/ 25 November 2022

The problem in South Africa is not democracy but a lack of democrats

Election Postering 2541 Dv
For a democratic culture to exist there must be leaders and citizens who behave democratically — and they need to be educated about democracy to do that. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

At the recent Inclusive Growth Forum, South Africa’s former interim president Kgalema Motlanthe warned that the country was in deep trouble: “The time for ideas and the time to exchange has never been more pressing for the survival of democracy … than it is now.” 

Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, also in attendance at the forum, expressed his concern about the attack on South Africa’s Constitution (for more on this, readers can follow here, here and here) and said: “The current trajectory of our country is unsustainable as we get nearer and nearer the precipice.”  

On the same weekend as the Inclusive Growth Forum, the South African National Editors’ Forum held its annual fundraiser dinner. Here, retired judge and former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke stated in his keynote address: “The high political and social ideals of those of us who were part of our glorious struggle [for democracy] have by and large come to nought.” 

That South Africa’s democracy is in trouble is no revelation. It has been in trouble for some time now. The signs have been, and continue to be, all around us. One consolation, if there is any to be had, is that South Africa isn’t the only country where democracy is under threat.   

Among the persistent and more contemporary ailments plaguing South Africa’s hard-won democratic freedoms are corruption (including state capture); unemployment and poverty; high levels of crime and violence (including political violence and unrest); xenophobia; broken municipalities and a declining middle class.

Despite, or because of, these ailments we see low voter turnout; distrust in institutions, elected representatives and democracy as a form of governance and a growing inclination towards radicalism and authoritarianism. All of this begs the question: Is South Africa a democratic country in word only and not in deed?

Why democracy matters

Democracy is a form of governance that Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill described as “the worst … except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time …” Churchill recognised that democracy, while imperfect, is the best one could hope for in a “world of sin and woe”. 

Although people, including scholars, vary in how they define democracy, features that remain fundamental to this form of governance are: 

  • Political competition (individuals and/or organisations have the freedom to compete for political office); 
  • Popular sovereignty (the authority to occupy political office and govern resides with the citizens of a country, all of whom have the right to participate in free and fair elections by which they choose their political leaders and after/between elections, continue to participate in collective decision making); 
  • Representivity (elected leaders represent citizens’ interests rather than pursuing their own or that of a select group); 
  • Accountability (political leaders, as servants, must be answerable to their fellow citizens and citizens must be responsible for holding their political leaders to account); 
  • Power sharing or “checks and balances” (reflected most explicitly in the separation of powers and division of labour between the branches of government);
  • Rule of law (“… a principle under which all persons, institutions and entities are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced [and] Independently adjudicated…”) and
  • Protection of human rights (among these, for example, are civil and political rights, and for some, also economic rights).   

Based on its key features, democracy matters and is supreme among other forms of governance because it recognises and embraces three realities: human value, human potential and human fallibility

Democracy allows or aims for: 

  • Inclusive and participatory governance so that beings of intrinsic value can contribute;
  • A secure, free and relatively predictable environment so the individual can pursue and fulfil his/her potential and 
  • A system that places limitations on power to avoid abuse (and not just government power, but also on the power that any one individual or group can exercise over or against any number of other individuals or groups).   

The problem in SA is not democracy but a lack of democrats

To have democratic institutions is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for democracy to prevail. For democracy to take effect, the agents of these institutions and the citizenry more broadly must live by and reinforce the democratic values that the institutions were created to uphold. 

Researcher in democracy and citizenship at the Human Sciences Research Council Dr Joleen Steyn Kotze writes, for example, that “democracies endure when there is an intrinsic commitment to democratic values and principles, even during economic hardship”.

South Africa’s former public protector Thuli Madonsela has said that “the majority of South Africans feel democracy is not working for them”. The fact that South Africa is approaching a precipice is not the fault of democracy, however. It is not true, for example, “that democracy may be killing us”. 

The problem in South Africa is not democracy but the lack thereof, and more specifically, the lack of a national democratic culture. Instead, and in the words of co-founder and chairman of the Rivonia Circle, Songezo Zibi, what we see in South Africa is a “degenerate political culture”. 

For a democratic culture to exist there must first be a critical mass of democrats — citizens across the political leader-follower divide who not only espouse democracy but also behave democratically. Importantly, citizens such as these are not born, they are made.  

Leadership is only half the story — the other half is followership

Leadership expert John Maxwell argues that “everything rises and falls on leadership” and, indeed, leadership has been significant in the rise and decline of democracy in South Africa. 

(Photo by LUCA SOLA / AFP)

Several books attest specifically to the failure of political leadership in South Africa that underlies the country’s ailing democracy. Included among these are After the Party; A Nation in Crisis; A Rumour of Spring; How Long Will South Africa Survive?; We Have Now Begun our Descent; Dreams, Betrayal and Hope; The President’s Keepers; Gangster State; The Rise or Fall of South Africa; The Unaccountables and Our Poisoned Land.  

Everything does rise and fall on leadership but, as per Marc and Samantha Hurwitz’s book Leadership is Half the Story, the other half is followership — simply, the act of following. 

Professor at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at Carnegie Mellon University, Robert Kelley, writes: “Organisations stand or fall partly on the basis of how well their leaders lead but partly also on the basis of how well their followers follow.” The same applies to nations. 

Director at Rivonia Circle, Tessa Dooms, captures the significance of followership when she writes: “What South Africa … 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.” Her colleague, Zibi, argues that “South Africa can only be turned around when ordinary people are willing to do extraordinary things in service of the republic we call home.”

Similarly, for Professor William Gumede of the Wits School of Governance: “The challenge [in South Africa] is how to empower individuals and communities to overcome hopelessness, paralysis, and apathy, and to pro-actively shape their own destinies.”

Referring to the organisational context, the Hurwitzs write: “The lack of awareness and understanding of followership skills results in many capable people losing their jobs or getting pushed aside.” Is this not also true of the national political-democratic context when citizens fail to take responsibility for who exercises power over them and fail to hold to account those in power?

Like leadership, followership is neither intrinsically good nor bad. Professor of finance at the University of Manitoba John McCallum defines followership as “the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind a programme, to be part of a team and to deliver on what is expected of you.” These traits may characterise competent followership but they don’t necessarily make for good followership. Good followership is not only competent but also virtuous.  

Author and management consultant Ira Chaleff advocates specifically for courageous followership. This is the kind of followership that involves at least five dimensions: the courage to assume responsibility, the courage to serve, the courage to challenge, the courage to participate in transformation and the courage to take moral action. 

Each of these dimensions applies to responsible citizenship. However, for a citizen to exercise courage in a manner that promotes democracy — to know why, when and how to exercise courage in the political arena and towards democratic ends — they must also be endowed with the necessary knowledge. 

Several scholars have argued, therefore, that among the attributes of a citizen in a democracy is knowledge and understanding of political concepts, issues, structures and systems. This is where civic education — teaching and learning about democracy, what it means to be a democratic citizen and how to navigate the political-democratic space — becomes paramount.  

Civic education in South Africa 

Following her experience as an election observer during South Africa’s local government elections of 2021, Tebogo Suping of the NGO ACTIVATE! Change Drivers, said: “Civic education is … no longer optional but now a requirement … to safeguard our democracy and for communities to thrive.” 

Having volunteered as a registration officer with the Independent Electoral Commission in 2018, and as an election observer during the national elections in the following year, I share this sentiment.  

However, the truth is that wherever democracy is taken seriously, civic education cannot be an optional nice-to-have — it’s essential. It remains essential even where democracy is advanced or consolidated. Any society that aspires to be, or remain, democratic but neglects civic education, does so at its own peril. 

Civic education was, therefore, a requirement in South Africa as far back as 1994. Mamphela Ramphele and Lindiwe Mazibuko are two public commentators and former political leaders who recognise the urgent need for civic education in South Africa.  

Professor in curriculum and instructional studies at Unisa Sonja Schoeman wrote in 2006, concerning civic education in the South African context, that “on the school, more than upon any other institution, will depend the quality and nature of the citizenship of the future”. 

However, findings from research focused on high school students in South Africa and  conducted by Professor Juliana Smith and Dr Agnetha Arendse of the University of the Western Cape and the parliament of South Africa, respectively, “suggest … there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of concepts relating to active citizenship which constrain effective preparation of learners for active citizenship in a new democracy”.

During a 2019 political summit in Durban, then chief executive of the Independent Electoral Commission Sy Mamabolo called for the “integration of civic education with the formal schooling curriculum”. Mamabolo’s statement implies that civic education has not been integrated into South Africa’s formal schooling curriculum. So far, my ongoing research across high schools (both public and private) in two municipalities in Eastern Cape corroborates this.

Earlier this year, during a two-day Democracy and Constitutionalism: Civic Education Series at Constitution Hill, in Johannesburg, the head of education at Section27, Faranaaz Veriava, said: “The grassroots activism and civic education programmes that characterised much of the struggle against apartheid, and the early days of our democracy and constitution-making … all but disappeared from the South African landscape.”

If civic education hasn’t yet been integrated into South Africa’s formal schooling curriculum, or has been formally integrated, but not to an appropriate degree, or isn’t being taught properly, or is not being taught at all and if the options for citizens’ exposure to civic education after formal schooling are limited, this partly explains the lack of a critical mass of democrats in South Africa and why democracy has been on the wane. Citizens can’t think and, by implication, behave in a manner that reinforces democracy, unless they have been equipped to do so.

One should take care, however, to see schools or communities and organisations beyond the schooling environment relying solely on the government for civic education. Writing in 2019, Dr Jeanette de Klerk-Luttig, of the Office for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University’s faculty of theology, described education as the government’s biggest failure of the past 25 years. 

More recent commentators, including South Africa country director of the Education Partnerships Group, John Molver, and leader of the recently launched political party Build One South Africa, Mmusi Maimane, have reinforced this sentiment. Furthermore, and unfortunately so, the proposition that the government would push for and oversee an impartial and empowering civic education programme is dubious at best. 

Local Government Municipal Elections in Gauteng – (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

Fortunately, several civil society organisations are working to pick up the slack and empower South Africans in a manner that will allow them to become better followers and more responsible citizens. Among these are My Vote Counts, my.voice, the Democracy Works Foundation, the Democracy Development Programme, Constitution Hill and the Africa School of Governance. FutureElect is also presently developing its civic education offering. But we need more. 

Nelson Mandela believed, “Education is the most powerful weapon with which to change the world.” Civic education is an indispensable weapon in the fight to defend South Africa’s democracy against further decline and with which to change the country’s political landscape by encouraging democratic revival.  

Craig Bailie is a South AfriCAN and the founding director of Bailie Leadership Consultancy – a company that aims to help people be better and more courageous leaders and followers. 

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