Defend Truth


A country as unequal as South Africa will struggle to sustain democracy


In real life, Professor Balthazar is one of South Africa’s foremost legal minds. He chooses to remain anonymous, so it doesn’t interfere with his daily duties.

We will either seek the construction of a non-racial society based on a democratic idea of what it means to be South African or we will have no democracy.

Recently, Prof Adam Habib put his finger on the disturbing rise of populist anti-democratic politics that eschew non-racialism, accountability and transparency, three central features of the constitutional scheme. In this, South Africa is not alone: the rise of Bolsanaro in Brazil, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Johnson in Britain, Modi in India and Trump in the United States illustrates the widespread dominance of reactionary politics in which each leader is elected without the slightest regard for constitutional guardrails and each of them with project of their own based upon the creation of the dichotomy of the volk vs the outsiders.

At present this country is distinguishable in that it is led by a constitutionalist. But, as Prof Habib has pointed out, the path to securing a constitutional democracy faces a number of obstacles including the politics of the EFF, the substantial grouping within the ruling party which remains committed to state capture, the challenges posed to democracy by way of the exploitation of social media and the concomitant inability of other media to counter the poison spewed into the political discourse.

The key question that is posed by these observations is how best to protect and promote democracy in South Africa. The success achieved by Trump and his fellow democratically elected autocrats provides the best possible guidance. A global economy dominated by finance and high tech capital has produced huge benefits for the few, impoverished the many, hollowed out the tax base and thereby weakened the last remaining components of social democracy. These developments have been central to the success of populists who feed off legitimate deep-seated grievances. 

In South Africa , the design of the Constitution envisaged that the political freedoms contained therein would be accompanied by socio-economic measures to ensure that the right to vote was not accompanied by continuous poverty and egregious levels of inequality. Alas, that is exactly what has happened: after 25 years of democratic rule, race and class continue to overlap, the Gini coefficient is well above .6, almost no growth in GDP per capita has occurred since 2014 and poverty is on the rise, once again.

A country as unequal as South Africa, with tepid to no growth, declining levels of tax revenue and unemployment over 30%, will truly struggle to sustain democracy. Of course, the entire constitutional venture was undermined by a decade and more of rampant corruption, while those who are credibly alleged to have been central to the looting continue to appear immune to legal process. The last few days have seen the NPA finally awake, as has SARS, but for each step taken to install the principle of accountability, there are always institutions that appear to have a different agenda. In this connection the recent reportage concerning whistleblower on the role of the Public Protector is illustrative.

Thus in 2020, it is critical that criminal prosecutions of those who diverted much-needed public funds for the reconstruction of the lives of millions living on the margins into their and their friends’ pockets should take place. Similarly, if the ruling party is serious about restoring legitimacy in public administration, a comprehensive inquiry into the fitness of office of the Public Protector needs to be commenced in the first half of 2020. There are manifestly compelling grounds for such an inquiry of an office, which for many has lost its legitimacy and which is a crucial mechanism to ensure accountability, integrity and transparency in public administration.

The populism that has taken over in many countries should not be conflated with a critique of institutions that fail to deliver to the majority and are only concerned with the interests of elites. What is meant within the context of this column is a reconfiguration of all instruments of government to serve ‘we’ the party, the agents of the people, who stand in sharp contrast to the ‘other’, being all who are thus defined as outside the volk. It is an outlook that spawns the kind of hatred that Prof Habib illustrated by way of a series of tweets which he reproduced, all of which were directed against him and all of which defined him as not one of ‘the people’. Donald Trump makes similar moves – ‘make America great again’ – by which he means ‘make America’ white again. Narendra Modi defines the Indian people as excluding Muslims and Boris Johnson invokes the nostalgia of a Britain as it was as an imperial nation devoid of immigrants.

In South Africa, the political banner under which millions marched for more than 50 years was that South Africa belonged to all who lived here. It is no longer the dominant discourse. The Trump cry of ‘go back to where you once came from‘ as in the case of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is alive and well in this country. One thing is for certain: we will either seek the construction of a non-racial society based on a democratic idea of what it means to be South African or we will have no democracy. This vision is not incompatible with the radical transformation of the economy, the polity and our spatial geography. To the contrary; without determined progress in addressing the true legacies of 350 years of racism and take seriously the aim that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, there can be no lasting democracy.

The way we have wasted so many opportunities over the past 25 years has placed the majestic aims of the Constitution in serious jeopardy. Another year where at best we mark time can only quicken the demise of these aims and with it the possibility of a lasting, vibrant democracy. DM


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