South Africa is not a vibrant democracy

2016-11-11 10:08

Contrary to popular belief, South Africa is not a vibrant democracy. A vibrant democracy is one wherein all the pillars of its existence are functioning optimally. The theatrical politico-legal tango that has been on display in the past three weeks does not embody a functioning and vibrant democracy. South Africa is a constitutional democracy, like many other states across the world. The state is anchored on three arms – the executive (government), the judiciary and the legislature (Parliament, provincial legislatures and councils). These arms are complemented by the media, civil society and business. A basic examination of a vibrant democracy must present a prognosis on the health status of the three principal arms of the state. At the heart of this prognosis is an ability to demonstrate to what extent these arms are functioning independently and within their scope of design.

In a vibrant democracy, the instruments and technologies of governance are intended and targeted towards achieving equality, promoting the welfare of the people and building a thriving society. In its totality, a vibrant democracy is one that personifies the adage that democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Democracy centers the will of the people and this will is engraved in our constitution, as a guiding document on how to conduct the affairs of the state. Any deviation from the prescripts of the constitution constitutes a violation of the social contract and that warrants immediate punishment. Therefore, in a vibrant democracy you do not wait for the next round of elections to punish and hold accountable those that violate the social contract because deviation from this contract is an assault on the will of the people. However, there is a pervasive centralisation of electoral politics as the only avenue available to punish those who are in positions of power who are violating the social contract. Taken to its logical conclusion this would mean people have license for five years to subvert our democratic tenets because we will await the next round of elections. This is not true.

Important to any democracy is the availability of space for people to have voice (through advocacy, writing, art, etc.) that is uncensored and unencumbered. People (especially the implicated violators of our social contract like the President) have pointed at the existence of voice through the free flow of speech that is critical of power as a demonstration that we have a vibrant democracy. However, voice, in a vibrant democracy, intrinsically coexists with political will (the ability of those in power to be responsive to the voices) and resources (continuously building financial, infrastructural and human capacity to attend to the needs of society). In South Africa today, political will has vacated out of the lexicon and performance of the current government, which is leading to poor or no responsiveness to the needs of society. This is slowly building impatience in society and some people (such as the Fees Must Fall movement) are beginning to find institutional responses of government as devoid of meaningfulness, urgency and adequate appreciation of the issues being raised. This creates space for people to see peaceful and non-confrontational protest meaningless thus creating more room for acts of civil disobedience to be a key instrument of protest. Suddenly, protests become about creating ungovernability more than about communicating with government.

I understand the desire for ungovernability to be premised on a loud echoing conclusion – the government has become illegitimate. Legitimacy to exercise authority in our country is derived from the people in positions of power being elected constitutionally in free and fair elections. This authority must be maintained by ethical conduct in government that is governed by the dictates of our constitution, laws and public morality. We now know that on a number of occasions our executive and legislature have been found on the wrong side of the rule of law and constitutionalism. This means already they have broken the social contract. Therefore, while the people in those institutions might have been elected legitimately, their (mis)use of power and authority has over time rendered them illegitimate. What then must happen? Many in the ruling party know exactly what must happen – regime change is necessary. However, the concept “regime change” has been used pejoratively and to make it seem as though there is a nefarious attempt to remove a democratically elected government unceremoniously from power. This is a half-baked understanding of the social contract as outlined above. How a party is elected into government is as important as how it conducts itself when in power. What we have not worked out is how we can then remove a government that violates the social contract when the party in power lacks moral probity.

Soon after the Polokwane conference, senior members of the ANC started questioning “who defines morality”, “what is morality” and “why must they subscribe to that set of morality?” This willful ignorance is strategic because it taps into what Emeritus Professor Zulu called “the contested registers of morality” in his book A nation in crisis. This, I observed writing a review of this book, means a situation “wherein there is no agreement on what is right or wrong and how the wrong should be rectified or maintained – thus leading to contested concepts of justice”. This is at the heart of South Africa’s problems. Those in the executive and legislature – from the governing party – are reliant on contested registers of morality to evade accountability for their wrongdoing. They are aided by citizens that dabble with this willful ignorance. For example, instead of dealing with the implications of the State of Capture report of the Public Protector many have chosen to start comparing the incomparable – which I will deal with in detail in future. People are suddenly questioning “why the Guptas and not the Ruperts?” “Why Zuma’s government and not Mbeki’s?” These questions are posed to showcase the contested concepts of justice by tapping into what Zulu calls “moral relativism”, exonerating a wrongdoer on the basis that there are people also committing similar acts.

The objective by those who are abusing the power vested in them is to create confusion in our society and present South Africa as a place where there is no consensus on what is right and wrong. Of course right and wrong is not always about legal and illegal actions. However, because we have a constitution it means that we have a baseline that governs our expectations of public morality especially from those who are given power to be in government. But most of the leaders of the ANC no longer care about society, they are self-preserving. This is why even the upcoming vote in the National Assembly on the motion of no confidence in the President may not result to the removal of the President. Recently, former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke described politics as “the art of the possible and expediency is a big function of it”. This is apt and instructive. Today, many seem to be having a Damascus moment, the likes of Jackson Mthembu, Derek Hanekom, Mathole Motshekga, Blade Nzimande, etc all who were ardent Jacob Zuma supporters at some point in recent history. Back then, did they support Zuma, out of political expediency, knowing that he is inadequate to lead and under normal circumstances he should not have been president? Is their change of tune born out of genuine concern or it is once more political expediency for self-preservation in preparation for the new political order to succeed Zuma?

The most painful part about the absence of a sense of morality in those who are in power is that the voice of citizens eventually becomes useless in its articulation of issues. Protest (more so peaceful protest) is predicated on the rational that those protesting are appealing to the moral consciousness of those in power. However, when morality has vacated in those who are in power it renders peaceful protest an ineffective form of advocacy. Therefore, South Africa is not a vibrant democracy because our country has experienced the worst form of capture any country can witness. South Africa is captured by the wrong set of politics emanating from the ANC. What made capture by the Guptas, Krejcir, Agliotti, Shaiks, Kebble etc possible was the mushrooming of a set of politics in the ANC that emphasized the need for self-preservation coupled with an incessantly growing greed in the ANC. The race for party leadership positions is competition to get a hand in the cookie jar (state coffers) for self-enrichment through the looting of public funds.

As a result of this corrupted and polluted public morality espoused by the ANC, South Africa is not a vibrant democracy. Two arms (the executive and legislature) of the state have been collapsed and subordinated to ANC politics. The judiciary is the last point of call, the only stopper we have left to avert a crisis that seeks to birth a strategic quasi-dictatorship. Dikgang Moseneke observed that “we are overstressing our judicial system” and “judges hope that our democracy will find solutions in other avenues”. Unfortunately, the other avenues are captured by a wrong set of politics that define the ANC of today, which has crippled political will to be responsive to the voice of people and finally it has reduced resources available for people’s needs.

A country that has only one functioning arm of the state cannot claim to be a vibrant democracy, it is a limping democracy and at the heart of this is a limping buffalo that is leading the ANC and the country. We must be honest about this reality if we are to regain stability of our democracy.

**This article first appeared on eNCA's opinion page.

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