Read in magazine

As we commemorate 29 years of democracy, we need to grapple with how to harness discontent and disaffection towards putting our society back on the path of consolidating hard fought gains, writes Nompumelelo Sibalukhulu

Twenty-nine years ago, South Africans tasted freedom. This freedom was expressed in the act of voting. Millions got to vote for the first time in their lives. For the first time in history, ordinary black people were considered rightful citizens of this country. After centuries of having white rule imposed on them, on 27 April 1994, black people were given the opportunity to elect a government of their own choosing. This is not a victory to take lightly.

Democracy is a contested concept, and it would not be completely out of line to say that democracy is what you make of it. Democracy is a loaded word that usually connotes values such as equality, justice, fairness, inclusion, consensus, consultation in the conduct of relations and interactions between people within different organisational forms in the realm of private and public life.

At a systemic and institutional level, when we talk of democracy, we are talking of a specific form of government, a political system, referring to both how that government is created—that is, how power and authority are transferred between cycles—and how that government carries out its functions.

While elections are important, and free, fair, and competitive elections are necessary prerequisite to classifying a country as democratic, democracy also necessarily has to translate into the conduct of leaders, the operation of government, and the machinery of the state.

Democracies are founded on core principles or values but their institutional make-up in every country are determined by the historical context and prevailing conditions and level of development of and in each society. No democracy is identical to another. Every society that adopts democracy, develops its idiosyncrasies. A democratic system is defined and formed through a process of institution building and how those institutions give expression to the principles of democracy determine the nature and quality of a democratic system. Since 1994, as a society, we have been negotiating and defining the nature and substance of our democratic system.

Despite the contestations over the meanings of democracy, ultimately, democracy is concerned with the extent to which and how citizens have an influence and control over government and can have oversight and exercise scrutiny over political institutions. If democracy is government by the people, of the people and for the people, as former US President Abraham Lincoln once succinctly put it, what does that look like practically?

In a representative democracy, such as ours, citizen control and scrutiny over government and institutions, in the main, is enabled through competitive elections, effective legislatures and citizen participation in policy making processes. And an assessment of these factors helps to paint a clear picture about the state of our democracy at present. The health of our democracy can also be measured by the progress we have made in departing from our apartheid past.

The country has had six general elections (national and provincial) including the 1994 polls, and six local government elections. All have been declared free and fair. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is highly respected globally for its management of elections and despite some complaints from sections of the opposition about its handling of ballot boxes and other processes, the IEC has carried itself impeccably.

But elections cannot be judged on the merit of the electoral management alone. The electoral system has a huge influence on the nature of the party system and on the political system.

In the lead up to the general elections political parties compile lists of individuals who will take up seats in the parliament and provincial legislatures.

These lists are decided internally within parties, without the obligation to get input from the voting public. On election day, citizens cast their vote for political parties. Those parties that make it into parliament then fill the seats using the lists submitted to the IEC pre-election. Following their election and the Constitution and opening of Parliament, Members of Parliament (MPs) elect the president, who is the head of state and government. The president then appoints most of his cabinet ministers from among MPs.

The implications of this system are that Parliament operates much like the negotiation platform of the early 1990s that brought us the new South Africa and our negotiated settlement.

In this system, citizens feature at the point of electing political parties to represent them. Political parties this exercise the prerogative in the shaping of the country’s destiny legislatively. And given that the programme of the government of the day is decided by the governing political party, political parties take precedence and have the leeway to dictate the policy direction of the country and the social, economic, and political trajectory of the country.

This is not to discount that we have a constitutional order that makes provision for public participation. However, the obligation to consult citizens in decisions and policy making processes does not change that citizens are often consigned to the role of responders in these processes, whose inputs are necessarily guaranteed to be adopted or carried forward. It should therefore not be surprising that much of citizen led action and agency has taken the form of either protest or litigation because the avenue of the legislatures and executive are closely policed and are the purview of gatekeepers.

Legislative and policy making processes have, in large part, remained elite affairs, with political party big wigs haggling and haranguing each other on various public platforms.

When the governing party acts in the interests of the country and for the good of the populace, we might overlook that this system is a form of paternalism that insists that the people trust to enlightened leaders the responsibility to direct the course of the country and by implication their collective lives. Unfortunately, it has come at a high cost.

Another byproduct of the course of our elections is lack of effective oversight over the executive by the legislature. Party domination, the imposition of party discipline, general lack of political will, and the incentive to act in the party’s interest rather than the national interest have together resulted in weakened capacity to hold the president and his administration to account. And in particular the ANC has used its large majorities in the legislature to shield the ANC controlled executive from scrutiny and corrective actions. It has taken legal action to compel action over the failings the president, and in this regard, an example was made of former President Jacob Zuma.

The picture at the provincial level has tended to mirror that of the national level, as already discussed. While local government is somewhat more competitive than the national and provincial governments, in that the contest between political parties is much keener, demonstrated by the recent prevalence of coalition governments in the metros, it is still a party affair.

The wrangling in metros such as the City of Johannesburg, the City of Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay, and the City of Ekurhuleni have resulted in councils defending into spectacles while services such as refuse collection, pothole repair and maintenance of infrastructure have languished.

In the first two decades of democracy, we could celebrate the major strides made to transform the exclusion and segregation under apartheid into inclusion of the black majority, in the third decade we have been unable to consolidate the earlier gains and we have in fact been witnessing an erosion of gains.

While millions of people were added to the electricity grid, the government now struggles to guarantee the consistency of supply of power through state-owned Eskom. There have been similar challenges in the supply of water and sanitation. Our education and of healthcare systems have produced unequal outcomes. Combined the ongoing unemployment crisis, unfortunately stratification along class and racial lines persist despite the strides we have made as a society. With rising food and fuel prices and rising cost of municipal and other services, many are facing a cost-of-living crisis and millions are feeling disheartened.

As we commemorate 29 years of democracy, we need to grapple with how to harness discontent and disaffection towards putting our society back on the path of consolidating hard fought gains.

Nompumelelo Sibalukhulu is the founder and CEO of research and stakeholder management consulting firm, Critical ThinkAR.

By Editor