Defend Truth


Making space for more active citizens to reclaim South Africa’s democracy


Professor Camaren Peter is an Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and is Director and Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own.

South Africa’s democracy is being fractured under the rhetoric of transformative change. We need to take it upon ourselves to foster participatory democracy, to build on what we can agree upon and show tolerance for the differences we hold. We need discussions and debates that are inclusive of all voices and not merely a slinging match between those who reside at the extremes. Waiting for the next person to take a stand while we stand back is a recipe for democratic decline.

The South Africa of 2022 has dim prospects of actualising its key developmental goals and ensuring the integrity of its democracy. We are no longer the shining beacon of democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rather, we have become a tragic tale of the failures of South African exceptionalism, a characterisation that had led our fellow Africans across the continent to dub us the “United States of Africa”.

Our ruling party is riddled with internal conflict and dysfunction – compounded by a fractious and heavily contested parliament; the erosion of key state departments, agencies and state-owned entities by state capture; plus widespread corruption (involving organised crime); maladministration; wildly inaccurate and opportunistic attacks on the judiciary, chapter nine institutions and the Constitution; and the pervasiveness of an increasingly dumbed-down politics of the gutter – so it is difficult to be optimistic about what this year and those ahead have in store in the twenty-first century.

Combined with inadequate economic growth and skyrocketing unemployment, particularly in the significant youth bulge, the state of affairs augers little good for the country in the short term.

While some sentiment prevails that the political landscape may change significantly enough to oust the ruling party in the next national elections in 2024, it is difficult to envision turning the ship around meaningfully in the short or medium term. Too much damage has been done to society, our politics, our economy and to the state itself over the previous decade or so, for the country to miraculously spring back to life simply if the leadership changes hands. We’ve historically experienced great difficulties in maintaining coalitions in South Africa, and the dismal state of our politics suggests there is little prospect that this will change in the short term. Our politicians have abandoned ordinary South Africans, who have become targets for a divide-and-conquer-style politics that ultimately undermines society and democracy in the quest for raw power.

Politics failing its democracy

The question is, therefore, what is to be done when a country’s politics is failing its democracy? What does a country do when there is no prospect that the politics of our politicians will ultimately transcend rhetorical gamesmanship to put the citizenry first, elevating their needs above the vagaries of self-interested and blinkered party-centric politics? Is there hope that we can hold on to as we navigate tough times as a nation, hope that will help us move beyond the gloom of our current reality?

There certainly is cause for cautious optimism, but it comes with the caveat that it will take hard work and dedicated effort to steer South Africa’s democracy back onto its original course. This view derives from the history that brought us South African democracy. Simply put, what we need most to guarantee the integrity of our democracy is an informed, engaged active citizenry that works across class, racial and ethnic divisions – all the way down to the grassroots – to build a social compact that unifies the nation. We, as the ordinary citizenry, need to do the hard work of organising ourselves so that we can hold power to account directly, not just through membership of political parties or through mobilising civil society. We need an active citizenry that is engaged with its civics and politics, so that power and accountability is driven from below and not simply wielded from above by political elites.

As a nation, we’ve consistently made the profound mistake of standing by as onlookers; expecting others to do the dirty work of holding power to account. We did this under apartheid as well, which is in part why the apartheid project took so long to dismantle. Notwithstanding the heroic folklore of mass struggle against apartheid in South Africa, in reality, only small pockets of the middle class worked with labour and other organisations to mobilise mass action against apartheid; there were no true revolutionary uprisings by the masses in South Africa.

This is not to understate the role that “rolling mass action” played in contesting the apartheid regime, but rather to point to a deeper truth about South African society as a whole. We’ve always been – in the main – afraid to stand up to authority. Yet while it is understandable that we are reticent to engage in the political realm and make efforts to hold power to account, given the drastic consequences many have faced for doing so, our democracy can only function as intended if its citizenry actively participates in maintaining democratic integrity and holding power to account.

And the reality of organising the citizenry to reclaim its democracy from political and economic power elites is that it takes hard work. In the apartheid days there were many activists who went door to door engaging ordinary citizens about their views and drawing them into different forms of organisation, ranging from community forums to worker, religious, recreational and sporting organisations, and so forth. Ordinary people were willing to go out and make the effort to mobilise society at a grassroots level, and to build on that all the way up to organised forms of political representation such as the United Democratic Front, which served as an umbrella organisation for many different interest groups.

To be fair, the world occupies a very different reality today. Survivalism and precarity are a reality for many middle- and working-class households. We work harder than we did in the past, are constantly on call to our employers, and have little time for family let alone community. Moreover, levels of community trust have diminished significantly in many parts of the country where the lines between organised crime and local representation have blurred. Going door to door to discuss matters of political or developmental importance to the country may seem intimidating and/or downright foolish, as one might put oneself in harm’s way.

The middle classes in particular now socialise and interact on virtual platforms potentially far more than in real-life interactions. Town hall meetings where communities gather are a distant memory for most of the middle classes, if they feature at all. Political discussion and debate among the citizenry are more likely found on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp groups.

Nonetheless, these are all opportunity spaces for mobilising and organising the citizenry. They are effectively being hamstrung by dominance of those with the most extreme views and visions for South African society, drowning out the more reasonable citizenry, even though they likely remain in the majority. The challenge is organising to effectively hold the middle ground so that those who feel alienated from political engagement – and who fear being pounced upon by those at the extremes – can enter the space of political debate, dialogue and action.

Holding the middle-ground space

It should be said that holding the middle ground does not refer to maintaining a centrist politics, but rather keeping the space open for exchange of different views, debate and dialogue. Holding this space open is about forming consensus on what the main priorities of our democracy are, while maintaining differing perspectives on other key issues. In this way, we can build a socio-political compact that informs our national identity as well as our politics. Our politics should mirror what we value as a society and have formed a social compact around. Instead, our politics has been weaponised to divide and conquer society in the name of garnering votes. 

We should be able to debate and discuss any matter that concerns us as a country. We can call the Constitution into question. We can also question those who hold public office, whether in government or the state, and we can interrogate our values, our developmental goals and our vision for the future of South Africa. Indeed, we must engage in these discussions and debates, but they need to be inclusive of all voices and not merely a slinging match between those who reside at the extremes. We need a respectful and tolerant space of engagement – one where we actually listen to each other – instead of merely espousing our views on matters as though nobody else’s views are relevant or have validity.

Currently, our political realm is being deliberately disrupted and fractured in the name of political expediency and greed for political power (or simply to avoid prosecution). This is being sold under the rhetoric of transformative change, yet the reality is that it is ruining our society and our politics, leaving scant foundations on which to bring about the transformative change we desire.

If we take it upon ourselves to begin organising ordinary citizenry to engage more directly to support participatory democracy and build on what we can agree upon while showing tolerance for the differences we hold, we will have a far better chance of bringing about transformative developmental change. That is, building developmental goals on the foundation of a robust and resilient democratic political and institutional framework – and a functioning state and society – is far more likely to see our developmental goals achieved and maintained into the long term.

As citizens, we need to embrace more deeply what it means to live in a participatory democracy. Power will not automatically hold itself to account. It is – and has always been – up to the citizenry that elects its representatives to positions of power in a democracy to do the hard work of fostering democratic integrity and ensuring that the needs of the citizenry are always put first by its elected representatives. There is simply no way around it. Waiting for the next person to take a stand while you stand back is a recipe for democratic decline. So, the simple question is: are South Africans ready and willing to reclaim their democracy and put power back in their hands where it belongs? DM 


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