Defend Truth


This election has laid bare South Africa’s democratic deficiencies


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

What we have learnt again over the past week is that democracy is a marathon, not a sprint. Ours is imperfect, but without it, we lose all hope of a more equal and just society.

I think all countries are built on something beautiful. Most people believe that their countries are beautiful; that their nations and cultures are worthy of love and sacrifice. But many aren’t willing to acknowledge that their nations and cultures are like human beings: their humanity and inhumanity are simultaneous. It would hearten me if people could recognise that. Because then we can do something about it.’ – Viet Thanh Nguyen in Lunch with the FT.

It’s such a cliché, but a week really is a long time in politics. 

While the past week has been sobering, the next days of coalition horse-trading and haggling will seem like a lifetime. For the first time in post-apartheid South Africa, we do not have the certainty of an ANC government, no matter its ills (and there are many). 

The ANC’s hegemony has been broken.

No one particularly wanted to be here. No politician wants to be cut down to size. But here we are, with far more uncertainty than usual, even for South Africa, a country well versed in swinging deliriously between hope and despair. 

Not untypically, however, South Africans appeared shocked by the result for a day or two and are now simply continuing with business as usual. Mostly, this society has learnt to cope without the flailing state, but, of course, who holds power matters. 

So, the weekend was undoubtedly tense. 

Zuma, at 82, is back in the cut and thrust of politics for no other reason than to destroy our constitutional democracy. Of that, we must be very clear. 

He and his firebrand daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, spew forth destructive rhetoric with a smirk. The manifesto of their MK party is an aimlessly thin and unserious document. 

If we were not fully aware of the destruction Zuma wrought, then we need to remind ourselves of the insurrection of July 2021

At every turn, he has attempted to evade accountability and responsibility and has no qualms about dividing the country and inciting violence along the way. 

We also cannot forget that the marks of Zuma’s constitutional vandalism are writ large in every aspect of South African public life.

Despite portraying himself as a man of and for the people, Zuma only serves his own narrow interests. There is an overwhelming body of evidence in the public domain that details the looting of state coffers, the wrecking of our public institutions by his cronies, and the careless disregard for the rule of law.

During her investigations into the enhancement of his Nkandla home, Zuma consistently questioned then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendations on Nkandla and her authority to even make such recommendations. 

Similarly, he questioned the legitimacy of the Zondo Commission into State Capture and, by his actions, he has consistently undermined constitutionally mandated bodies as well as the judiciary. 

So no one was surprised when Zuma threatened the IEC on the weekend, making even Julius Malema look statesman-like. 

Despite his record on constitutional matters, Malema too accepted the results of the election. We should not be fooled by his current calm and should not forget the destructive role he and his party have played since its formation. And we should remember the VBS scandal. However, nothing focuses a politician’s mind quite like a loss at the polls. 

Zuma’s supporters continue their disinformation campaigns on social media with threats to collapse Parliament by not attending its first sitting. The latter threat is based on a woefully erroneous reading of the Constitution, as Prof Pierre de Vos has set out.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cool heads and political maturity are needed as we enter this volatile period

But, of course, the aim is merely to obfuscate by lies. 

The MK party’s threats are straight out of Zuma’s playbook. Realistically, can one imagine any MK member who is actually interested in doing parliamentary work? It is a party of grifters, with Jabulani Khumalo currently in a court battle for the leadership of the party.

A hot mess, which will no doubt see the party implode sooner rather than later, hoist with its own petard. But it will try to inflict as much damage as it can in the meantime. 

Holding the line

Despite Zuma’s threats, the IEC held firm and announced the election results as planned. 

Of all the tense and difficult moments on the weekend, and the initial tests before us, a few stand out and indicate just how important it is to fight for the rule of law and constitutional democracy.

Even in this young democracy, we have largely been able to depend on our institutions. Yes, they are flawed, at times flailing, but they are holding up under some pretty exhausting stress tests.

The Constitutional Court, for instance, did the right thing before the election and overturned the patently wrong decision by the Electoral Court which allowed Zuma to stand as an MP. We take for granted that the court (and others) will do its work without fear or favour. None of that is self-evident, not even in mature democracies. A cursory look at the US Supreme Court will confirm this.

We should therefore be grateful for the men and women who hold the line; for civil society organisations who advocate for the rule of law at moments when this can be unpopular and even dangerous. 

The hundreds of election observers are part of this safety net of accountability which protects us. 

When ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula announced a press conference on Saturday, one expected the worst, given his penchant for word salad and alphabet soup. Instead, we got the grown-up version of Mbalula; calm and measured. 

The ANC statement after the elections, and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the IEC, all struck the same chord: “Our people have spoken, whether we like it or not,” he said.  

Things felt a bit safer after that. 

One cannot overestimate how important these moments were. 

Despite 30 years in power, the ANC was submitting itself to the democratic process and the coalition negotiations that are now happening. In many other places – examples abound – the internet would have been shut down, the army called in, challenges launched and the IEC attacked. 

So credit is due – and also to the IEC. No election is perfect. Mistakes were undoubtedly made, yet it stood firm and kept to its constitutional mandate. 

As ever, our beloved country strains at the seams, standing before a clear fork in the road; one path precarious in the direction of sure ruin and the other fraught, but with promise. 

Putting egos aside

Will the ANC choose coalition partners who believe in the Constitution or will it choose to partner with forces that would destroy what is left of the economy and threaten our collective future? Who believes in the rule of law and who does not? That is the simplest way of putting it.

Within that exists another layer; coalitions are about setting aside egos and understanding that parties will not share every single policy position and they will certainly not all get what they want.

Or, as 1990s negotiator Roelf Meyer put it this week: “You need to start with the subjects and values you can find agreement on. And work from there to tackle the differences one by one. There are those you can’t find agreement on, and (you need to) find a model for addressing differences. 

“In the case of the Government of National Unity (South Africa’s first democratic-era government, which included the National Party and Inkatha), you had mechanisms on how to address it. These often included discussions between party leaders and ministers.

“One person who comes to mind is Jakes Gerwel, DG (director-general) in Madiba’s presidency. He could bring people together. When people had problems, we often rushed to Jakes. He was very solution-oriented. That was one of the reasons Madiba chose him to be close to him. It was his natural attitude – he thought people were important and brought them together. That is the key. You have to accept that you must put aside egos.”

It is hard to know which way the ANC will veer, though a coalition with the MK party seems unlikely. At the time of writing, an ANC meeting was under way.

A government of national unity is one option on the table, and the ANC has said it has spoken to the Patriotic Alliance and the EFF as well as all other interested political parties. The crucial issue will be stability.

The EFF has shown itself to be unprincipled and fickle, with a casual adherence to constitutional values. 

It is equally hard to understand quite why the ANC would even approach Gayton McKenzie’s PA; he is a xenophobe who seeks only to divide – and a cloud of suspicion surrounds him. With 2.1% of the vote, it is hardly necessary to court his party and its destructive ideas. 

A chance for Ramaphosa

We’ve been here before and it is time for us to look each other in the eye squarely and negotiate a future in the best interest of all South Africans. 

Our country needs stability and it needs it fast – without the dangerous drama which the likes of Zuma are trying to foist on us. 

It also needs wise and calm leadership on all sides – from politicians to the media – in the next few days. 

Listening to Zuma threaten and speak with a forked tongue, one wondered whether this octogenarian – with his last throw of the dice – had overplayed his hand this time. 

One wondered too what was going through Ramaphosa’s mind this weekend, beyond the jokes and the glad-handing at the results operations centre. He, who has frittered away his presidency trying to preserve the unity of the ANC. He, who consistently put party over country in the hope that his appeasement strategy would make Zuma and his corrupt cronies go away.

Instead, they came back more viciously than before, determined to break even their own party – and the country. 

Here was a president who even during an insurrection seemed cowed and weak, telling us, “We know who they are”, yet protected those in his party from the consequences.

His ability to engage with his party has been almost non-existent and South Africans have had to remain content with his newsletters, mostly pipe-dreaming. Ramaphosa has also largely eschewed building alliances across society and outside of the party during his presidency.

Those may have stood him in good stead. He has a moment now to forge a coalition based on the Constitution and the rule of law and stare down the reprobates in his party once and for all. If he can do that, he may be able to salvage his legacy.

A marathon, not a sprint

However this question is ultimately answered, this election has laid bare our democratic deficiencies. 

When the immediate dust has settled, we should resist that grand South African temptation to simply move on. The next five years will be difficult and will require full commitment to the project of strengthening our constitutional democracy and its institutions.

We must work to understand fully why it is that millions of South Africans believe a corrupt former president who bled the country’s coffers dry, and someone like Gayton McKenzie, jailed for robbing a bank, and now spewing xenophobic hate, deserve their trust. 

And why is it that turnout in this election was at its lowest? What does that say about the waning trust in our institutions and in democracy itself? 

Therein lies the deeper work of building a democratic society which goes beyond the urgency of now. 

In their seminal book, How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out that democracies don’t die overnight. They die as a result of the “erosion of democratic norms and increased polarisation in society”.

Equally, the attacks on our Constitution have not happened overnight. 

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that “institutions and norms are critical to preserving democracy, but they can be worn down slowly and systematically”. 

They point us to four “warning signs”. The first is rejecting the rules of democracy. The second is discrediting one’s political “opponents”. The third is tolerating or encouraging violence. Finally, moving to reduce civil rights. 

These “red flags” are all present in South Africa today and our economic inequalities add an extra layer of insecurity.

What we have learnt again over the past week is that democracy is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Ours is imperfect but without it, we lose all hope of a more equal and just society. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mike SA says:

    Interesting, but you still after 30 years support ANC style affirmative action and BEE. The fact is that only massive foreign investment is going to be our solution and playing games with the EU and the USA which has funded the majority of the HIV rollouts in South Africa is very stupid is it not.

    • Michele Rivarola says:

      It is a simple matter of mathematics and has nothing to do with how well you are governing the WC which, with respect in any event does certainly not reflect the greater population of SA. If you want the majority of votes you need to appeal to the majority of voters. The likes of Ntuli, Mazibuko, Trollip and many others who had a deep understanding of the tribulations and expectations of the majority were sidelined so we are where we are. Those were leaders with whom either communities could identify or whom communities respected and were prepared to listen to. Roelf Meyer’s piece on why Mandela’s GNU worked (and why a current GNU is probably destined to the scrap heap) should be a harbinger of the problems that are likely to be encountered in current times where you have egos rather than national interests at the forefront of decisions requiring compromises.

  • District Six says:

    Sobering commentary here.

  • Lucifer's Consiglieri says:

    It is screamingly obvious that the ANC should be negotiating a confidence and supply agreement with the DA. It is the only “win-win” solution and the only one that will deliver a degree of stability. Yet, politics in general and African politics in particular, typically rejects the solution that best serves the needs of the population. On the BEE bone of contention – BEE was always an easy short term symtom-treatment solution. Many of the new elite did really well out of this, but it was never going to address the needs of the nation. The ANC Government has had 30 years to work on the long term solution of addressing apartheid’s legacy by improving education (critical), health services and addressing other service delivery deficiencies. Its record on these, over 3 decades, has been one of failure. The quick fix racial classification based solution that was BEE does not serve the country’s needs and cannot be retained in perpetuity. Whatever happened to the ideal of a non racial South Africa?

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