This year is a year of decision

2009-01-27 00:00

How well is South African democracy doing on the eve of a watershed election? While there is some prospect of change for the better for all South Africans, the drift of events could go the other way, as our young democracy buckles under the strain of sharpening tensions inside and outside the ruling African National Congress alliance. And the Jacob Zuma saga overshadows the national scene.

At the root of these discontents, the arms deal continues to pollute the political atmosphere and the economy goes into recession as South Africa’s socioeconomic crisis intensifies.

On the positive side, it may be noted that elections since 1994 have been a well-managed and credible reflection of the will of the electorate, for which the Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki governments and the Electoral Commission deserve credit. But there are disturbing forces threatening the fragile social contract which holds the country together. Above all, will Zuma stand trial? If not, what becomes of the government under the law, equality before the law and respect for the Constitution?

How it will all turn out nobody can say. The only way ahead, which would not have negative consequences it seems to me, would be for Zuma to withdraw, leaving the field clear for Kgalema Motlanthe or Trevor Manuel — should we be so lucky — to steer the country away from the abyss.

On top of the Zuma saga, there are other disturbing trends, including the ANC’s conflation of party and state, as in the policy of “deploying” loyal cadres into key posts in the public service, police, education, health, broadcasting, parastatals and just about everywhere else where they can do so.

It has been said that this policy of “deployment” was necessary at the start to mark a decisive shift away from apartheid. But the process has gone too far.

It is true that the Nationalist government from D. F. Malan onwards appointed party loyalists to the key offices of state — but the Broederbond and the old National Party tyranny are hardly appropriate role models for a liberation movement which can claim that it brought democracy to South Africa.

Public servants should not be active in party politics. They should certainly not attend party congresses. They need to provide continuity and stability in governance and administration whatever party is in power. The system of appointing directors-general from the ranks of party loyalists on four-year contracts is subversive of good government, particularly where the appointees are not up to the job and service delivery suffers.

There is no sign that the post-Polokwane ANC will abandon “deployment”. The result is to promote the arrogant assumption that what is good for the ANC is good for the country and all its peoples.

Will the opposition parties make significant headway at the polls? The hold which the ANC has on the affections of the masses should not be under-estimated. The turnout at East London to launch the election campaign recently was impressive, rivalling the United Democratic Front rallies of the eighties. And the election manifesto which the ANC unveiled has been very well received. The test will come in five years’ time when the ANC will face the electorate again and the voters will consider whether the promises of 2009 have been kept.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties are confident that they are making inroads into the ANC majority and will be wresting the Western Cape at least from ANC control. The Democratic Alliance and the Congress of the People will no doubt square up against each other in vigorous fashion in the election campaign, but they would do well to rationalise their efforts and they should certainly consider an opposition coalition once the election is over.

Hopes for peace and prosperity in a democratic South Africa lie in the emergence of significant opposition to the ANC. In a one-party dominant state democracy is perpetually under threat and values and standards are eroded. Democracy implies a readiness to accept that the government can and will change at election times. It also implies respect for the Constitution, the judiciary and the government under the law.

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