/ 16 September 2022

How to reverse the death of democracy

Elections (1)
What comes after: During the 1994 elections, Nelson Mandela reminded the electorate that voting was merely the first step in building a democracy. (Paul Botes/M&G)

The only thought more alarming than a realisation that democracy in South Africa is dying is the thought that democracy may be killing us, at least in its current form. It is hard to imagine that the democracy that so many people fought so hard to achieve for so long could in 28 years be reduced to a constitutional shell in which millions of South Africans have little hope. 

People are opting out of South Africa’s joint democratic project. Whether it is the plummeting voter registration and turnout numbers, the rising waves of protest and unrest or the increasingly militant civic movements, it is clear that democratic participation is in crisis.

In the lead-up to 1994, the end of apartheid signalled the opportunity to build a different society premised on democracy. On 27 April 1994, masses of people who had previously been denied the basic right to vote lined up to cast their vote. Shortly after casting his first vote, Nelson Mandela reminded citizens that the right to vote was merely the beginning rather than the sum total of the work that was needed to build a new democracy. 

Mandela noted: “As dawn ushered in this day, few of us could suppress the welling of emotion as we were reminded of the terrible past from which we come as a nation; the great possibilities that we now have; and the bright future that beckons us. Wherever South Africans are across the globe, our hearts beat as one, as we renew our common loyalty to our country and our commitment to its future. The birth of our South African nation has, like any other, passed through a long and often painful process. The ultimate goal of a better life has yet to be realised.”

South Africa today is surely not the one that Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Chris Hani or any person who fought or died in pursuit of a democratic South Africa would want. It may have been tolerable, even justifiable, that the fight for democracy could result in death, but it should be utterly intolerable that our democracy in 2022 could deliver the highest inequality in the world, be a top ten country for murder and rape, and see an increasing incidence of malnutrition. 

The form of death that has become of particular concern recently, less because of the noise around it and more because of how silently it kills, is suicide. The World Health Organisation in 2019 reported that South Africa records more than ten thousand suicides a year. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group notes that, on average, 23 people die by suicide every day in the country

While these figures indicate a mental health crisis, they are also indicative of a society that is not holding together and whose members experience overwhelming feelings of powerlessness. Every recorded suicide reads like a tragic metaphor for the state of our shared democratic project, where the promise of the power to make a better life has been overtaken by brokenness and despair at what the future holds.

Is it democracy that is killing us, or have we killed democracy to our own detriment? Amartya Sen argues that a well-functioning democracy doesn’t result in famine. He asserts that regardless of the form and structure a democracy takes, any form that truly enables people’s power and participation in determining and directing their society will bend away from rather than toward harmful outcomes. 

Perhaps in our excitement to attain the right to vote in South Africa, we did not fully consider what a true, full and fit-for-purpose democracy would be for our country and context. While the Constitution, for example, affords all the right to participate in democracy fully and equally, in reality for most people the act of voting is the only time they feel like their participation in governance is legitimate and welcomed. 

In the main, most people in South Africa remain marginalised from governance. Ironically, the singular act that most people use to exercise democratic power is the act of transferring their power to someone else. This is not a true democracy. 

True democracy does not use representation to limit people’s participation but sees representation as a tool for ongoing engagement. It is a system that affords people direct ways to remain engaged in policy formulation and implementation at individual and community levels. The act of electing political representatives is not one of relinquishing power but enlisting the services of someone who will enact power at your discretion. 

Public participation has become farcical in our tick-the-box democracy.(Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

In fact, referring to politicians and political office bearers as “leaders of society” is a misnomer. They should in fact see themselves as the ultimate functionaries that people can use to ensure that we always have access to shared resources and collective decisions in ways that are fair and just. Theirs is to take instructions not, give them. To listen more than they talk. To extend power to people, rather than hoard power among political elites. 

South Africa has developed a political culture, emboldened by our electoral system, that has in many ways continued the apartheid legacy of the rule of the majority by a minority. What has changed is that the minority is no longer strictly determined by race. Class, gender and the privileges of political office have become the new unspoken makings of a political elite that fashions itself as superior to people outside of or not approximate to party politics. 

What is most concerning about our political culture is how unconcerned political parties and elites have become about the view of the populace in general or even voters in particular. Politicians have come to believe that they are owed votes. Some casually chastise voters for withholding their votes rather than reflecting on why it is that voters do not trust them with their votes. 

Public participation has become farcical, with elected representatives from local councils all the way to parliament being content with tick-box engagements, by design, attended primarily with their own political supporters and dismissive of dissenting views outside of their party constituents. Because it is in the main party members who have the power to hold them accountable through political mechanisms between elections, the voices of citizens who are not party-politically aligned are easily silenced or ignored. 

New politics

A new political culture is needed to reverse the death of democracy and indeed the trail of death in our society that has resulted. New politics is about returning the power to determine our collective future to people regardless of their station in life. Perhaps because of the way our democracy was formed, people entrusted too much power to politicians without suspicion or question because the crisis in that time necessitated it. 

Today, South Africa faces a different crisis. One that requires all hands on deck. A crisis that has festered in a context of corruption, impunity, poor decisions and a dereliction of duty. A crisis that has happened under the watch of political elites that they cannot and should not be expected to reverse alone. 

More direct democracy is needed. A new politics that is founded on meaningful civic education, that enables community action and emboldens political action from all regardless of their interest in party politics is urgently needed. A politics that centres people as the drivers of solutions rather than the beneficiaries of the benevolence of politicians will not result unless communities of people are ready to organise themselves to understand what power current democratic institutions provide for and the courage to imagine, insist and on co-create social, economic and political systems that ensure that all people who have positive intent for South Africa, have the power to act in efforts that create a better society. 

If new ideas are needed, let us be willing to contest ideas and persuade each other. If new actions are needed, let us be willing to raise our hands to take action. What South Africa, however, cannot afford is any more years or even days of death and decay while we wait for politicians alone to deliver the dividends of true democracy. 

Tessa Dooms is a sociologist, development practitioner, activist and a director of the Rivonia Circle, a knowledge hub for policy and political alternatives.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.