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21 August 2017 23:35 (South Africa)
South Africa

The SA highway to democracy: Potholes and bumps, but still there

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa
stephen-democracy-highway-subbedm.jpg

While listening to the discourse that dominates South Africa - the tales of crime and corruption, the middle-fingers in Parliament and the fights around democracy and our rights - it is easy to become rather depressed. There can be a sense that it should not have come to this, that we deserved better. And while reading Ray Hartley’s excellent “Ragged Glory: The Rainbow Nation in Black and White”, it’s hard not to ask: was our current situation unavoidable? Were we always going to have this angry dynamic in our body politic? Are there structural reasons that explain why we are all so grumpy, that have less to do with the personalities of the day, and more to do with the underpinnings of our society? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In 1994, glorious optimism was the order of the day, the dominant theme in our public discourse. Almost no matter what came next, after the horrors and massacres and fear of the previous four years, it just had to be better. But as South Africans we also thought, believed, and more importantly felt, that the nightmare was over, and we were now in the Promised Land.

Of course, it has not been like that. Instead, after Madiba left us politically, we started fighting with each other. While there is general agreement on some of the basic issues in our society (such as non-racialism and social grants) it seems that we don’t really agree on many of the things that still matter. And it is this disagreement that leads to the upheavals in Parliament, and to an extent, the fights over Nkandla between President Jacob Zuma, the ANC, opposition parties, and some organs of our democratic state.

Having said all of that, it’s worth considering a different view. Just last year Columbia University Professor of Political Science Sheri Berman wrote in Foreign Affairs, in the article “The Promise of the Arab Spring: In Political Development, No Gain Without Pain”, of how difficult it is to build a proper, functioning democracy. While she focused on the countries that went through the “Tunisian Revolutions” such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, her views have resonance for South Africa.

Her main point is that is that it is common to point the finger of blame for “failed democracies” towards people and decisions made while the country was (briefly) democratic. But in fact, almost always, the real villain is the spectre of the past, which often comes back to haunt those trying to run the new democracy.

In the case of Egypt and Libya, those societies simply had no history of democracy, and the military or personality cults held far more sway than any respect for the institutions of democracy. Berman’s argument is that if you go back further in history to those countries seen as “established democracies”, for example France, Germany and Italy, in almost all cases, those societies held some form of election or became “democratic” almost overnight, and then slipped back rather dramatically. Other states such as the United Kingdom became democratic through a long process that did actually feature a civil war (1642 and All That). The US itself, the self-styled “guardian of democracy”, has had its own horrible 1861-1865 Civil War and the Restoration that came afterwards was abandoned in 1877, only to be revitalised almost a hundred years later.

If you look at our situation, it’s quite hard to believe that there was no real tradition of democracy at all before 1994. And yet that is surely the truth, for the vast majority of our people. All there really was was a “white might is right” philosophy, backed up by force. The rules of the game were rigged not just against but actually to exclude the majority, and even then, such as they were, they were often ignored.

This is why, as Kgalema Motlante put it to me in 2007 (while escorting me back to the safety of a court building as five thousand members of his party were howling for the blood of journalists who had “conspired against Jacob Zuma), “we have to still teach all of our people about the rule of law”. His point was that for most people during Apartheid, the law was evil and should be ignored, and that you couldn’t suddenly expect judges and magistrates to be respected.

This surely means, then, that considering the very real tensions that existed, and still exist, in our country between rich and poor (and the obvious subtext of “black and white”), the complete lack of democratic tradition and the way in which we really became a democracy, we should be a lot more grateful for our current situation than we generally are. Certainly, we are in not in danger of breaking apart, despite only being a unitary state for just over a century (while there are some 307-year-old nation states that are only just surviving in their current form).

But sometimes it is easy to forget how much the past before democracy could still be responsible for some of the strange conflicts that currently dominate our democracy.

For example, it could be claimed that the current dispute over the rights and powers of the Public Protector has its roots in the past. Why should someone who was appointed and not elected have the power to override the executive, which is elected and not appointed? This could all find a much fuller expression in the near future, when the DA’s review application of the decision to withdraw the corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma gets going. It is surely going to be painted as an attempt to use the old white men of the previous legal system to try to overturn the will of the people.

In a way, just about every dispute over the powers of the judiciary over the executive run into this dynamic.

But this should perhaps be seen as just a part of the process of building a proper constitutional democracy.

Something that has not yet been decided permanently is how the prosecuting machinery should be run. We have already had one National Director of Public Prosecutions, Advocate Vusi Pikoli, suspended and then fired (and then leaving through a settlement), another (Menzi Simelane) forced out by Court, and Zuma has announced an inquiry into a current Director, Mxolisi Nxasana. Most analysis has suggested that this is just because of the peculiar personal circumstances of Zuma. Of course that plays a role. But when the Chair of the first inquiry, Frene Ginwala, was asked if she was surprised a second NDPP could be the subject of an inquiry so soon after hers, her answer was a very quick “no”. And that’s because she says the aspect of law relating to constitutional independence of the NDPP hasn’t actually been properly settled yet. The print of the constitution on this issue isn’t quite fine enough, which means it has to be settled through legal argument and no doubt precedent at some point.

Having said all of that, some aspects of our political culture have changed for the better in ways that are now hopefully irreversible. It is going to be difficult, almost impossible now to tell South Africans not to speak their minds freely: freedom of speech has taken hold in a way perhaps unthinkable back in 1989. Freedom as a concept, and as a feeling, is going to stay with us, almost no matter what - in a way that the average Russian or resident of Hong Kong may not feel in their lifetime.

The role of the opposition has also been inculcated to a degree where political opponents are generally given space in which to operate, and to speak. Even if there are arguments about whether they can wear red in the National Assembly or whether the Speaker is behaving fairly.

All of this, then, should stand us in good stead. It would indicate the claims that South Africa is going to become some sort of “failed state”, or less than free and democratic, are perhaps overblown. It could also show that the period we are living through now, while difficult and contentious, is not actually so unbearable after all.

That doesn’t mean that these growing pains aren’t going to be extremely painful at times. One of Hartley’s great insights in his book is how it may have been Nelson Mandela’s refusal to take action against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma over her role in Sarafina II back in 1996 that mushroomed into the lack of accountability in our political classes now. With hindsight, it was a mistake that could have been avoided, but perhaps only at great political cost. The lesson about accountability is one we haven’t yet learnt, and it is costing us all dearly. But learn it, hopefully, we shall.

The road to a “full democracy” isn’t going to be easy. But by looking back, and looking at what cannot be reversed, we have many reasons to feel proud, and relatively satisfied with our lot. Especially if we compare ourselves to so many of the other “democracies” that are younger than us, and have backslid so far in their relatively short lives. DM

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  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa

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