Defend Truth


SA democracy is under threat — we have the power to save it

SA democracy is under threat — we have the power to save it
From left: Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Photo: Leon Neal / Getty Images) | Former President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jim Lo Scalzo) | Former US President Donald Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Peter Foley)

As the quality of life for most in South Africa continues to decline, many explanations are put forward as to why the ANC is still in control of the government. Sometimes, issues like ‘self-hate’ are blamed, or that people on our continent ‘forgive’ too easily.

There is no reason to believe that the motivations of voters in South Africa — indeed, all of Africa — are any different from those in the rest of the world.

However, one of the more consistent claims to come from callers to English-language radio stations over the past few years can be summed up as, “We African people cannot govern” or, “We deserve what we get because we choose bad leaders.” It may be important to mention that the people who make these claims were treated horribly by the apartheid government.

These claims are wrong in my opinion and yet they are slowly but surely entering the mainstream.

In the Sunday Times at the weekend, Makhudu Sefara wrote about the frustration many felt with how people in Hammanskraal welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa, despite the fact his government has so obviously failed them, allowing the cholera outbreak to take many lives.

Sefara wrote:

“Truth is, throughout Africa we suffer unimaginable self-hatred. We reward tinpot dictators who seem to relish perpetuating our suffering. The continent may be resource-rich but those we elevate seem to have an uncanny ability to work against Africa’s progress, with the help of its voters.”

It appears that Sefara, and others who agree with him, believe that, somehow, geography is influencing political behaviour.

While Sefara does not say this, the end-point of this argument could be that there is something inherent in people born on this continent that makes them different to people born elsewhere.

This argument cannot be sustained. It can also be dangerous. It provides an easy way out for the people who brought us to where we are, and the notion that our problems are inevitable, when in fact they are not.

The biggest danger of this argument is that it suggests there are inherent differences between people on our continent and people on other continents. For example, Sefara points out: “We voted for Jacob Zuma knowing how deeply compromised he was, how unprincipled he was back in 2009. Believe it or not, the majority of South Africans voted for him to get a second term in 2014 regardless of everything.”

He says this almost as if we are different from other people.

Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro…

But in the UK, people voted to leave the European Union despite clear evidence that this would make them poorer and weaker. They voted for Boris Johnson, despite the well-known fact he could not be trusted and was a habitual liar.

In the US, the GOP nominated, and the electoral college (states) elected Donald Trump, despite knowing that he was a vain, incompetent liar, harasser of women, con artist and failed businessman who would make the country fragile and the world more dangerous. 

In Brazil, a country very much like South Africa in terms of its diversity and inequality, with many similar elements in its history (albeit with important differences), a right-wing lunatic, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected as president.

One of the ways these leaders won political power was to use populism as a guiding philosophy and identity-based culture wars as weapons to stoke their voters’ fears and apprehensions. They abused ethnicities and religious beliefs, and used dog-whistle tactics to attack their political opponents, who they, with the media, branded “enemies of the people”.

Their politics of grievance is a work of dark art — these well-off leaders claim to speak for those at the bottom of the pyramid, those who had lost out in the global economic order. Their enemies are concoctions of global organisations, like the UN and the EU, or multinational companies and global elites, as well as individuals like George Soros and Bill Gates.

Conspiracies everywhere

Their other favourite method: conspiracy theories in multiple flavours.

Zuma clung to power towards the end of his presidency and claimed to be the victim of white people and that he had been “poisoned” because he had led South Africa into BRICS. His tale of victimisation by the National Prosecuting Authority had a powerful resonance with those who experienced abuse at the hands of authorities.

Even now, the argument around the International Criminal Court (ICC) and whether our government should arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin has some conspiracy elements.

Supporters of the court say that Putin should face justice. While there are many problems with the ICC, and pursuing justice for someone who is a sitting head of state is always going to be virtually impossible, those who oppose the court use identity to convince people to join them in their opposition. They point to the fact that almost everyone it has ever prosecuted has been black and from Africa (which Putin definitely is not). 

The essence of politics

While this may be frustrating for those who support the court and the arrest of Putin, it is normal politics. Here, in Africa, and everywhere.

This is, and probably will always be, the very essence of politics: it is about convincing people who are like you to vote for you. Populists like Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro have done this very well.

And strangely, few Brazilians, or Americans or Europeans claim to be “self-haters” as a result of these populists coming to power. Rather they have dealt with these leaders politically, by voting them out of office, or by putting pressure on their parties to remove them. To do this, they formed coalitions of different groups.

These included people who were losing out because of the ideologies of those who were in power — unionists, minorities and others who believed that the populists were a threat to their democracies and their rights.

Again, elements of identity were present. They just happened to be different elements of identity than those used by their opponents. Even now, US President Joe Biden launched his re-election campaign stating: “The question we are facing is whether in the years ahead we have more freedom or less freedom, more rights or fewer.”

This seems to be aimed directly at particular groups, including women, African Americans and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

This is what politics is in democracies around the world. There is no reason to believe that politics on our continent is any different to politics anywhere else. To claim that our politics, our leaders and our decisions are inherently different from those of other democracies may actually be dangerous. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nic Tsangarakis says:

    Really strong argument Stephen. Comparing our politics to those elsewhere provides useful perspective. And this should not stop us from demanding much more from our leaders and democracy.

  • Martin Neethling says:

    Unfortunately, while it may be correct to reject the generalisation that voters from our continent are different to those elsewhere, it doesn’t answer the obvious underlying problem of why voters here don’t make different and better choices. In all three of the examples above – US, UK and Brazil, voters made populist choices… and then fixed them. Trump was voted out and now faces federal charges. Boris is out and now out the party. Bolsonario lost in 2022. In SA, we can’t claim to be anything more than an aspiring democracy until we actually have a voter driven change of government, where the loser accepts the outcome. This has not yet happened here at a National level and requires rational voter behaviour. There are surely few better examples of a party, operating in an apparent democracy, who deserve to lose power more than the ANC. So Grootes question will remain until voters do what needs to be done.

    • R S says:

      I came here to say this. It seems like many ANC voters would rather be abused by the ANC or not vote than vote for an effective opposition.

      Hopefully that changes soon.

      • Totally agree. I have heard this from women in Khayelitsha who, disgruntled said they would rather not vote..
        Unfortunately too many of our poor are not informed about the level of corruption and the trillions that has been stolen due to the cadre system and current government who continue to pilfer our coffers.. even funds to assist when covid was a threat, were diverted to fat pockets.. so I have heard…

    • Lee-anne Griessen says:

      Excellent point.

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    Absolutely agree Stephen. If there is a common denominator to be found amongst all of the examples you have cited it is the fact that people vote for persons / parties who put forward what appears ‘quick & easy’ answers to complex, long term problems!
    Imagine running a political party & saying ‘My Fellow South Africans’ – we find ourselves up a creek without a paddle (or a canoe) & this is gonna take years to fix & things are inevitably gonna get worse for most of you until they are fixed. Pse vote for me!’
    You don’t win votes by telling the truth – you win votes by making populist false claims & we can’t be criticizing desperate people with only hope to sustain for voting ‘quick & easy’ when survival for them hinges on the here & now!

  • Soil Merchant says:

    Makhudu Sefara – you have summed it up in 1 paragraph.
    Perpetuating Suffering + Finger Pointing = Votes

  • Alan Salmon says:

    Excellent article, Stephen. Democracy is a flawed system but there doesn’t seem to be a better option as yet !
    I think the elections next year will be interesting. There is significant widespread unhappiness with the ANC, but I get the impression from everyday interactions that many black people still do not trust the other political parties. This includes the DA, which despite their good governance in the Cape is still viewed as a “white” party, an image not helped by having a white leader ! We shall see….

  • Gillian Dusterwald says:

    Since conspiracy theorists encourage a victim mindset, maybe the rhetoric in this country should shift to empowering people with encouragement and positivity. The American “you can do it….” (with or without government) rather than in SOuth Africa “the government will….” (which it inevitably doesn’t!)

  • sl0m0 za says:

    One point you seem to have missed – in Africa, as in South America, the “tribal” value system still has great influence where many people vote according to what there tribal leaders say they must vote, not according to personal values/belief. This opens the system to corruption as whoever offers the “Chief” the most goodies, gets the vote.

  • Gerrie Pretorius says:

    “There is no reason to believe that politics on our continent is any different to politics anywhere else.”
    I beg to differ. Most ‘other places’ change government for the better on a regular basis. On our continent the bad situation just continues at best, but invariably becomes worse every time there is an election.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    There is another angle which makes it unfair to blame South Africa’s mess on the electorate, namely the complete lack of accountability of the Executive and Legislature arms of the constitution to the electorate. So called elected representative are chosen through a list process controlled by the party executive committees with virtually no participation at branch level. Governing party members of Parliament are accountable to Luthuli House and the Executive including the President are accountable to the ANC’s NEC. Our so-called democracy does not function at grass roots level, election turnouts are low and there are no regular report-back meetings by the ‘local’ member of Parliament. At the moment we are being carried by an excellent independent Judiciary, a fine Bill of Rights and an outstanding independent Media. If we can deepen democracy, we will see that South Africans will play a much more active and positive role in steering the country to success. Makhudu Sefara must not be so negative about the wonderful people that South Africans are.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    Too many people are not able to create a proper opinion and thus listen to the one who is shouting loudest and promises more, thinking that he/she is the carrier of truth and simply close their minds to anything else, even to sound common sense, and at a certain point that creed becomes contagious within a certain “tribe” 🙈🙉 regardless of everything. Half of the USA population is willing to vote for Trump and I cannot help thinking: “what is wrong with those people?”

  • Epsilon Indi says:

    The West would seem to correct its electoral mistakes rapidly, Africa does not. In fact, Africa tends to compound its electoral mistakes with each successive election implying there is indeed some significant difference between Western electorates and African ones. To assert they are behaviourally more similar than not is simply not true.

  • Pet Bug says:

    I don’t know Stephen. Sure, I’d like to agree with you.

    But seeing the recent by-election results in the eastern cape and the ANC actually increases its votes in that shythole is just unfathomable. Okay, so maybe the youngsters have all run away (or pushed out by chiefs) to the WC or Gauteng and it’s the elderly and sick left to vote, living off their kids income and grants. The grannies vote ANC because they are them.

    Same with the ethnic-based voting surge of the PA, where one assumes the voters must have heard about their leaders behaving really badly. And gala dinner donations unaccounted for. And in bed with the ANC.
    In SA it’s all and only about race.

    Throw in racist employment or water licensing policies, and fabulous medical care with loving staff in pristine clinics all thanks to the NHI, what’s not to like?
    Who would think laterally asking if all this is actually sustainable or delusional or seriously bad for the country?
    No one.
    Going to watch my Netflix series now. Because I can. Hopeless. All pretty hopeless.

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