Violent protests are a symptom of people being ignored by politicians

Why are South Africans are resorting to violence to express their dissatisfaction with government policies, and taking actions that appear to be so counterproductive? 

Residents of the Limpopo town of Vuwani, where the schools were recently vandalised, are quoted as saying that violence is the only way to ensure that politicians listen. This view is widespread and points to a major problem with the participatory aspects of South Africa’s democracy. 

This flaw is highlighted by a recent survey of the Gauteng adult population conducted by the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law at the University of Johannesburg, which reveals a growing sense of alienation and dissatisfaction with the functioning of representative and participatory democracy in South Africa.

Of the random representative sample of 608 adults, the survey revealed that only 40% of people believe Parliament represents them, with less than half agreeing that their politicians were responsive to their needs. Alarmingly, more than 60% of the sample perceived participation in, and access to, democratic institutions as a problem. For instance, 71% found contacting their MP difficult; 61% said the same about challenging a violation of their rights in court and 68% expressed difficulty in lodging a complaint at the Human Rights Commission. 

The survey also reveals limited participation in more demanding political activities, such as attending meetings with national or provincial representatives (22% to 24%) or taking part in strike activity (33%). 

Generally, black South Africans have the highest levels of political participation, followed by coloureds, and then by Indians. Whites participate the least. 

Notwithstanding the perception that participation in democratic institutions is difficult (only 20% or less said any form of participation was easy), the survey does suggest that South Africans value democratic processes. This can be gleaned from the high levels of voter participation in elections among Gauteng residents (82% in national elections and 78% in local elections); the fact that a majority regularly discusses politics with friends and family (57%) and that more than three-quarters follow the news daily (78%). 

Encouragingly, 80% of the sample said they would accept an election result even if the party they voted for lost and 82% agreed that South Africa needed strong opposition parties, all of which suggests a strong commitment to democratic values.

These findings reveal a need to enhance participation in South Africa’s democracy and to render its institutions more accessible to the people. For instance, there needs to be greater awareness of MPs’ constituency offices. 

When controversial decisions are taken, leaders must engage deeply and seriously with the views of the public. The courts and the chapter nine institutions must be more accessible, and information campaigns need to be undertaken to enhance public awareness of how to use them. More radical forms of participation — such as participatory budgeting, as done in parts of Brazil — should be considered. 

Some groups in civil society are attempting to take participation into their own hands. A good example is the campaign Bua Mzansi, led by Corruption Watch, to increase public participation in the decision to appoint the next Public Protector. The Public Protector Act allows for such an appointment without participation from the broader public. The campaign seeks to bolster public involvement in the nomination and vetting of potential candidates to ensure that the public has a say in who succeeds Thuli Madonsela, who has played a pivotal role in exposing government mismanagement. 

One of the key indicators of the success of a constitutional order (identified in a report prepared by the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law in collaboration with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) is whether a constitution is able to channel social conflict and disagreement into formal political institutions. The violence that erupts in the course of protest actions suggests that conflict-mediating institutions are not performing their stabilising role. 

In the end, having elections every five years is not enough: more responsive leadership and an active commitment to strengthening the participatory aspects of our democratic system are needed.

David Bilchitz is director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law and Raisa Cachalia is a researcher there. The full survey will be presented at a conference on May 26 and 27.

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David Bilchitz
Professor, Fundamental Rights, University of Johannesburg; Director, SAIFAC; Secretary General, International Association of Constitutional Law David Bilchitz has over 421 followers on Twitter.

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