Defend Truth


Despite indications to the contrary, South Africa’s democracy is growing up

Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.

It’s sometimes hard not to despair about this country. I found myself in some despair, comparing us to others, until I remembered a few things.

Parallels and comparable situations fascinate me. Most things, at least the big things, have through history unfolded in fairly repetitive and predictable ways, so there’s much to be learned for today from analysing what happened in another time or place.

Of particular interest are parallels in how countries and societies develop, because mine, South Africa, is but a teenager and her populace has yet to grow out of that awkward phase any teenage democratic society goes through. Nothing seems in proportion and the mixture of angst and raging hormones results in the most cringe-worthy things taking place here.

Which is why when I got the chance to spend part of last week in Berlin, immersed in lessons of Germany’s mature democracy, I felt like I was gawping at the cool kid in democracy school. I also felt sheepish, thinking of the pimpled, socially awkward kid back home.

I’d travelled to the capital as a guest of the German federal foreign ministry. Invited, too, were delegates from other countries such as Egypt, Kazakhstan, China and Macedonia. We spent a lot of time comparing the political, economic and social situations in each of our countries. What emerged was that if you were to pick a development criterion and arrange delegates by their country’s stage of development, we would appear like the dots in Hans Rosling’s 200 countries video.

On Rosling’s axes of income and health, host Germany would have been number one in 2011 with an average life expectancy of 80 years and a per capita GDP of $43,700. Uzbekistan, at 71 years and $1,600, would have been languishing in the poor and healthy quadrant. South Africa’s 49 years and $8,100 would place it further along in the rich scale, but very much in the sick quadrant.

Much is hidden in these averages, however, like the huge gap between black and white life expectancy in South Africa and the income disparity between the rich and the poor.

On an axis of prosperity using the Economist Group’s democracy index, host country Germany would have again been leading the pack. Its democracy index ranking is 14. Uzbekistan, at 164, is poor and so cowed by an authoritarian regime that the other measures of democracy are meaningless. At 28, South Africa is considered a flawed democracy, mostly because of poor political participation and a relatively weak political culture.

Germany is ranked worse than South Africa in political participation, but only because the index weights voter turnout heavily. But what Germany lacks in turnout, it makes up for in political culture and an astonishing depth of active democratic institutions.

Abgeordnetenwatch, or Parliament Watch, for example, is a Hello Peter with German politicians as companies and voters as customers. It lets voters question politicians directly and creates a permanent, searchable public record of the response. Another organisation, Tactical Technology Collective, creates guides and toolkits that help civil society organisations use information better to promote positive social change. 

As some of these institutions presented their wares and others presented the German political and social landscape, I found myself envious. South Africans vote, I thought, but do little else. In the years in between elections, we picket and protest pointlessly, or call in to radio talk shows that are nothing more than middle-class echo chambers.

I thought this until I got home to find a portion of the country in a froth over two models’ racist comments. Instead of just ranting about it, over 100 people joined columnist Mabine Seabe in laying a complaints with the SA Human Rights Commission. This made me recall the Makhaza open toilet debacle and how after much noxious political jostling, it also found its way to the commission and a court, which ruled that the unenclosed toilets infringed on the rights of Makhaza residents and should be enclosed. Those toilets are today enclosed.

I remembered the public protector’s roadshow, where after learning what Thuli Madonsela was there for, South Africans flooded her office with complaints of maladministration and service delivery failures. I thought of the Right2Know campaign and how, through a broad citizen-led coalitions, it held (and continues to hold) the legislature accountable. I thought of theTreatment Action Campaign and Others vs Minister of Health and Others, and the other landmark judgments made in favour of justice and human rights.

By the time I returned, e-tolling was supposed to have been a reality. But I drove down the N1 and saw the gantries were silent, hushed by South Africans in the face of a belligerent executive.

Sure, our gangly teen democracy sometimes doesn’t get it right. It gets it wrong a lot, actually, and we are not yet free. But “democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Freedom comes from the recognition of certain rights which may not be taken, not even by a 99% vote,” Marvin Simkin wrote.

The more we grow, the more we participate using the tools and mechanisms this democracy affords, the more we’ll keep wolves and hyenas in check, and the closer we’ll come to freedom. DM


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