracy compares well with that of other countries far more democratic than the US.
Even if there was such a thing as a ‘failed state,’ the term could not possibly fit a country with a working democracy. The failure of the one-third to recognise that democracy works for them is, therefore, an extreme case of tunnel vision. Its probable cause is a skewed and unrealistic view of democracy and how it works.
Democracy is not meant to make corruption automatically disappear, ensure that the lights remain on and that the crime rate drops. It is meant to ensure that, if any or all of these things do not happen, citizens can do something about them. And the state of South African democracy means that the one-third who complain could do something about the problems which disturb them if they recognized the rights that they enjoy and decided to use them.
That democracy is undervalued is a pity. Far more important is that it is not used by those with the means to use it. It is odd to see people with rights and power pretending that they have neither. But it is also damaging because people who could influence change choose rather than complain because it is easier and far more likely to win your approval.
The Last Excuse
For many years after this country became a democracy, people who opposed the government had a built-in excuse.
South Africa was, they claimed, only a democracy in theory because the African National Congress won all the national elections and almost all in the provinces and municipalities. That meant, they said, that the ANC could do what it liked whatever the constitution said.
If, for argument’s sake, we were to accept that this was true, although it wasn’t, it clearly is not true any longer. One other aspect of democracy here which has defied most pre-1994 predictions is that voters are not only willing to vote the governing party out but that the ANC and everyone else accepts as normal and natural that, if it loses an election, it goes into opposition and does not try to bend the rules to stay in power.
Next year the country will go to the polls in the first national election in which an ANC win is not guaranteed. Already the ANC has lost its majority in many key municipalities and is likely to lose control of at least two more provinces even if it does scrape together a majority next year. Whatever the results of the next election, party politics here has entered a new phase in which the ANC is just one of a range of parties competing for power.
The transition to this new reality is messy because there is not yet a party for which voters who no longer support the ANC can vote so the alternative to the ANC government is fragile coalitions. But it should be obvious that citizens have more power to influence government when parties are competing for support than when a party is assured of victory. (This does not only apply to the ANC – in the suburbs of the cities, Democratic Alliance councillors face no real opposition and so they have little reason to serve voters).
This does not mean that the textbook idea of voting is true – that we choose the party which speaks for us and then watch in admiration as it does what we want. There are few political parties around the world which could fit that bill and there are certainly none here. It means, rather, that competition between parties gives citizens power they did not have before because, if they want the government to listen to them, they don’t need to talk only to one party which is free to ignore them because it knows that it will win anyway. They can gain influence by convincing other parties that doing what citizens want can boost their popularity. Some years ago, a study of policy change around the world showed how, in every case, people who wanted change were more likely to achieve it if political parties were competing for support.
Citizens who want change do not have to form a political party, a task which is usually beyond most of us even if we have resources. They can, rather, take advantage of increased competition between parties to place their concerns on the agenda and to ensure that they are heard. The results are, to put it mildly, likely to be more satisfying than denouncing a political system that is one of the country’s assets.
The change in party politics has deprived those who want change and have the means to press for it of their last excuse. For years, it was common in parts of the mainstream to insist that the ANC government was the problem and that this country would never become a ‘real democracy’ until it was defeated at the polls. The fact that many who made this claim are now wringing their hands even though the ANC vote has dropped below 50% illustrates just how fact-free the complaining has become.
Whatever else may be wrong with South Africa today, its democracy remains a potent weapon in the hands of those able to use it. The country will begin to progress when they stop complaining about doom and use the tools that democracy offers them to prevent it.
Prof. Steven Friedman is a research professor, in the faculty of humanities, politics department, University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.