Opinionista Mmusi Maimane 26 April 2018

Is democracy progressing or regressing?

The Democratic Alliance is often simplistically described as the “opposition party”, inferring that “oppose” is all we do, and all we exist to do. As the Official Opposition, that descriptor is in part true of course. But we are also a party imbued with a rich history of holding the banner high for meaningful constitutional democracy based on liberal democratic values and the rule of law.

Through the darkest years of apartheid, it was the philosophical antecedents of the party I now have the privilege of leading that nurtured and protected a brightly glowing ember of thought that was finally cultivated to full flame in the Constitution of 1996.

Since then, we have moved on from campaigner for liberal democracy to opposition bulldog and to party of government for more than 16 million South Africans.

This last maturation has been made possible only because we have won the confidence of voters in sufficient numbers to have been able to form new governments, most often in coalition. We have won their confidence by steadfastly presenting to voters the vision of a government truly rooted in service to the public, with zero tolerance for corruption and with a genuine focus on expanding opportunities for advancement to all.

The results are clear for all to see. Frankly, whatever your view of the DA, love us or hate us, it is indisputable that South Africa’s democratic project has benefited greatly from the democratic competition that the DA offers. This is a sine qua non for a healthy, functioning democracy. It underpins accountability, and it forces politicians to be responsive to voters’ needs.

This remains the mission of the Democratic Alliance. We exist not just to oppose, but to supplant the ANC in government with the values of the DA.

I am also honoured to serve as the Chairperson of the Southern African Partnership for Democratic Change (SAPDC) which comprises opposition parties from across the SADC who share the vision of promoting and protecting democratic principles in the region.

However, recent events in our country, and in the region, have led me to wonder whether the strides we have made are under threat. Is democracy progressing and taking root, or is it regressing?

The apparent “change” of government that took place in Zimbabwe in 2017 with the fall of Robert Mugabe was not a change at all. While the election of President Emmerson Mnangagwa was met with jubilation, the means through which this was achieved were not interrogated. To be clear: I welcome the removal of someone who was a dictator and had become the very cause of the anguish that has plagued so many Zimbabweans for so many years. But it should be of profound concern to all who call themselves true democrats that this change was not achieved at the ballot box. Elite rotation within one party is not meaningful democracy.

Bringing this home, we witnessed a similar euphoria when Cyril Ramaphosa defeated the Jacob Zuma faction at Nasrec, winning the presidency of the ANC. This national narcosis intensified when Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as the head of state in February 2018. Like in Zimbabwe, this was punted as a “New Dawn” for South Africa and, as with Mnangagwa, the bait was taken without murmur. Media figures and analysts, so traumatised from a decade of Jacob Zuma’s abuse, were happy to elide over Ramaphosas own complicity in the failures of the Zuma government. He was the hero everyone needed, and any suggestion to the contrary was rubbished.

Over the past week, the nation has been shaken awake to the violent reality of intra-ANC factionalism by the violent protests in Mahikeng. President Ramaphosa cancelled his engagements in Britain where he was representing the country at a Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit. His personal intervention won him blind applause from all. But a look at the facts reveals a much more sinister reality.

The truth is that while there is rampant corruption in the North West government which has blighted service delivery, this is hardly new. For years, North West has limped along on the verge of complete institutional collapse, and the signs of this decay are everywhere to see. The full devastating scale of the criminal neglect and corruption in that province are only thrust into national view when citizens burn whole towns to get attention.

It is quite right that a party should be able to remove a member from office who has failed. But this is just one mechanism for democratic accountability. It cannot replace or displace the fundamental democratic mechanism of voting for someone else. If voters are unhappy with ANC factionalism and corruption, then they can and must use the power of their votes to choose a different government. This is fundamental to democracy. There is no good in skirting around the basic duty that voters have to vote for someone else if theyre unhappy. If they wont do that, then a government like that which has menaced North West for years is the inexorable consequence, everywhere in the world.

The unsettling truth about these protests is that ordinary citizens are using violence to replace a premier, when a perfectly peaceful and far more effective method is available to them at the 2019 election: they can and should vote for a different party – one that will not disrespect them by putting and keeping in office a candidate of Supra Mahumapelo’s infamy.

Instead, the voters of North West are being used on the front lines of a factional war in the ANC. Ramaphosa, ever the strategist, is taking advantage of the genuine public discontentment with Mahumapelo’s government (and the ANC) to oust a political opponent. Should this ousting succeed, there may be a new premier in office, but it would be a perpetuation of the abrogation of democracy I described earlier, foremost by a frustrated public, and opportunistically leapt upon by a jittery ANC.

I wholeheartedly agree that Mahumapelo must go and, unlike President Ramaphosa, this is not a view I am only coming around to recently. But voters must not trust the ANC to do the right thing, and they must not resort to violence to force the ANC to do the right thing.

The fundamental democratic relationship between the voters and the government is expressed and renewed at the ballot box. Voters must use their most devastating power – the vote – to choose a new government.

Only when voters do that will we achieve a truly mature and thriving democracy where government is accountable and responsive.

Unless voters do that, we will see only elite shuffling in the ANC as factions fight to the death (literally, in many cases) to determine who gets to eat at the trough. DM

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