In the 2018 Oxfam report titled “Captured Democracies: A Government for the Few”, it is stated that “inequality is a significant indicator of the quality of a democracy, as all democracies are based on the premise that all people have equal rights.”
The report speaks to how elites capture fiscal policy, and the impacts of this on inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean between 1990 and 2017. Indeed, inequality is an indicator of the quality of democracy, and we need look no further than the current democratic dispensation in South Africa and our heightening levels of inequality.
The passage quoted above from the Oxfam report accurately summarises the South African case, which has experienced its fair share of capture of the state and perpetuation of inequality. Inequality levels in South Africa are among the highest in the world with very high levels of unemployment and poverty.
The rich are becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. Only a small percentage of the population benefits from large state industries, and the economy remains in the hands of the few, including those belonging to the political and business elite.
Coalition government autocracy
Recently the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) issued a public invitation to the live streaming of a colloquium titled Post Zondo: The Future of Democracy on 22 June 2023.
Central to the event, where the keynote speaker will be Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, Chairperson of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State, is reflecting on State Capture and the findings of the Zondo Commission in a public arena outside of the courts; and gauging public appetite for democracy as the best form of governance in South Africa.
The theme “Future of Democracy” in South Africa is relevant and topical in many respects. Judge Dennis Davis, Professor at the University of Cape Town Law School, recently reflected on the future of democracy in his article “Autocratic legalism: The South African Experience.”
Davis particularly pointed to the challenges of coalition politics and how they impact the notion of constitutional democracy. Interestingly, he cautioned against what he calls a “far wider rent capture project than the country has previously been experiencing”.
“A 2024 coalition between the ANC and the EFF is utterly at war with any notion of constitutional democracy, even of the progressive kind that was clearly envisaged when the 1996 Constitution was drafted. The fetters which are placed on governance will be seen as an inconvenience to a far wider rent capture project than the country has previously been experiencing.
“At this point unbridled autocracy will be the dominant governance model and the restraints of legalism will recede into the distant past,” wrote Davis.
Further, he reminded his readers that when the Zondo Commission reported in 2022 with findings, among others, that members of the ruling party had their fingers in the cookie jar, “President Ramaphosa reacted by promising that the ANC would ensure that it brought its house into constitutional order.”
Dust settles post-Zondo
The release of the final report of the Zondo Commission in June 2022, and recommendations that the government investigate and prosecute several high-level politicians and individuals on criminal corruption charges, is supposed to have been a turning point of South African democracy.
For instance, the report expressed that the governing party enabled corruption, especially through the awarding of government contracts to businesses owned by or linked to the Gupta business family.
Post the Zondo Commission report, one does not expect to have to deal with new cases of tender manipulation and corruption as if we are a learning country. If one recalls, in October 2022, President Ramaphosa — partially in response to the findings of the Zondo Commission — indicated that there will be far-reaching reforms to combat corruption within the government.
The colloquium “Post Zondo: The Future of Democracy” on 22 June is timely. An all-stakeholder deep reflection on State Capture and the recommendations of the Zondo Commission in a public arena outside of the courts is overdue. So is gauging the “public appetite for democracy as the best form of governance for South Africa”.
The reflection could not have come at a better time, with State Capture remaining a deeply concerning issue that has severe implications for the functioning and integrity of South Africa’s government and its democratic processes.
The Zondo Commission played a crucial role in investigating and exposing instances of State Capture. The baton is now handed to the government and the public to ensure that its findings and recommendations are respected, and for holding those responsible accountable and preventing similar occurrences in the future.
Given the importance of the Zondo Commission to democracy in South Africa and its impact on governance, it is beneficial to have an all-stakeholder deep reflection on its findings and recommendations.
Ideally, such a reflection should involve various stakeholders, including government officials, civil society organisations, experts, the media, and the public to receive multiple perspectives as part of this reflection. Creating a public arena outside of the courts is commendable because it serves to ensure a comprehensive and inclusive discussion on State Capture and the recommendations of the Zondo Commission.
Need for public participation
It is time that transparency and accountability prevail post-Zondo by empowering the public to engage in discussing State Capture and the Zondo Commission’s recommendations. It is only through this and similar processes that citizens and South African voters can fully understand the extent of the problem, the nature of underlying causes, and the feasibility of steps needed for resolution.
It is a known fact that public participation in a public arena fosters trust and confidence in the government and the criminal justice system generally. It is a good thing that government officials are set to participate at this colloquium as this open dialogue and engagement can help bridge the current widening gaps in understanding, dispelling and countering misinformation about State Capture.
One should also perhaps note that the deep reflection on State Capture and the Zondo Commission’s recommendations can serve as an invaluable basis for policy and legislative reforms. Through the insights gained from such discussions, the government can be fully informed as it works towards the development of effective and efficient anti-corruption measures, strengthening governance frameworks, and enhancing transparency mechanisms.
As an overture to the discourse at the colloquium one needs to ask: does democracy in South Africa appear to have led to a government that truly represents the interests of the majority? Has South Africa post-Zondo obliterated the main mechanisms used by the political and economic elites to capture the state? Has the government been genuinely transparent with regard to the implementation of the Zondo Commission report? Will the current South African democracy survive in the future?
Democracy under threat
The future of South African democracy should be bright, but only if the government can allow itself to undergo the significant organisational change proposed in the Zondo Commission report.
These changes will positively affect the way our democracy evolves away from the ugly trapping of other democracies in Africa. Post-Zondo changes must draw from the historical lessons for a better democracy. Admittedly, the judiciary is there as the vanguard of our fragile democracy.
However, a growing and sustainable democracy must have systems of resilience in place outside of the courts. Discrimination and injustice which is still prevalent when considering the high levels of equality in South Africa, some aggravated by corrupt practices, should be something every South African loathes as a natural reaction to our subscription to humanity for all.
Equal business and employment opportunities should be anchored in law and ethical principles, and not be subservient to captured intentions and corrupt practices. And last, the capturing of service delivery must be a thing of the past.
As we look forward to the 2024 national elections, it is important that we are reminded of how some democracies in Africa have been savaged by corrupt practices. And how human rights and freedoms have been reduced to wishful thinking and the rule of law displaced by the rule of corruption.
Corruption and corrupt practices can significantly affect the future of our democracy. The impact of corruption on democratic systems is dire, including erosion of public trust that can lead to disillusionment, apathy, and a decline in civic participation, weakening the democratic fabric of a society.
It also results in distorted representation when the electoral process is tainted by illicit practices such as vote-buying, bribery, or manipulation of electoral outcomes by those who have captured the State.
Finally, the weakening of state institutions becomes the nail in the coffin of our democracy. So far the compromised independence, integrity and effectiveness of state-owned enterprises such as Eskom and Prasa are tell-tale signs of a democracy under existential threat.
So is the prevalence of public officials, including politicians and law enforcement officers, involved in corrupt activities and selling their souls to the next person with a big purse, rendering them derelict in their ability to perform their duties impartially.
Further, the regression of socioeconomic development in some key areas has resulted from corruption and State Capture diverting resources away from essential public services, such as water and sanitation, healthcare, education, and infrastructure.
The open season of individuals misusing or embezzling funds meant for development projects is yet to be a thing of the past. The stability of our democratic foundations of a nation remains under threat. DM