Mcebisi Jonas | Standing up to defend our democracy is the only option

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Mcebisi Jonas. Photo: Heather Mason
Mcebisi Jonas. Photo: Heather Mason

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Programme director, esteemed leadership present, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and activists.

I would like to thank Defend Our Democracy for inviting me to speak today. This gathering is not just necessary but also urgent.

We indeed live in troubled times with rising costs accelerating the decline in living standards and growing indebtedness worldwide, and increased polarisation both within and between countries spurred by a new era of information chaos.

These conditions cause social and political strains that are being used by dark forces to weaken democracy and strengthen the hand of anti-democratic forces.

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The alarm bells are sounding and we need to up the tempo in defence of democracy globally and back home in South Africa.

I have been asked to speak about democratic renewal and the need for political reform. To do this, we need to first understand why we need renewal in the first place. Critical to this question is the concept of democratic backsliding.

Democratic backsliding is when the democratic characteristics of a political system weaken. Scholars like Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that such traditionally happened through major single events like military coups. Today, this happens through barely visible state-led weakening of democratic institutions and practices. So, it is actually those who win democratic power and control the state itself that weaken its institutions, making the state the biggest threat to democracy.

Participants from Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, OUTA,
Participants from Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, OUTA, SACP, Defend Our Democracy campaign and Right To Know protest outside the Zondo Commission. Photo: Fani Mahuntsi/Gallo Images

Ozan Varol notes that the new generation of authoritarians no longer repress opponents through violence and harassment, but rather (quote) “cloak repressive practices under the mask of law, giving them a mask of legitimacy and render anti-democratic practices much more difficult to detect and eliminate” (Iowa Law Review, 100(4), 2015).

Varol suggests we need to refocus our thinking and activism away from regime types towards regime practices, even in those societies with favourable democratic credentials like the US, or in our case South Africa. We need to monitor these democratic practices more closely, with a clear set of indicators around which we can hold our democratic system and political leadership accountable. This, I suggest, should be a first quick win for Defend Our Democracy and the broader united front we must put in place.

I would suggest that there are four main areas where democratic backsliding is likely to occur, where we need to raise our capacity to monitor and where we need to be converging on actions to strengthen democratic resilience.

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The first area is where there are utterances or moves by those in power to undermine democratic institutions. In our case, this includes attacks against the Constitution and the rule of law. Think of how often we hear about the judiciary or the Constitution as impediments to transformation. These sentiments are, unfortunately, not confined to populists only but has gained resonance in the leadership ranks of the governing party.

This should not mean we can never undertake judicial reform or change the Constitution. In fact, one of the key propositions I suggest on electoral reform would require a Constitutional amendment. What we must ensure is that all reforms are well considered and subject to what Amartya Sen calls democratic public reasoning. This, he argues, is government by discussion, and I would add rational and well considered discussion – which is the essence of his model of co-operative democracy. I would encourage us to adopt this as a guiding principle.

The second area of backsliding is where governing parties reject the legitimacy of opposition parties.

Criticising opposition parties is part of the everyday jockeying of real politic but can become more ominous when governing parties claim monopoly on defining the common good.

Roger Southall in his analysis of failed states in post-colonial Africa argues that this is often an affliction of former liberation movements that restrict democratic practices, such as free and fair elections and media freedom in the so-called national interest against Western imperialism. State security misinformation is often used to perpetuate this narrative and to discredit opposition parties or even factions or individuals within the governing party. (Sound familiar?)

The third area of democratic backsliding involves the use of state-sponsored violence against opposition or at least the tolerance of violence by supporters of governing elites. In this case, the state allows non-state players and militias to undermine democratic institutions and practices. Included in this would be attacks on immigrant communities, often driven by nationalist-populist narratives of protecting jobs and cultural values or addressing criminality. This practice is associated with stealth or undercover authoritarianism in which the state allows violent non-state forces to do its dirty work.

The role of our security establishment, or at least elements thereof, in the 2021 July unrest, the political assassinations within the governing party, the assassinations of whistleblowers and the rise of xenophobic violence are all indications that the levels of political violence in South Africa are on the rise. In most cases, this is with the complicity of elements within the security establishment. The criminal justice system is bent to favour personalities, agendas and political causes. This needs our urgent attention.

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The fourth area of democratic backsliding is the actual curtailment of democratic practices. These include the undermining of free and fair elections, the right to belong to political groupings of their choice, the political rights of ethnic, religious, gender-based or LGBTIQA+ groups, safeguards against official corruption, the freedom of expression, academia and the media, the freedom of assembly and protest, the rule of law, and a host of individual freedoms around movement, who you marry and equality of opportunity.

Most global measurements of democracy point to a generalised decline over the past decade – not necessarily ushering in authoritarian rule but reversing several key democratic features. For example, the Varieties of Democracy Institute points to a decline in the global share of democracies from 54% in 2009 to 49% in 2019.

Overall, South Africa enjoys a relatively high ranking across most democracy metrics. South Africa is categorised as a free country by Freedom House, having received a consistent 79/100 score over the past three years (up from 78 in 2018 and 2019). I think this is due to our strong constitutional framework and institutions built to advance freedom at conception due to our history of apartheid.

Having said that, there are several red-flags identified around safeguards against corruption, the protection of whistleblowers and prosecutorial independence. The unwarranted and unlawful use of excessive power by security forces has also been flagged as has rising gender-based violence, which impacts hugely on the right to movement of women. Equality of opportunity is also a growing concern with increasing inequality and reduced state capacity for social relief. Also worryingly, South Africa has fallen down the Reporters Without Borders state of press freedom index, from 32 to 35 of 180 countries measured.

Besides being able to measure and monitor the health of democracy, it is also important to understand the drivers of democratic backsliding. I argue that there are five core drivers of democratic backsliding, many of which are interlinked and interdependent. Each have their own implications for our democratic renewal project.

The first of these is corruption, something we are very accustomed to here in South Africa. I won’t go into much detail here given the extensive coverage of the Zondo Commission and the analysis in the Betrayal Reports. I have argued elsewhere that we need to understand State Capture Version 1 as both a formal network (in this case built around the Zupta axis) as well as an informal network in which corrupt proceeds have served as political reward for loyalty and patronage. Both types have been equally destructive and both types have been enabled by the deliberate weakening of the state. State Capture Version 1 saw very real and coordinated efforts to dismantle democratic institutions, especially those responsible for oversight and public accountability. Institutions are still under attack as part of the fight-back by those facing prosecution and those self-interested in continued looting.

Solutions we must champion include the reform and capacitation of the security cluster and the resourcing of the NPA. These are among many institutions in the state that need to re-establish credibility and public trust.

We also need to properly engage on Judge Zondo’s proposal for the establishment of an independent Anti-State Capture and Corruption Commission. The knee-jerk rejection of the proposal is short-sighted given the destructive impact of corruption. But such a commission cannot supersede other democratic institutions that still need to be rebuilt and carry out the functions for which they are established. The proposal that a judge chair this commission might circumvent it being used to persecute political opponents. Even so, there needs to be deep consideration of the scope of its work and its accountability mechanisms.

We also need to build on the great body of anti-corruption research that has been undertaken. South Africa is a global leader in this regard but needs to better integrate with international research networks tracking the geo-movements and patterns of global plutocrats and criminal networks.

I fear that the yet undetected corruption networks will continue to influence our politics and how the state operates like in so many other parts of the world. The local government sphere is particularly vulnerable to criminal networks.

The second major driver of democratic backsliding is populism, which in our context is closely associated with corrupt elements. Populism mobilises the poor and marginalised, but in our context, it is used to insulate or entrench corrupt elites and their fellow travellers.

Populist campaigns against elites (which may not be inherently problematic when they have genuine intentions) undermine the central tenet of democracy that those elected to power represent the broader public interest and mandate. Once this tenet is dismantled, anyone can become an “enemy of the people”, including members of the judiciary.

In pushing their anti-democratic agenda, populists exploit the trust crisis associated with disinformation, weak leadership and the absence of big new ideas among both left and neo-classical intellectuals. Added to that, the failure of government in key development indices such as security, growth, inclusion, healthcare, education and welfare undermines the legitimacy of pollical elites and feeds into populist sentiments. Populism rejects the idea of expert and accurate information-driven representations of reality, which feeds into the disinformation crisis perpetuated by social media.

Solutions lie in educating citizens and especially youth on the value of democracy and how to recognise disinformation or those who peddle it. We also need to better direct and deepen the conversation around inequality and transformation as part of this democratic renewal. Populist shenanigans need to be called out and exposed for what they are, especially when democratic institutions and practices become the target.

The third major driver of democratic backsliding is the global economic and climate crisis. This is characterised by extreme inequality, resulting from deindustrialisation and financialisation, with productive investment giving way to speculative currency and derivatives trading. Public debt has also reduced the capacity of the state to correct market distortions and provide social relief for those left behind. The war in Ukraine has added further fuel to the already precarious situation, ruling out any immediate recovery. Adding to this is the climate crisis and associated natural disasters, which are causing untold human misery, especially in the developing world. This is likely to intensify over the next decade.

The danger for democracy is its inherent association with capitalism (historically through the philosophy of liberalism). The current crisis of capitalism spells deep trouble for democracy. The solution lies in transforming into a greener, more inclusive and stakeholder-driven economic system that has cooperative democracy – to reference Sen – as its organising philosophy. Already, there is new global thinking around such an economy, where productivity gains achieved through technological innovation can be better shared with the middle and working classes, and the unemployed.

But questions of real politic remain, given that the wealthiest global elites are transnational in character with their wealth untouchable in tax havens. And who is driving these new big ideas? Furedi argues that both the left and liberals have very little to offer by way of new ideas, which has opened the way for populist gain. In our context, we need new thinking about how to tackle unemployment and inequality and how to replace rent-seeking with entrepreneurship and innovation.

The fourth major driver of democratic backsliding is our volatile geo-politics. How do we begin constructing a new multilateral agenda that has democratic renewal at its core? What kind of alliances do we envisage between civil society and multilateral institutions? What international alliances do we need to forge in a democratic renewal front?

The fifth determinant of democratic backsliding is our political crisis. We will not be able to reposition ourselves economically or even navigate the volatile geo-politics associated with the war in Ukraine unless we address our political shortcomings. These have been laid bare in the Zondo Commission reports and require democratic public reasoning to reset.

Zondo placed our politics at the centre of state capture, and by implication, at the centre of democratic backsliding. Zondo makes the point that parties, not voters, choose candidates – from the president to ministers, MPs, premiers and MECs. This is linked to the closed-party list proportional representative system for national and provincial elections. Zondo asks the question: how did we end up with Zuma? And why did we keep Zuma as president even when we knew he was corrupt? And what has been the cost to democracy, service delivery and state legitimacy?

The problem has been that the ANC has become incapable of choosing the most honest and competent leaders, with patronage, often possibly driven by corrupt interests and loyalty, being rewarded above competence and ethical orientation. This has meant that in many instances the worst leaders – the most incompetent and unethical – have risen to the top. Citizens and civil society have found themselves powerless to do anything. As a result, the National Assembly, tasked with public oversight and accountability, has failed to hold these incompetent and corrupt leaders to account. Citizens who find themselves powerless to change leadership then turn to destructive and violent service delivery protests to make their voices heard.

The root of the problem is that MPs are beholden to party bosses rather than constituents and must tow the party line or face consequences. The president is accountable first to the party that deploys him, then to the National Assembly and lastly, to the voters. This, Zondo argues, necessitates a fundamental rethink of our electoral system, towards a constituency-proportional electoral system, which will make the president and MPs more accountable to their constituents (and less to their parties). This is not without its risks, as pointed out by Constitutional lawyer Pierre de Vos, who warns against the Donald Trump phenomenon in which a populist could reach the highest office through cult of personality appeal. These are the checks and balances we need to consider as we subject the idea of electoral reform to democratic public reasoning.

Linked to the above is a need to look at public sector reforms, including how boards of SOEs are selected, and how to insulate public sector recruitment and personnel practices from inappropriate political interference. We must find mechanisms to firewall the bureaucracy from political manipulation.

In conclusion, South Africa’s crisis is deep. More and more people are disenchanted with mainstream politics and believe there is nothing and nobody to trust, let alone to vote for. Even more alarming is the belief by some that a Messiah will rise to save us from ourselves. It has become something of a national sport to throw out random names as if we are choosing a new coach for Bafana Bafana. This propensity, particularly within political parties, to build personality cults is self-defeating and absurd, and largely to blame for the perpetual leadership crisis in our country.

Our big challenge here today is to come up with a game plan that presents South Africans with hope and options for a reimagined future. We are all exhausted and distressed at the state of our country – the endless corruption scandals, power cuts, violence, municipal dysfunction, the rising cost of living, the poor getting poorer, millions of young people without jobs and being constantly disrespected by those elected to serve us.

Given the state of our crisis, we cannot just jump into a Nedlac [National Economic Development and Labour Council] -managed social compact, which is being presented as the magic bullet. Again, in line with Amartya Sen’s idea of cooperative democracy, we need society-wide conversations about our future and what a minimum programme should entail.

I would suggest that we need to prioritise as part of this minimum programme the reform of the political system itself. This, among other things, should manage the risk of malfunctions in the governing party that undermine our globally heralded system of Constitutional democracy. Here, we need to facilitate democratic conversations about electoral reforms, including the possibilities of shifting towards a constituency-based electoral system. I think the time has come for a national referendum on the electoral system to define the way forward. This obviously has to be preceded by a mass education and mobilisation campaign focusing on the importance of electoral reform to turn the political system on its head and liberate the country from the clutches of party barons.

We also need to prioritise public sector reforms, including establishing an independent public service commission, to insulate SOEs and the bureaucracy from narrow political and corrupt influence.

We need to urgently build a broad front across society – not for tinkering at the margins as we have grown accustomed to – but to drive a transformation and change the agenda more aggressively.

As part of this rethinking exercise, we must accept that until there is meaningful political competition at the ballot box, premised on clear political and reform ideas, people will continue to lose faith in democracy. Part of our responsibility is to encourage the millions who have opted out of electoral and other democratic processes to take seriously the idea of new alternatives to the current political actors. This will advance the people’s voice and power in a strengthened democratic system.

As difficult and exasperating as this period is, this is not the time to throw our hands in the air. Standing up to save our country is no longer an option.

The new political moment has come.

* Jonas is South Africa’s former deputy finance minister. This is the full speech he delivered at the Conference for Democratic Renewal and Change organised by the Defend Our Democracy campaign in June.


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