South Africa


25 years of democracy, Part 4: Decline of the liberation project

25 years of democracy, Part 4: Decline of the liberation project
Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

To exercise one’s right to vote is described by many as a civic duty and not to exercise it is seen as a failure to discharge a responsibility that could alter what is wrong in the country. Much has changed since the first elections of 1994 and the liberation and democratic project is in crisis. These problems are unlikely to be remedied by the vote.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

The impetus behind the writing of this article has been the exhortation on the part of many well-meaning people to exercise our civic duty and vote. Reference is sometimes made to the electoral system remaining credible despite the undermining of many other institutions. Also, one encounters the refrain on social media, after one or other outrageous action by the ANC-led government, that we should “vote them out”.

I am not cynical about the vote, nor about individuals wishing to use that instrument to achieve change and the conception of the vote as a civic responsibility. Achieving universal suffrage was historically very important in South Africa. There were freedom songs about voting and many sacrifices made, and lives lost to achieve it. Yet I do not have anywhere near the level of confidence in the power of the vote today, compared with what I and many others felt about voting in 1994.

That confidence may itself have sometimes vested too much in the power of the vote as itself a vehicle for political transformation. But there are also reasons why even that which could then have been legitimately expected has dissipated.

There is widespread disenchantment that many people feel about voting in 2019. It is part of a broader sense of the degeneration of the liberation and democratic project, previously led by a once proud ANC, admired by many for its ethical and visionary qualities and the willingness to sacrifice everything on the part of its leaders and many members and supporters.

In a sense, it is the bearers of the torch of freedom, those who had primary responsibility for inaugurating democracy in 1994 who, paradoxically, bear prime responsibility for its erosion in the years that followed.

Everyone accepts, albeit often for different reasons, that what was achieved with the onset of democracy in 1994 was incomplete. If we use the concept of revolution to signify, in this case, a fundamental change in the movement away from apartheid it was an “unfinished revolution”.

Having said that, no revolution, if that is understood as an emancipatory project, is ever complete. It is a continually evolving process of building broader and more substantial democratic gains. Or that project may suffer a series of setbacks, as has happened in South Africa.

No one can deny that 1994 comprised concrete gains compared with what had existed before and opportunities on which it was possible to build and enhance freedom beyond what was achieved at the initial moment of universal suffrage. Thus, it was appropriately described at the time by the SACP and then by the whole ANC-led alliance as a democratic breakthrough. Apartheid had suffered a strategic defeat, at the level of the state, although all the goals of national liberation could not be achieved at that moment.

It is well known that the freedom achieved in 1994 did not in itself remedy the extensive inequalities in society, although the constitution, adopted in 1996 went beyond conventional liberal democracy and provided opportunities for enhancing that freedom. Some of these provided space for impacting on inequalities and indeed, have to a significant extent.

At a purely constitutional and legal level, a number of rights have been enunciated that broke radically with the complete denial of rights for black people that characterised life under apartheid. But many had to be realised through acts of policy and other forms of implementation, and those in government charged with carrying this out have often been found wanting.

One of the factors that stands at the centre of the disquiet that 25 years of post-apartheid democracy evokes, is that almost every gain that was notched up in this period, is qualified by the undermining or failure to sustain the very same gains. Thus, there has been water, electricity, housing, schooling, healthcare and many other social gains provided to people for the first time. This fundamentally changed the existence of many, altered how they understood their lives and what had become possible to make these more meaningful.

The sense of joy that this evoked has turned to anger, as many of these projects have proven inadequately planned and sustained so that many have waited for the promise to be fulfilled and never had access to these resources, or where these have been supplied they have not been maintained and some who once had water are now without it or have water that has been contaminated, or houses that have collapsed, or electricity that is unreliable and repeatedly interrupted. Their children may travel many kilometres by foot to get to schools that are unsafe and without adequate toilet facilities, evoking a sense of indignity and posing a danger to young lives. The examples can be multiplied.

Sometimes this derives from inadequate planning, and initially chasing numbers with water and other basic needs. Sometimes, however, the collapse of facilities, we now know, derives from tenders being awarded not to those who could do the job but to those connected with office bearers and large sums of money are pocketed without the delivery of any product, in this case what is meant to meet the basic needs of a community.

Such collapse or failure to provide what many were promised and legitimately expected is one of the factors that has tarnished the image of the democratic project, if it is any longer recognisable as that.

Before betrayal the turn towards normalisation

There may not any longer be a liberation project, at least as led by its original bearers. This is not purely because of graft which we have seen aplenty, but other factors as well that already began to shift the ANC and its allies away from the notion of a liberation movement in the early 1990s. This was a path that created a distance between the ANC as government, the ANC as an organisation, the ANC base, as well as other organs of civil society, especially organised social movements.

In the early 1990s, the ANC was constantly urged to “modernise” itself, to turn away from being a liberation movement and to become a conventional political party. This advice, solicited and unsolicited, came from business, Western parties and leaders and sections of the academic community. The idea of being a liberation movement, it was suggested, was something out of tune with the times and it was important for the ANC to become a conventional political party. It should not remain trapped in an earlier stage of evolution.

I was head of political education in the ANC at that time, and I resisted the idea of the ANC becoming a political party because I understood this to mean transforming it into a conventional electoral party. Similar processes had, in fact, happened in the early years of social democracy, where what had been popular movements became transformed into electoral machines.

What had given the ANC a special place in the hearts of very many South Africans was precisely its liberation movement character. By that, I understand a connection with the people it represented, empathy and solidarity with their plight on an ongoing basis, rather than merely soliciting their vote. It also meant continually returning to communities to listen and learn, one of the qualities that had built the ANC as the force that it later became in the struggle.

The advice to become a political party was loaded. It was not simply a modernisation project. The ideas of “normalisation” and “modernisation” of the organisation entailed transforming it in the image of well-known Western examples. The notion of struggle politics, once spoken of with pride or admiration came gradually to denote something that was suited only to a particular moment in time and was passé now that we all would have the vote and there would be a functioning parliament and constitution.

We need to ask ourselves, what did our vote become, in the context of representative and liberal democracy or in what way did the notion of the popular masses and their aspirations, manifest itself in what emerged? Raymond Williams writes that for those who see representative democracy as the only form of democracy, having the right to elect someone to represent oneself, “assures our democracy”.

If the predominant criteria [of democracy] are elections and free speech, other criteria are seen as secondary or are rejected; an attempt to exercise popular power in the popular interest, for example by a General Strike, is described as anti-democratic, since democracy has already been assured by other means; to claim economic equality as the essence of democracy is seen as leading to chaos or to totalitarian democracy or government by trade unions.” (Keywords, revised ed. Fontana, London, 1983, page 96, Williams’s emphases).

Many of us were not happy to “assure” democracy by excluding the mass constituency or it’s playing a much-diminished role in the conception of democratic life. We were unhappy to see democracy understood primarily as exercising a vote every five years

What was commended to the ANC has indeed happened and the organisation has become primarily geared to winning elections. This process did not happen in an entirely open way. There were no specific decisions to demobilise the organisation, in fact, there are probably many decisions saying the opposite. But in practise, there were some things that impacted on the character of the ANC that happened outside of decision-making structures, by the migration of many of its cadres from organising structures of the ANC, to structures dedicated to future government, notably the ANC Elections Commission.

What was disturbing about this is that the value placed on ongoing branch life with a politically aware membership was increasingly displaced by electoralism. Of course, careful processes of induction and political education continued to be conducted in some provinces and branches on a fairly extensive scale and may continue in many places, but this is not the dominant tendency today.

Had there been a way to secure the presence of the masses in a substantial way, to enable them to continually influence the course of events and to secure accountability beyond formal processes of parliamentarism, some of the degeneration that occurred could possibly have been avoided or mitigated.

Moral decline of the ANC

One of the reasons for the failure to realise the hopes and openings of 1994 has been the absence of a moral centre that could drive this process, an organisation and leaders who could be trusted to safeguard democracy and transformation in the present and the future. Many have succumbed to the temptations and illegal opportunities for accumulation of wealth that have arisen through the office.

Initially, hierarchical ties of patronage became more important than the constitutional structures of the ANC and sometimes the state. That created situations where internal democracy in the ANC was displaced by discussions among those close to particular leaders.

But patronage is not necessarily corruption, though corruption tends to build on pre-existing patron-client relationships and deliver more than positions but positions that enable enrichment, legal and illegal. Those relationships were able to feed into a parasitic form of capitalist development where state resources were pillaged, as is now emerging in various press reports, court cases and commissions of enquiry

Specific character of moral decline

The moral decline of the ANC has had a very specific meaning because of what it had previously represented to many people, many of whom saw the ANC as an important part of their lives, as “family”. Very often membership was transmitted from parents to children, the late Wilton Mkwayi records having his ANC membership card posted to him by his father, when he was at school. (This “familial” quality is not an unqualified good, as we know from the mafia, but it is used here merely to indicate the level of closeness between the organisation and communities).

The ANC represented for its members and followers much more than an impersonal electoral choice, but a bond that had been forged over time, because it cared about those who were its support base, felt their pain as its own, embodied it in its being and actions.

What has happened in recent years is that the ANC has severed that bond through the actions of its leaders that have demonstrated not simply a break but a contempt for the needs of the poor and the most vulnerable. The ANC, from being an organisation that felt the pain of the poor, has become cold and indifferent to them, as in their silent complicity in the social grants saga until the last years of the Zuma era, Nkandla and many other cases where leaders defended Zuma with more or less sophistry.

Although Zuma has been removed, the humanistic, universalistic mission of the ANC has been eroded. This is exemplified – amongst many examples – in the indifference to, and indeed often encouragement of, xenophobic discourse.

Revival of an emancipatory project

If there is to be a way out of this situation, it must go beyond the worthy attempts to expose the graft and to recover funds from individuals and companies that engaged in fraudulent transactions with the state

There needs to be a programme, a vision, a set of ideas that unify and inspire people. Many remain loyal to the ideas in the Freedom Charter and the constitution but neither document represents a final point in our understanding of freedom. These can be augmented by other ideas from other experiences and may come from a variety of organisations, including the ANC, as well as unaffiliated individuals.

But one of the effects of a high tolerance of graft and illegality is that there has been a downgrading of political and ideological debate. (See Part Two). We need to return to debate and to discuss alternative routes for the future. That can happen in political organisations, in universities and schools, in faith-based organisations and social movements. Wherever it is to happen, it is important that it is revived.

That way whatever emerges will belong not just to professional politicians but to all who have participated. We need to build a sense of commonality, a sense of belonging to a set of ideas and to one another. That is part of the route to rebuilding our freedom, conceived as an unfolding project, whose meanings and possibilities will never be exhausted. DM

This is part four of a series on 25 years of democracy. Previous articles are to be found here, here and here.

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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