Defend Truth


South Africa’s democracy still a model for Africa


Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist in Durban, South Africa, who writes widely on social issues.

The robust anti-Zuma protests that climaxed in a peaceful recall of our president shows a country maturing in its freedom and democracy.

I disagree with Cheryl Hendriks’ analysis that former president Jacob Zuma’s recall is “the beginning of the end” and “South Africa is no longer the beacon of hope for the continent it once was”.

Hendriks draws on pre-existing opinions, for example, by Prince Mashele that Zuma’s ANC finally ends South African exceptionalism and “we’re just like every other African country”. I believe this is far too bleak a viewpoint if by “every other African country” they mean a failed postcolonial state run by a liberation movement gone rogue.

Yes, the ANC is awful. But there is a glass-half-full version of events here.

Cause for optimism

Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Movement (UDM), in welcoming the decision to recall Zuma, lauded South Africa’s democracy:

We can rightly say that the ANC only reached this decision because of the continued, consistent pressure exerted by opposition parties, civil society, and the media, who played a critical role in exposing institutionalised corruption such as #GuptaLeaks. It is encouraging that those who campaigned for Mr Zuma to vacate his office had free access to media and radio talk shows. This demonstrates that the tools of democracy and a free society, as provided by our Constitution, work.”

Holomisa is quite right. Though it will take years to sanitise the rot of corruption and incompetence that solidified itself into the sycophantic networks of the public and private sector during Zuma’s presidency, there is cause for genuine optimism.

By our next national election in 2019, South Africa will be able to boast that in its short 25-year democratic history, not a single president completed their full two terms of office. This is highly anomalous in Africa due to the propensity to become power-drunk.

SA presidents: 1994-2018

Nelson Mandela willingly stepped down in 1999 and refused a second term (no doubt he would have been re-elected if he had chosen to continue). Thabo Mbeki was recalled by the ANC just months short of completing his second term of office and resigned instantly. Kgalema Mothlante then took over but stuck to his eight-month caretaker role before Jacob Zuma’s official election in 2009.

Then, after eight failed motions of no confidence in Parliament, Zuma was finally recalled on 14 February 2018 by his own party, despite him pleading ignorance and contriving innocence (though we know that his recall has more do to with the brand liability that his continued presence has on the ANC in a year of election campaigning, instead of the mind-blowing accusations against him in Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers).

Cyril Ramaphosa, our latest caretaker president and leader-in-waiting come our national elections in 2019, acted swiftly to avoid his chances at the throne being thwarted because of the public’s lack of confidence in an ANC that still supports Zuma. This curious history of post-apartheid South African presidents and the peaceful transitions between them is an anomaly in comparison to our continental history of dictators, coups, bloodshed, military rule, plea bargains, ethnic warfare, or ex-leaders fleeing to neighbouring countries.

African countries struggle with smooth transitions. For example, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was eventually removed via a military coup after wanting to run for president again at the age of 93. In The Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh only conceded defeat in the 2016 elections after troops were sent in to forcibly remove him. Uganda’s 73-year old president Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, wants to remove the presidential age limit of 75, which would permit him to run again in 2021.

Red flags vs. resilience

At least three major red flags tend to signify a failing state: prohibitions on dissent, electoral meddling, and ethnic conflict. These have not happened in South Africa.

First, despite a decade of unethical leadership, we continued to produce exceptional, ethical leaders in other spheres of its democracy. The system is not inherently broken and remains resilient. I’m thinking here of Thuli Madonsela, Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, Dr Makhosi Khoza, investigative journalists, editors and whistle-blowers, opposition parties, and our civil society.

These key players remained a consistent thorn in the side of Zuma – and played a major collective role in (re)producing the discourse that made his dismissal possible. No critic or opposition party member has been killed or jailed in South Africa – despite Julius Malema’s EFF consistently disrupting every single State of the Nation Address and parliamentary appearance by Zuma since 2014.

Though our public protector did fear for her life at one stage, this was quickly reported on by the media. No critic in the media – newspapers, TV, online, or radio – was silenced. No websites were censored. No books were banned. No social media was shut down. No. Opposition was allowed to flourish, with cringeworthy embarrassment for Zuma. These kinds of freedoms are unimaginable in some African countries. For example, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has quashed all forms of dissent and courts have sentenced two opposition political leaders — Joseph Mbilinyi and Emmanuel Masonga – to five months’ imprisonment for using insulting language against him.

Second, every election since 1994 has taken place as scheduled, without major incident, and was universally declared free and fair, even by opposition parties. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) remains fiercely independent and we trust our election results.

Third, our politics are not based on ethnic warfare or tribalism tendencies and our presidents have been diverse: Xhosa (Mandela and Mbeki), Pedi (Motlanthe), Zulu (Zuma), and now Venda (Ramaphosa).

Our biggest weakness – epitomised by Zuma – is corruption. If Ramaphosa can sanitise the stench of billions lost in corruption since 1994, we would improve out lot.

Building on success

From a bird’s-eye view, South Africa has an impressive score of 78/100 in the Freedom of the World 2018 report, the highest compared to its neighbours Namibia (77), Botswana (72), Lesotho (64), Mozambique (52), Zimbabwe (30), and Swaziland (16).

In terms of the Press Freedom Index, South Africa also features in the top five countries in Africa. In the global Democracy Index 2017, we’re ranked 41 but scored the highest in Africa for both political participation and functioning of government (barring the tiny islands of Cape Verde and Mauritius which both outperform African states on most indices).

We scored poorly on “political culture” – unsurprising, given Zuma’s cementing of patronage politics.

Even the Ibrahaim Index for African Governance 2017 report gave us a score of 70.1/100 for overall governance and ranked us 6/54.

The narrative of “just another failed state” is therefore disingenuous, alarmist, pandering to media hysteria, and academically lazy. It is also psychologically unhealthy for our nation to be fed a constant deficit-oriented narrative of where we are heading. While I have always been critical of the government, I am wary of feeding an Afropessimistic culture from which political apathy and hopelessness grows.

We don’t have to placate ourselves that we are exceptional, but we can surely acknowledge that in many ways South Africa has bucked the trend and managed to keep the foundations of its democracy rather strong. If South Africa is to improve its ranking on these global indices and in the public imagination, we need to reinforce what we are doing right.

Ramaphosa would do well to ensure that under his presidency the liberties and freedoms of the press, civil society, opposition parties, the courts, and watchdog institutes are strengthened and supported.

We criticise because we care. DM

Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist who writes regular social commentary in the media. He is also a council member for the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) and former chairperson of the Mandela Rhodes Community. He writes in his personal capacity.


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