Democracy in distress: Are our elections bought and our voters sold?


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

As 7 May approaches, the debate on political accountability rises to the fore. Our honeymoon with liberation history is over. Citizens want delivery, not slogans and rhetoric; they want action over promises and excuses; they want honesty in how public funds are spent; they want humility and service rather than political arrogance of office.

Our democracy is maturing and with it a realignment of politics is underway. The “born frees” go forward without the enormous political baggage of my generation.

The critical challenge is deepening democracy by building an active civil society that is robust, organised and militantly demanding accountability from leaders across the political, business and NGO sectors.

We want men and women of integrity to lead us.

The 2012 Report of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security Report raised some red flags on the issue of electoral finance. “Political finance has not received the attention and commitment to reform that it deserves. In a world of increasing economic inequalities, greater concentrations of wealth and a global economic recessionary environment, political finance is a challenge that will only grow.” Its influence is a poisonous cancer driven by rent-seeking elites who want to capture political power and our governments.

As the former President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, a member of the Commission added, “Vote buying and bribery of candidates by elites is the obvious problem, but poorly regulated political finance can corrode electoral integrity in more subtle ways. Curbing these practices is difficult, since politicians who benefit from loosely regulated financing are unlikely to push for greater transparency. We should not move towards an American system of financing. We should restrict more severely, enforce more severely, spending limits, so that the well-to-do do not buy elections.”

It is an observation I keenly agree with.

States should also be seeking to level the playing field among electoral contestants by providing public financial support, he argues: “Private donation should be restricted and public financing should be introduced – which admittedly is bound to be limited, because after all there are so many competing development needs in any poor country.” That public support might exist in non-monetary form, like access to free media airtime or the free use of public facilities for campaign activities, he adds.

In his Budget Speech earlier this year, Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan proudly acclaimed the fact that that over the past 20 years, tax revenue has increased tenfold, and will exceed R1 trillion next year. Economically active citizens have tripled to 15 million and 2.3 m businesses are now on a tax register at SARS. I also feel proud as a South African. In anyone’s books this is a good news story and Treasury deserves to be congratulated.

But how is it spent? The overwhelming view is that delivery is poor, marred by corruption, and systems fail because of incompetence and mediocrity in many parts of our country. Frankly we are sliding into a system of crony capitalism. That’s where government has to overcome a huge trust deficit with citizens. And this is what sparks the fury, the anger that is driving much of the close to 13,000 service delivery protests each year, many of them violent, in our country. We cannot slide into a cycle of violence and counter-violence.

Surely improved performance, accountability and transparency from our public office bearers should be the key debate in the 2014 election.  How would we measure such a commitment? Will political parties agree:

  • That all awards of tenders are published on the Internet; what company gets projects, what they promise to deliver and by when with milestones and who are the project managers?
  • That they disclose any payments made to political parties, state officials or members of their families?
  • That all Ministers declare publicly all entertainment and travelling expenses?
  • That no political party should be involved in any business dealings with any State department or state-owned institutions?
  • That the Public Protector’s Office must be strengthened to investigate any breach of these corporate governance and conflict of interest rules?
  • That the Cabinet-appointed Van Zyl Slabbert Electoral Task Team Report of 2004 is publicly debated and appropriate legislation be drafted to implement its recommendations? (The Report highlighted a view that collective responsibility at five-year intervals is insufficient to ensure political accountability and recommended the abandoning the proportional representation list system and adopting a mixed system between constituency and proportional representation.)

The general consensus is that Parliament has lost its halo of credibility. Most of the public discourse focuses on the lack of accountability of MPs to voters, brought about by the absence of constituency-based electoral system and the top-down effect of the party-list system.

In fact, Parliament did appoint an Independent Panel Assessment of Parliament which presented its report in January 2009. The report indicated a “connection between corruption in the award of state contracts and lack of accountability of MPs to voters. It was argued that South Africa’s current electoral system encourages Members of Parliament to be accountable to their party rather than the electorate.” This is a damning indictment on our Parliament, the sovereign institution of our democracy.

Twenty years on, we face a moral moment of truth and fairness in our history today.

The world you live in today is more complex. It is not black and white like it was for my generation. The next generation faces a perfect storm – the intersection between the financial, economic, fuel and food and climate crises. The rising tide of our human greed now threatens the very foundations of our human survival.

We are living in a matrix web of silence, and time is running out.

In villages and slums across the world, I hear people say, “We do not trust our leaders; they serve the interests of the rich. If you have money, then you can buy what you want. Democracy is on sale to the highest bidder. We are only needed when they want our votes.”

What I know is that a society fails when we cease to care. It fails when those in power seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. It fails when the people lose trust in their leaders. It fails when leaders are so disconnected from the grassroots that the people feel disempowered in the democratic process. It fails when cadre development replaces competent civil servants with those who owe loyalty not to the Constitution and the people but party bosses.

You need to make a choice. As Madiba often reminded us, “That what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we led.”

Madiba was a symbol of our brightest hopes. His words remind us constantly, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

We are not looking for a new Messiah. In a time where we desperately search for heroes and heroines, perhaps we have been searching too long in the wrong places. It is time to refocus our gaze and look to our people, where we will find legions of potential Mandelas who are working selflessly in a world that may otherwise seem to have stopped caring.

The historic duty of the next generation is to take the political freedom we have won and that is enshrined in our Constitution and fight for the country that implements those rights; and for my generation to support that struggle and stand by our commitment in 1994 to deliver a better life to all our people. DM