Defend Truth


Military veterans holding government ministers hostage is not a sign of maturing democracy; it’s criminality


Craig Bailie holds a Master’s degree in International Studies from Rhodes University and a certificate in Thought Leadership for Africa’s Renewal from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He is the founding director of Bailie Leadership Consultancy.

In the aftermath of last Thursday’s hostage-taking by military veterans, Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele said ‘in my view, we are dealing with a maturing democracy, which enjoins us, especially as government, to listen to our people.’ If the ANC-led government was one that listened to South Africans and cared for their common experience, it is unlikely the three ministers would have been taken hostage in the first place.

On Thursday 14 October 2021, disgruntled military veterans held three of South Africa’s government ministers hostage, including Minister of Defence (MoD) Thandi Modise, her deputy, Thabang Makwetla, and Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele.

Gungubele referred to the ordeal as a sign of South Africa’s “maturing democracy”. This is nonsense. Holding people against their will is a criminal offence, which is precisely why charges have been laid against those arrested. The Democratic Alliance’s Kobus Marais, DA shadow minister for defence and military veterans, has argued “the hostage situation… was a direct violation of Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist and Related Activities Act (PCDATRAA)”. More about the story can be found here.

What does it mean to be a maturing democracy?

A maturing democracy can also be called a consolidating democracy. The question of whether a democracy is mature or consolidated or not is no small matter, nor a straightforward one to answer.

Citing research on democratic transitions, Paul Senese writes, “some studies implicitly suggest that the maturity of the regime may matter at least as much as the type of the regime.” Similarly, for Andreas Schedler, “sustaining democracy is often a task as difficult as establishing it.”

What this means for South Africa is that the country’s democratic election in 1994 was only one among the first steps on a journey that ideally was meant to take the country towards consolidated democracy. South Africa’s victory in 1994 was not so much the beginning of democracy as much as it was the beginning of the opportunity to establish and consolidate democracy.

Consolidating democracy remains a challenging task — more so when among the leaders and the led there are those who don’t appear to want democracy, those who, for political reasons, won’t be honest about the state of South Africa’s democracy, and those who remain confused as to what democracy is.  

On the difficulty of defining mature democracy or democratic consolidation, Schedler refers to the latter term as being veiled by a “conceptual fog”. Shauna Mottiar adds that “examinations of democratic consolidations are abstract, complex and have no clearly identifiable benchmarks.” It is easier to identify democratic maturity by what it is not than by what it is. Frustrated citizens holding government officials against their will is not a sign of maturing democracy.

American political scientist, Samuel Huntington, defines a democracy as consolidated when “the party or group that takes power in the initial election at the time of transition [from non-democratic government] loses a subsequent election and turns over power to those election winners, and if those election winners then peacefully turn over power to the winners of a later election.”

Using this definition of democratic consolidation alone, South Africa clearly doesn’t pass the test for democratic maturity since the ANC has remained in power since 1994. This two-turnover test is a necessary but clearly insufficient condition for democratic consolidation, however. It places emphasis on power transition while failing to consider the nature and quality of governance between elections.

To help create clarity and consensus around the meaning of democratic consolidation, Schedler outlines four broad regime categories: authoritarian, electoral democracy, liberal democracy, and advanced democracy.

Since it is clearly undemocratic, an authoritarian regime falls short of electoral democracy. Electoral democracy is what we find in those countries that manage “to hold (more or less) inclusive, clean and competitive elections” but fail “to uphold the political and civil freedoms essential for liberal democracy”. A liberal democracy, therefore, offers “citizens civil and political rights plus fair, competitive, and inclusive elections”. Advanced democracies, writes Schedler, “possess some positive traits over and above the minimal defining criteria of liberal democracy, and therefore rank higher in terms of democratic equality”.    

Using Schedler’s regime spectrum and at the risk of oversimplification, because space is limited, I will say that democratic consolidation involves the increasing democratisation of a country. This means that for a country to consolidate its democracy, it must move steadily towards advanced democracy after having held its first democratic election.

As long as a country moves in this direction, it remains on a journey towards democratic maturity or consolidation. Moving backwards or in the opposite direction is what scholars call democratic deconsolidation, regression or backsliding.

As many South Africans will already be aware, we are still on this journey. We have not yet reached destination consolidation. Based on Schedler’s regime definitions, South Africa is a liberal democracy but not moving any closer to advanced democracy. In fact, we appear to be losing ground.  

Signs of immaturity

Among the seven historical factors that Huntington cites as having contributed to transitions away from democracy, at least four appear to be pertinent to South Africa’s present-day context: (1) “the weakness of democratic values among key elite groups and the general public”; (2) “severe economic setbacks, which intensified social conflict and enhanced the popularity of remedies that could be imposed only by authoritarian governments; (3) “social and political polarisation, often produced by leftist governments seeking the rapid introduction of major social and economic reforms; and (4) “the breakdown of law and order resulting from terrorism or insurgency.”

South Africans who wish to live in a democratic country must beware of the factors and realities that reflect findings from Huntington’s study of the historical record. Furthermore, we must determine to counter them.

These factors include the following examples: the contents of the Zondo Commission report (due for release in December, just in time for Christmas); the “The SANDF’s ingrained culture of secrecy and non-communication”; the declining support for democracy among the general public and the growing acceptance of authoritarian alternatives; the state of South Africa’s economy; mandatory Covid-19 vaccination; expropriation without compensation and the RET faction of the ANC; and finally, the state of law and order in the country.

The state of law and order in South Africa is related to, among other things, levels of violence in the country, the riots and looting that we saw in July of this year, and the dismal state of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Of greater concern than all of this is when those with political authority, from the president’s office no less, tell us we are living in a maturing democracy despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests otherwise. What does this communicate to South Africans, among whom are the uneducated and the poorly educated, about the meaning of democracy? It says to South Africans that democracy is cheap, even undesirable.

Denying failed governance and increasing securitisation

Those looking in should take care to dismiss Minister Gungubele’s comment, as fraught with contradiction as it is, as a sign of ineptitude. He said, while commenting on the hostage situation, “in my view we are dealing with a maturing democracy, which enjoins us, especially as government, to listen to our people.” If the ANC-led government was one that listened to South Africans and cared for their common experience, it is unlikely the three ministers would have been taken hostage in the first place.

That Gungubele was engaging in political wordplay is more likely. A government will do its best to steer clear of the idea that it is losing control, especially of an increasingly aggrieved, unrealistic, and seemingly volatile military veterans group, and especially in the run-up to elections.

This is why Gungubele took care to explain “he did not feel the ordeal was embarrassing for government”. If having three of its ministers being taken hostage by military veterans is not embarrassing for government, and it should be, there is plenty else the government should be embarrassed about. But this is part of the problem facing South Africa today — government structures don’t appear to embody a critical mass of public servants who are embarrassed by government’s poor performance, who feel a sense of shame about where the ANC has and continues to lead the country.  

South Africa’s defence minister Thandi Modise, who was among the three hostages, joined her colleague’s efforts at drawing political capital from the affair. According to her, “being held hostage demonstrated that the country ‘is not a security-heavy state’ and that ministers can trust ordinary citizens to engage with them freely.”  

The idea that South Africa is not a “security-heavy state” is hard to accept. How otherwise does Minister Modise explain ANC Youth League camps that involve training in gun-handling and guerilla tactics, government’s bloated budget for VIP protection, the growing willingness to deploy the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) internally, the military’s infiltration of South Africa’s rural space through project Koba-Tlala, and South Africa’s rapidly growing private security sector?

The language we, and especially leaders use, is also of fundamental importance, as Ministers Gungubele and Modise are already well aware. While addressing members of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), President Ramaphosa encouraged them to be “a militant, progressive and revolutionary union”. Having disembarked from a helicopter in the midst of the July riots and looting, newly appointed SANDF Chief, General Rudzani Maphwanya, addressed those still trying to destabilise the country: “I always tell people that, when we come in, if they don’t toe the line, all hell will break loose.”

In 2020, former Director of the Centre for Military Studies at the South African Military Academy, Professor Ian Liebenberg, warned against the use of war-like terminology in the battle (I beg your pardon) against Covid-19. How we, and our leaders in particular, deploy language can be a reflection of where our society is heading and whether or not we should expect the security sector (including military veterans) to gain more prominence in our everyday lives or not.    

South Africa needs citizens of resolve

For South Africa’s democracy to survive and mature, citizens who care for the kind of freedom that brings the best out of people will need to be resolute in their pursuit and defence of truth and justice, including for military veterans.   

If ruling politicians believe that what we have in present-day South Africa is a maturing democracy, those in support of democracy ought to be deeply concerned, but also energised to continue any and every effort to turn South Africa into such a democracy. I am reminded of Lindiwe Mazibuko’s 2016 TEDex talk in which she told audience members, “there is no one waiting to save us. We must save ourselves.”

Previously, I have warned that South Africans must take care to not give too much credence to political parties’ claims to be “South Africa’s last and only hope” or “The Last Hope”. Political parties and the government they form through our proportional representation electoral system are necessary actors within a democracy, but not sufficient. Other actors, including individual citizens and civil society groups, must play their part. Included here is the responsibility to call political leaders out when they sell democracy short of what it actually is. DM


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  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The so-called military vets (they apparently got upset when one of the ministers questioned which camps they were located in) are a law unto themselves, and they prefer it so. Their behaviour is criminal and they have a limited understanding of what democracy is, as clearly do the hostages. South African society has become increasingly lawless, primarily in attempts to get government to listen to them, but the danger is that it becomes the rule – as it already is on the road, where rules are routinely ignored, these days even by ageing (white) drivers. And what about the July insurrection – or is that also a sign of a maturing democratically-minded electorate? And let’s not forget that our own democratically elected government has declared a State of Disaster for more than a year now, bypassing Parliament and public oversight and governing by decree. The president himself in almost 18 months had not once made himself available to be questioned by the media, the independent watchdogs of democracy.
    These are all clear signs of a backward sliding democracy.

  • L Dennis says:

    I also found the maturing democracy remark humoristic. so desperate for votes shame

  • Gregory Scott says:

    I found the maturing democracy remark disturbing as it shows a lack of understanding of the English language and the inability to see understand reality. Oh boy! These politicians make decisions for us. How disturbing is that!!

  • District Six says:


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