Shaking up South Africa

2011-02-22 00:00

THE recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have surprised most of us and shaken us all up to some degree. Effective peaceful revolutions are always both disturbing and inspiring — disturbing because any change is a challenge and takes us into unknown territory, and inspiring because it is good to be reminded that the human spirit is resilient and sooner or later refuses to be cowed by oppressive power. Revolutions make a particularly vivid impact when they can be viewed on our television screens, as these ones could: day by day, event by event, many of us were able to sit in on the gradual switch in the Egyptian balance of power.

Tunisia, Egypt. And now strong revolutionary feelings and actions are occurring in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco. The authorities do not know what to do. In some places they are attempting to negotiate, in others (most notably Libya and Iran) they are behaving with great brutality.

Almost all Arab countries have been dictatorships or absolute monarchies and/or fake democracies — democracies where regular elections are held but where everyone knows that the results are rigged. One of the main points about democracy, about allowing every citizen to make a genuine political choice every four or five years, is to make revolutions unnecessary. Why would people wish suddenly to get rid of a government that most of them have voted into power fairly recently?

The solid democracies are indeed in no danger of being overthrown by revolutionary forces. But they do have their problems. Elected governments make unwise decisions (as in the case of the Iraq war) or they have decisions forced upon them by awkward circumstances (the sudden economic downturn, for example) and these have led to some large angry demonstrations in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. But the overthrow of the government, of the current political system, has never been the object of the exercise.

How far are the fierce ripples from Tunisia and Egypt likely to spread? A number of people have expressed the hope that the Egyptian mood of democratic defiance might take root within the citizens of Zimbabwe, but that seems unlikely. Unlike Mubarak, Mugabe seems somehow to have split the population of the country, with the result that many Zimbabweans would probably support the man who oppresses the majority and rewards his own chosen elite. (But how exactly is his position different from Mubarak’s? It isn’t easy to be sure. Maybe Zimbabwe just isn’t ready for the ripples of democracy. Or perhaps, as in Iran, the security forces are too powerful.)

We end up at home. What about South Africa? From an election point of view our democracy seems solid enough. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has conducted our elections in a fair and transparent way, and there is no reason to believe that things will be different with the forthcoming municipal elections.

But there are some unusual features of South African political life that overseas analysts often comment on. One of them is the tendency for many people to vote for an ANC government and then almost immediately afterwards to begin to demonstrate against it in one way or another. This odd phenomenon is to be accounted for partly by the complex dynamics of the tripartite alliance (Cosatu, for example, having exhorted its members to vote for the ANC, might then call for a strike) and partly by the fact that the majority of voters broadly trust the ANC, the liberation movement, and are doubtful about the opposition parties, but at the same time are often unhappy about the ANC’s actual performance, particularly at the local-government level. Thus they find themselves giving the thumbs up and the thumbs down simultaneously.

No doubt the unrest in Ermelo is partly to be seen in these terms. It seems likely that many ANC councillors will return to that area. But it is a situation that cannot continue. Sooner or later voters are going to have to decide whether they really want to vote for the ANC or not.

And all ANC councillors will have to recognise that if they don’t do their jobs diligently they will be rejected. They too need to be shaken up. The mystique of the liberation struggle will not last. In fact it is fading quite quickly.

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