One year ago, on Friday May 8, something happened that would be unthinkable today. More than 17-million South Africans lined up around the country, without any concern for physical distancing, to cast their vote in the elections.
Those elections seem like a lifetime ago. So much has changed since then and it seems increasingly difficult to imagine how so many people might participate on such a large scale in politics again.
Covid-19 has fundamentally altered our politics. Parliamentary deliberation has largely been replaced by regular addresses from the executive and civic organising is either severely curtailed or limited to online platforms.
How will Covid-19 — and the varying levels of the national lockdown — affect political participation?
Public opinion data from the 2019 South African Reconciliation Barometer, a nationally representative survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, shows that citizens’ perceptions on the state of democracy were overwhelmingly negative — long before the national lockdown.
In light of this, the extent to which South Africa’s democracy will manage to absorb the rupture of the Covid-19 pandemic could become decisive for its future
Democracy, like its contemporaries “development” and “good governance”, has become a slippery concept; it seems intrinsically desirable, yet it means something different to everyone.
A few decades ago, a country could qualify as democratic by simply holding regular elections. Several studies now suggest that almost all countries hold regular elections, but many voters’ choices are tainted by ballot-box stuffing, intimidation, and bribery.
Perhaps the simplest definition of democracy is the best: people power. As Steven Friedman suggests in his book, Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Justice, that democracy is “a system of popular sovereignty in which the political community governs itself through the exercise of the equal decision-making rights and powers of each of its members”.
Democracy is never a finished product, but rather a work in progress. No country is entirely democratic because in no country do all citizens participate as equals.
Nearly a full generation has passed since the democratic transition, so how healthy is South Africa’s democracy? A good indicator of a healthy democracy is one where most citizens participate politically as relative equals and elected representatives respond effectively to their concerns.
The threat of Covid-19 will make it difficult for South Africans to participate in politics, but recent history suggests there are other barriers to a healthier democracy.
Participation in crisis
If the future of South Africa’s democracy looks bleak now, it was not much more promising last year.
If only 17-million South Africans voted in the 2019 elections, more than nine million others were registered but did not vote, according to Independent Electoral Commission data.
In a careful analysis of election data in the edited collection Election 2019, Collette Schulz-Herzenberg points out that there were a further nine million South Africans of voting age who are not even registered to vote.
This means more than 18-million adults did not vote in last year’s elections. To put that into perspective, the number of adults that voted is smaller than the number that did not. Bear in mind, only 10-million South Africans voted for the ANC.
The precipitous decline in voter turnout since 1994 should have sent alarm bells ringing. Elections are not the be all and end all of democracy, but they are, despite their flaws, the most effective way for a large share of citizens to participate as equals in the political process. Electoral turnout is a bellwether for the extent to which citizens have confidence in the system to effect change.
Why are citizens increasingly not voting? Public opinion data from the South African Reconciliation Barometer suggests that most citizens do not believe that political leaders are responsive to their needs and that voting is ineffective.
The survey reveals that nearly 80% of respondents agree that those elected to Parliament soon lose touch with the people, while nearly two-thirds believe voting is meaningless because no politician can be trusted. Respondents with little to no formal education were least likely to believe in the efficacy of their political participation.
Voting is not the only way for people to participate politically. South Africa has a healthy culture of protest and collective bargaining. But the overwhelmingly negative public attitudes towards voting are borne out of citizens’ distrust and frustration with their representatives.
If Covid-19 has presented an opportunity to reconfigure so many other aspects of society, from ways of working to ways of interaction, it could do the same for our democracy.
Around the world, unscrupulous leaders have used the threat of Covid-19 as a guise to trample democratic principles. South Africa has been spared such excessive displays of despotism.
Although confident leadership is commendable in a crisis, South Africans cannot afford to vacate their responsibilities to participate in their democracy simply because the president appears efficient. Democratic leaders owe their positions to the continued trust of their fellow citizens.
The celebrated lockdown strategy has had shortcomings and revealed the divisions between the state and society. Government was slow to introduce greater social relief measures, welfare support to vulnerable groups has been insufficient, security services have killed several civilians through excessive force, and ministers’ statements have been contradictory or downright delinquent.
Almost all of these issues could have been avoided if the state was more responsive to its citizens’ concerns and if South Africans believed that their representatives were listening.
The value of the child support grant was insufficient long before the lockdown, as most recipients would attest to, and police have always implemented a skop, skiet en donder approach in particular areas.
Despite the limitations imposed by the lockdown, active citizens have successfully used their democratic freedoms. Civil society campaigning, mostly limited to advice and online petitioning, mobilised popular pressure on the state for social assistance reforms. Networks have sprung up to provide food and other goods to under-resourced areas.
But most South Africans, without the means to sign petitions in English or to ensure their opinion is heard by elected representatives, remain excluded. Inequality manifests not only in disparities in income and wealth, but also in the capacity to be included in their democracy.
Now is a good time to reconsider how and for who our democracy should work. Democracy is not only a fair and inclusive political system; it can also be especially effective when it represents popular opinion.
If South Africans were disengaging from voting because they distrusted politicians, it is the responsibility of a democratic government to rebuild this trust and facilitate greater public participation.
As Friedman reminds us in his book, Power in Action, “Democracy is about the right of people to govern themselves and to take the action necessary to do this, not simply about the right to choose which people will decide what is good for them.”
Government must act decisively to mitigate the deleterious effects of Covid-19 and the national lockdown, but it must also ensure that more citizens participate and that their concerns are appropriately addressed. Democracy survives when the state responds to the plight of its people.
It may be a long time before voting lines are formed again, but during the national lockdown we must not forget what those queues represent: the right of all South African adults to be heard and to participate as political equals.
Mikhail Moosa is the project leader for the South African Reconciliation Barometer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation