Democracy - are we up to it?

2013-08-28 19:35

Apart from beneficiaries through patronage and favour, it is interesting to speculate on how peoples’ expectations back in 1994 actually reconcile with the performance of the nation as it stands today. It is, of course impossible to measure - through any measure other than our stilted, ethnocratic election process (from which at least trends are discernible) how we are doing.

That said, it is absurd to argue that democracy has deepened, poverty been addressed or education, health, or personal security improved. Because they have all deteriorated.

So - what sort of state do we have? The answer is: One where there are deep seated and structural issues.

Joblessness has burgeoned, the press comes under periodic threat, public utilities are inefficient and occasionally threaten collapse, roads are potholed in many parts of the country and the independence of the judiciary has been compromised. Public service salaries have soared in line with the number of state employees (bulking up union membership, of course) with little improvement in services to citizens.

The private sector has been marginalised to the point where investment in the country is little more than a trickle and new business start ups are rare, other than in the IT sector – which government ignores because it can figure out neither how it works nor how to exploit it for political gain.

Of course it can legitimately be argued that in the “new” South Africa more people have housing and enjoy access to potable water than in the apartheid era, but then the “old” South Africa was a palpably racist state that did not claim to be a democracy anyway. Comparisons are like weighing up apples against watermelons.

Importantly, the “new” South Africa has a precarious and rapidly diminishing tax base relative to the growing number of social benefit recipients. If this continues – as seems inevitable - the nation will have to choose between bankruptcy and ever greater economic hardship on account of a rudimentary mathematical condition – the need to balance one's books. Continued largesse for the poor and indigent will lead to the coffers running dry, whilst upping tax collections will curtail business activity even further and exacerbate joblessness further still.

Despite this, at parliamentary elections, the same old – or very similar – incompetents, ‘cadres’, and very often common criminals, are voted in to run the country. From the presidency down through the smallest municipalities, corruption is endemic and performance third-rate. The lines connecting the dots between performance, qualification (both experiential and academic), cognitive capacity, honesty and hard work have just never been joined.

To be fair, all democracies have scandals and shake-ups, failures, disasters, and upheavals because that is part of the messy process of letting everyone have a say. But a feature of real democracy is to penalise non-performance and failure. Dismissal is the deal if you do not produce the goods or are judged to be unethical, suspected of being a crook, immoral, or just amoral – i.e. devoid of morality.

In South Africa, these penalties seldom apply, or, if they do at best, tentatively. Our concern should be - Why?

I can think of three reasons.

Firstly, democracy is hard work and has evolved in the West after decades of trial and error, conflict resolution, political experimentation and growing cultural rapprochement. It is not – or should not be – about bringing home the bacon for those of an elite group or a segment of society. Democracy is an inherently cultural phenomenon that defers gratification, depersonalises the public agenda, evolves and focuses on key, non-negotiable values – many of which we lack.

South Africa’s so called democracy turned out to be something very different. It was pre-packaged for populist consumption and flew in the face of democratic principles from the very start.

Thus equality in the workplace made way for affirmative action, “BEE” and numerous legislated impediments to free enterprise in order to favour the politically loyal notwithstanding their pervasive incompetence and lack of suitability for the work at hand. Likewise, equality of opportunity was snookered by cadre deployment and patronage; and equality before the law has been eroded by routine political gerrymandering in legal and other processes – such as in the case of the Zuma “spy tapes”.

Secondly, democracy is intimately linked to the individual’s personal freedom and people being at liberty to choose from options. It is antithetical to group pressure or ideological coercion, and the will of a collective. But South African ruling values support a collectivist and group-sanctioned struggle doctrine in pursuit of rights that it formulates itself and promotes in pursuit of its own ends. The “National Democratic Revolution” (phase 2 of the "liberation strategy" according to some ANC heavyweights) is the logical extension of the grand plan for state subjugation and surveillance over the actions of all - especially ethnic minorities.

That it is alien to the concept of democracy is obvious. That it is congruent with the actions and deeds of the government of the day may be less so.

Third and finally, research has shown that sound democracy is promoted not only by a culture of individualism and the exercise of free choice, but also cognitive ability. Put less delicately, the more liberated and intelligent a nation’s population is, the greater the likelihood of good government and a successful economy. But South Africa’s intellectual capital - from having been patchy in the mid nineties (as noted in global research at the time) - has suffered from the quarantining and marginalisation of many of its best and most competent people, most notably, good teachers and business entrepreneurs - and declining education standards.

This has levied an enormous non-recoverable opportunity cost on the populace. Not only has the development of the nation’s intellect been stunted, but so too has its economic development – leading to sky high unemployment levels.

Following this logic, it becomes clear that under the current regime, the South African nation state is little more than a theocracy pursuing its own dogma ("The Struggle" - which uses other mantras and evocative terminology as well) and discounts the sovereignty of the individual.

My conclusion is that South Africa is a nominal, but by no stretch of the imagination a substantive, democracy.

But more disturbing still is the nation’s trajectory. Unable to grasp what is required to fix things, the powers that be make things worse. For example,

• our minister of Trade and Industry tinkers with new laws making it even more difficult for new businesses to start up and existing ones to function. His proposals to micro-regulate through licenses and mandatory registration simply makes it increasingly difficult for businesses to operate legally;

• non-viable schools in the Western Cape (which are managed by the province, which wants to close them and re-allocate the pupils) are forced to stay open for party political point scoring purposes; and

• the minister of labour continues to tighten her grip on business employers in an environment where close to 40% of the potential workforce is already sitting on its hands, unemployed.

Within the confines of their sworn ideology and shared value system they know that something needs doing. But their mindset does not allow them to get it right - only make it worse. That means that for now the status quo is about as good as it is going to get.

2014 might be a good time for people to try and change things.

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