South Africa


The nationwide failure of South African democracy

The nationwide failure of South African democracy
Illustrative image | Sources: South African flag. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma) | President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photos: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier | Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Rawpixel | The Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Arica. (Photo: Flickr) | Erik Törner / Flickr

While the current focus of our politics is on the ANC’s national conference in general and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s possible breaking of the law around foreign exchange in particular, the potentially deadly signs of major national dysfunction are all but impossible to ignore. 

The government service delivery is failing beyond recognition, South Africa’s Parliament gives the impression of consisting of disparate groups of people whose sole interest is in fighting each other. While children all over the land trudge to their unsafe schools in sewage – many of them coming to their classes hungry – their families exhausted by the pandemic destruction of the economy, sense of despair and rising spectre of hopelessness. 

Xenophobia is on the rise and the false prophets promise every day to magically disappear millions of people while taking all their jobs. One by one, major parties appear more seduced by the empty popularity of calls to violence against the most vulnerable among us.  

All of this smokescreen is being pulled over the nation’s eyes as nearly half of Nelson Mandela Bay is about to run out of water, a human, business and environmental event that has to be called a catastrophe. 

(Incomprehensibly, though, Water and Sanitation Deputy Minister David Mahlobo stated in Parliament on 13 May that South Africa does not have a national water crisis at present.)

There are growing calls for an early election.

While all these problems are in daily focus, they mask the underlying conflict with reality that may be leading to our multiple crises: the political parties currently represented in our system no longer represent the real constituencies in our country. As a result, the formal political system is failing South Africa. 

There will be painful long-term consequences to this fundamental failure.

While the discovery that Ramaphosa was keeping US dollars in cash at his farm, possibly illegally, is not in and of itself a massive event, it is often small incidents like this that precipitate a major political crisis. This is not because of the event itself, but because of the alignment of dynamics that have directed our politics for some time now.

In the same way the pandemic lifted the curtain on our awful poverty and inequality, so this incident may reveal the real dysfunction of our politics.

There are many signs to confirm this view.

It is clear that there are those who are deliberately stoking division and prejudice, and clearly hoping for violence.

This is seen in the violent tweets of those like Duduzile Zuma-Sumbudla and @SpithiphitiEvaluator (real name: Zamaswazi Majozi).

Then there is the deliberate campign to stoke xenophobia, as seen in the repeated calls and actions by Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance, and others.

There is also the rising incidence of simple lying and hypocrisy.

The EFF claimed in Parliament last week that Ramaphosa should not be allowed to speak because he faces criminal charges. This is not a charge laid by the NPA, but by an individual. While Julius Malema, his deputy Floyd Shivambu and former spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi have spoken/shouted in that same Parliament while facing criminal charges from the NPA for some time.

There is currently a court order that Parliament must change our electoral system, amid signs that that Parliament, and the ANC, may be deliberately delaying this process – it obviously is not in their favour to change the system that brought them to power and helped consolidate their grip.

Much of this situation has been driven by the deep divisions in the ANC, and the move towards interest groups pushing and pulling in different ways. This was often displayed on Twitter, where senior leaders and ministers would often criticise each other in public, using the coarsest of languages.

Different constituencies the ANC is trying to represent are pulling it apart, the “leaders” of the party were more divided than united, and this is on display for all to see.

But this is a process that is no longer unique to the ANC.

Last week, a relatively innocent tweet from the DA caucus in the City of Joburg referred to a meeting being addressed by the party’s mayor there, Mpho Phalatse.

But former DA leader Tony Leon responded in an aggressive way, saying that she should “… fix potholes and traffic lights and pavements that far more than strategic planning sessions will win the allegiance of your voters”.

She replied, saying, “You’re too old for this twitter trolling behaviours of yours. If you want to contribute constructively to the rebuilding of the city please send an email.” And she then included an appropriate address.

Just this small incident is another sign of the divisions within the DA, which first became public after the party’s decline in the 2019 elections, and the subsequent election of Helen Zille as the Chair of its Federal Executive.

Meanwhile, the third-biggest party, the EFF, shows few signs of growing in momentum. Despite their leaders’ theatrical attempts to grab headlines, their support is not growing.

And the other, smaller parties, some of them relatively new, do not appear to be growing strongly either, despite their attempts to appeal to various forms of prejudice.

At the same time, more and more people are actively leaving formal politics and no longer voting.

This is surely a sign of unhappiness with all of the options on offer and, even more worryingly, disenchantment with democracy itself.

While this is often the case in more mature democracies, there are several reasons to ask whether this may create a worse crisis in South Africa.

This is because as Professor Steven Friedman has convincingly argued, only about one-third of our population has any real voice in our society. The rest are too poor, or too easily ignored by elites.

What makes this more worrying is that numbers of those who did express themselves in elections are now declining. SA’s people are seemingly giving up on democracy.

Add to that the dynamic that, generally speaking, the poorer you are the more government services matter to you, and the real picture starts to become clearer.

The poor, who have to rely on government, have lost hope in that very government, adding credibility to the claims that government policy only works for the rich.

Meanwhile, there are other signs that people are growing desperate, and looking for some kind of change.

Last week, while launching a book tantalisingly titled Manifesto, Rivonia Circle Chair Songezo Zibi appeared to be speaking for and to many in the black and white urban elite when he called for richer people to get reinvolved in our society.

There are also more and more calls for early elections to try to break the current situation.

One of these came last week from Accountability Now head Paul Hoffman, while others have made similar calls in the recent past.

But this will not help.

Firstly, it is virtually impossible to imagine MPs voting to end their own mandates early, while unsure that they will be elected back (under the Constitution, an early election has to be voted for by Parliament). If we have learnt one thing in the past few years, it is surely that our MPs can be relied upon to generally look to their own interests first, before those of the country.

Secondly, an early election, like a referendum, solves nothing.

Instead, it would involve the current political parties, who have already displayed their shrinking constituencies, fighting the same fight that they have been fighting since the last election.

This could possibly result in an outcome voted for by an even smaller percentage of votes than we saw in 2019.

Of course, it’s possible that another development could happen, that some of the newer entrants, like Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, or the Patriotic Alliance, could gain a significant share of votes.

But it is probably more in their interests for the elections to be held later rather than earlier, to give them time to build their operations on the ground.

Meanwhile, there is yet another dynamic occurring in our country, which is what could be called politics outside of formal politics, or what can be called “extra-parliamentary politics”.

In the past, as described by some apartheid-era history textbooks, this used to really mean the politics of protest by organisations that were banned during that era. Now it may come to mean something else, the way that community groups and NGOs provide organisation and services to communities.

Some examples of this may include the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement, representing shack dwellers in KwaZulu-Natal. Or NGOs like the Treatment Action Campaign and Section27, which have shown they can provide networks of support around the country.

But they will probably not be enough to fix the failure of our dysfunctional politics.

The point of Parliament, the point of elections, is to give everyone a chance to be represented in a way that everyone understands and accepts. It is supposed to have legitimacy, which means that even if people lose votes or suffer from its decisions, they still accept the outcome.

When this system fails, there will be consequences.

Some people will ignore it, and take what they can take. Others will understand there is no need to refrain from violence to get what they want and what they need.

Without a properly working system of formal politics, it could be hard to convince them that their actions are wrong. DM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jimpowell says:

    We do not live so much in a democracy, more like a 5 year dictatorship. Want to improve the income of the people living in South Africa? Link the total income of politicians to the income of the constituents excluding the top 20%. Want to control the politicians?

  • Stephen T says:

    I have not lost faith in democracy. I have lost faith in centralised democracy (a.k.a. communism), but to be fair I never had any faith in such puerile lunacy in the first place.

    I have also lost faith in the news media. And yes, that includes Daily Maverick.

    What I still have faith in as a suitable political system for South Africa’s various cultural mixes is a decentralised federal democratic republic.

    Current politicians will not speak of it because they will have to reinvent themselves to make this happen, which will take hard work and effort and that is something they are simply not accustomed to. The news media will not speak of it because all they care about is the latest scandal and how many clicks it will generate.

    So in essence I still have faith in certain political principles, but I have zero faith in the people currently positioned to make it happen.

  • Hendrik Jansen van Rensburg says:

    Imagine you were on a football team that is taking part in a round robin tournament. Some opponents that your team faces play with 5 balls that they pass only to one another to score goal after goal. Other opponents disregard all the rules and receive no penalties allowing them to score goal after goal. Other opponents have paid off the score keeper and notch up goal after goal without having scored any. Other opponents pitch up with baseball bats and use them to violently score goal after goal.

    Would you keep on playing?

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