/ 16 September 2022

The state of democracy in South Africa is cause for concern

The IEC has been anxious for the Bill to be passed to give it time to process regulations stemming from it and prepare for the elections
The IEC has been anxious for the Bill to be passed to give it time to process regulations stemming from it and prepare for the elections

Fifteen years ago, the United Nations General Assembly declared 15 September as the International Day of Democracy. The date aims to encourage governments and civil societies to actively promote and protect the principles of democracy. 

It also acts as a regular reminder for governments and civil society to assess the state of democracy in their own countries to identify early warning signs of any erosion or infringement of democratic rights and, if need be, to take adequate corrective measures.

Assessing the state of democracy in South Africa is not as easy a task as it may seem, because there may be a significant divergence between the formal requirements for democracy and the actual quality of democracy as it is experienced by the people. The formal requirements include regular free and fair elections, public consultation, the assurance of basic human rights and liberties, and the separation of powers.

The good news is that South Africa ticks all the boxes when it comes to the formal requirements for democracy. It is regularly rated as a free democracy by reputable organisations such as Freedom House, Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Economist Intelligence Unit. This is certainly something to be proud of and celebrate.

But democracy can also be defined by its quality — by the degree to which it actually serves the will of the people. South Africans have expressed their will in six free and fair elections since 1994. But, after 28 years, it is becoming increasingly clear to many voters that our democracy has failed to meet the expectations that have been generated in election after election. 

Voter turnout has dropped from 86.7% in 1994 to only 65.9% in the 2019 national elections. When taking into account the number of South Africans who were eligible to vote but did not register, the figure drops even lower and becomes more worrying.

According to Stellenbosch academic Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, by 2019 fewer than half of all eligible South Africans cast a vote. This means a growing number of eligible voters chose to abstain from the elections, either by not registering or by not going to the ballot box. 

Their choice not to participate in our democratic system, especially in a young democracy, should raise red flags for political leaders and all South Africans who cherish democracy. Clearly, the legitimacy of our democratic system is at risk when half of the eligible voters opt not to vote for it.

Growing apathy, a loss of trust in politicians and institutions, as well as increasing frustration with poor living conditions, exacerbated by a high unemployment rate of 33.9% (Q2, 2022) and a record high inflation rate of 7.8% (August 2022) might all be contributing factors for citizens to opt out of formal democratic processes. 

Deep-rooted corruption at the highest political level, tenderpreneurship, cadre deployment and other ills have eroded the trust of citizens and keep on sabotaging political, economic and social progress.

The latest Afrobarometer survey results for South Africa, released in November 2021 and published by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, mirror this observation and show that South Africans’ trust in nearly all institutions and representatives is low, and that only a minority say that they trust the president (38%) and parliament (27%) “somewhat” or “a lot”. 

Even more reason to be concerned is the finding that only the minority (43%) express trust in our courts, and only about one in three people (36%) trust the Independent Electoral Commission, with trust levels particularly low among younger respondents.

The dissatisfaction and disillusion of many South Africans with what democracy has so far delivered becomes evident in another Afrobarometer survey result, which shows that 67% of respondents would be willing to give up elections if a non-elected government would provide security, housing and jobs. Disturbingly, nearly half (46%) of respondents said they would be “very willing” to do so, with higher levels of support among younger and more educated respondents.

But it would not do South Africans justice to interpret their “willingness” to trade in democracy for security, housing and jobs as a sign that they do not support or value democracy per se or the rights and liberties granted to them under the Constitution. The survey results should instead be seen as a stark reminder of the desperate and vulnerable living conditions in which most South Africans find themselves.

 Almost three decades after the first democratic elections, South Africa holds the negative record of being the most unequal country in the world, and the country with one of the highest unemployment and murder rates on the planet. It is therefore not surprising that people might ask themselves what democracy has done for them and how it has changed their lives for the better.

Add a lack of trust in institutions and political representatives to poverty and inequality, mix in populist and extremist views, and you have the perfect storm — a breeding ground for incendiary populist, undemocratic and unconstitutional disruptions. Violent service delivery protests, orchestrated looting of shopping malls, arson attacks on government buildings and infrastructure, intimidation and assassination of political opponents are just a few examples to mention in this context. 

Political leaders and all those who cherish our constitutional democracy need to introspect on how we can make the vision in our Constitution a lived reality for all South Africans.

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