As South Africa celebrates 28 years of democracy, Wits School of Governance Professor Susan Booysen says the “magic” of the early days of democracy has faded.
She said the crucial components of the country’s democracy including Parliament, the judiciary, the Constitution and the value of the voice of the people, have become discredited or delegitimated.
“The post-liberation struggle elite is out of touch, except in politically correct narratives, pursuing the dream of the middle classes. This unfolds while the underclasses of South Africa’s democracy get the hand downs of overused dreams of development plans and turnround strategies, and today’s versions closely resembles those that had been held out as the great hope of 10 and 20 years ago,” Booysen said.
The professor said the policy and political speech archives were burst with the evidence of this.
What went wrong
How the country got its democracy played a role in where it found itself today, the she said. “The original settlement of the early 1990s was not supposed to be the mark of arrival at the final destination.
“In those early days of the 1990s, there were widespread expectations that more radical transformation would follow.
“One of the big questions of our time is why the ANC at the time, when it had the constitutionally required majorities to effect far-reaching change, did not dare to bring that change. For example, the redistribution of resources, including land, that could have rendered South Africa a very different place from what it is today.”
Major issues facing the country
In her paper Twenty years of South African democracy – Citizen views of human rights, governance and the political system ), Booysen identified some issues the country was facing, most of which are still pertinent today.
“Inescapable fundamental issues include the quality of representation, the texture of representative democracy [which links to socioeconomic rights and the deficit that define South Africa’s democracy].
“In post-1994 South Africa, and it continues unabatedly, democracy became equated with the ANC maintaining its electoral majority. Engagement with the citizens and the representation of their needs, had to pass through the filter of how it would impact the next ANC electoral majority,” Booysen said.
She said the socioeconomic foundations of democracy became diluted.
“There were serious impacts on the viability of contemporary multi-party politics. When the ANC started faltering [as it did in the last 15 years, as a minimum ... well over half of the time of South African democracy] this process eroded multi-partyism, electoral politics, and the political system overall,” she said.
Booysen said South Africans (and their government) learnt to use protest “or they relearnt [from the pre-democracy days of popular resistance] how to operate beyond the boundaries of formal system politics to get at least some redistributive needs satisfied”.
“This happened while the democratically elected government increasingly used parallel structures and processes to get governance or semblances of it. Equally, this government became deceitful in egregiously nurturing and tolerating, for the sake of preserving liberation movement power, the political plagues of our time [corruption, state capture, and the art of explaining the scourges away in narratives that normalise: proclamations of ‘not aware of’ and ‘don’t have any knowledge of’],” Booysen said.
Something the country got right?
Although a lot had gone wrong in the 28 years since the dawn of democracy, the country got some things right – such as the principles, processes and values of the new order.
“The public policies are frequently pristine, articulating all that any sound political and sociopolitical order should be aspiring to. We can note here the values of constitutionalism, the endorsement of second- and third-generation human rights, of representative and accountable government, of sound multi-party elections to help bring accountability and government honour,” Booysen said.
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Asked if the country could still get onto the right path, Booysen said: “The right path is a route hard to fathom from the morass of adverse symptoms that still need to be fully dissected and honestly acknowledged. Party politics and the quest for political power and economic privilege are so ingrained and are at the heart of problems.
“Yet they are inescapably part of our national being ... If only there can be a national, and not party political, consensus to abort party political interest [let alone interests of ANC factions] and come together in a project of national interest, driven by operationalised policies and especially action to address the worst of South Africa’s issues of poverty and inequality and joblessness.
“This is a far-reaching suggestion, but alternatives are probably even more elusive,” Booysen said.