Editorial: Deepening era of coalitions will test the maturity of South Africa’s democracy

Establishing the levels of maturity in any democracy isn’t nearly as easy as just looking at the number of years a country has been practising it. This was quite evident in the 6 January insurrection in the US, during which supporters of the defeated former president, Donald Trump, attempted to overthrow a more than 200-year-old democracy. Was it merely a blip; an “immature” response to political contests — a storming of the Capitol not to be repeated for another 200 years?

Whatever the answer, what is certain, especially in this day and age, is that democracy is delicate. 

This week, South Africa held its sixth local government elections in what’s still a very young, 27-year democratic experiment. Question marks have been raised about the maturity of the project, given the low — very low — participation rates at these polls. As a general rule, turnout at these polls isn’t great, but with only 28% of the qualified electorate taking time out to go vote this past Monday, the Mail & Guardian has fittingly deemed them “The Great Stayaway”. 

The apathy is certainly a worry for such a young democracy. But it’s not a reflection of a society that is not politically engaged, judging by the number of service delivery protests that occur in the country on a daily basis. Perhaps what it reflects is growing disillusionment with the body politic as a whole. 

We’ve long spoken of a trust deficit that exists between the state, business and the general public. These polls clearly demonstrate that there’s a growing trust deficit between the leading political parties and, especially, the young people in the country — understandably so, given the record high unemployment rates in this segment of the population

Their stayaway is a statement in and of itself: one can’t dismiss it as the immaturity of our democracy. The low turnout and its detrimental effects on our leading parties is something we hope they will take to heart as they look to rebuild their relationship with the electorate.

But the level of maturity required to do so has certainly been lacking, given the bewildering responses from some of our leading political parties to their disappointing results. Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen hasn’t been alone in expressing his disquiet with the work of the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), but he has also blamed the media for criticising both himself and the party in the run-up to the elections. Herman Mashaba, the leader of ActionSA, has also been highly critical of the chapter nine institution. 

Democracy is delicate in nature, and such utterances about the IEC and the media at large add yet another layer of discord. As our country enters into a deepening era of coalition politics, we can only hope that our body politic is able to show maturity in the “horse-trading” that inevitably comes with it. The focus must be on improving the lives of everyday South Africans, and the plight of women and the youth in particular, to strengthen the foundations of what is still a capricious experiment with democracy. 

If it’s about point-scoring and focusing on the outcomes of party elective conferences and national polls in three years’ time, we can expect only stagnation. Making coalitions work is going to take maturity: this means our body politic has some growing up to do.

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