/ 26 April 2024

30 years: Democracy isn’t a once-off achievement

Election Postering 2541 Dv
There is a significant gap between the institutionalisation of democracy and how it is experienced. Photo by Delwyn Verasamy

Democracy is an ongoing experiment. The will to defend it is largely influenced by how it is experienced and valued by citizens. Given this, it is critical to identify both how democracy works in different contexts in Africa, and the type of group attitudes towards it that are emerging.

Freedom Day on 27 April marks 30 years of democracy in South Africa, but there is a significant gap between the institutionalisation of democracy and how it is experienced. 

Democracy originates from the Greek word demo (the people) and kratia (to rule). This translation got me thinking about what democracy means in any South African language — I’m yet to come across a direct translation. Because of the language barrier, we often explain democracy through what it is expected to do. 

In her documentary, Inkululeko, sociologist Hlengiwe Ndlovu explores the meaning of freedom and democracy in South Africa. When she asked residents in Duncan village in the Eastern Cape what democracy means in isiXhosa, residents said democracy means inkululeko — which means freedom.

This highlights how language barriers may contribute to reducing democracy to “all or nothing”, without capturing how it is a process as well. South Africa is one of the few African countries that associate democracy with its ability to provide material well-being. When democracy falls short in delivering the anticipated material outcomes, does this suggest a failure of democracy itself?

Statistically, South Africans are increasingly disenchanted with democracy. According to the Afrobarometer round 9 survey, conducted in late 2022, 43% of South Africans support democracy — this is a two percentage point increase from the round 8 survey, which was completed in 2021. But this is also an 11 percentage point decrease from the round 7 survey conducted in 2018, and a significant decline from a peak of more than 70% in 2011. 

The data also indicates that only 25.5% of South Africans are either fairly satisfied or very satisfied with the way democracy is working in the country. As the graphic indicates, this is a 16.7 percentage point decrease from 2018 (42.2%). Similarly, the South African Social Attitudes Survey by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) indicates that, on average, there has been a long-term decrease in the level of satisfaction with how democracy is working in the country. 

It is striking that according to the HSRC, satisfaction with how democracy works in the country has decreased from 62% in 2004 to 26% in 2022. 

In addition, there is a simultaneous decline in voter turnout, partisanship and the willingness to forgo elections with an increase in protest action. 

According to the Afrobarometer round 9 survey, 72% of South Africans are willing to forgo elections in favour of an unelected but efficient government that delivers security, housing and jobs. These findings underscore a notable erosion of confidence in the state of the country’s political environment. 

Amid these declines, South Africans are not apathetic. South Africa has occasionally been referred to as the “protest capital”. Protest action is an indication that citizens are actively involved in and concerned about issues affecting them and the nation as a whole. Rather than exhibiting apathy, these protests reflect a deep-seated desire for change and determination to hold authorities accountable.

Dissatisfaction and general frustration further suggest that citizens are not falling prey to what I refer to as the “At-least syndrome”. The term encapsulates the phenomenon of settling for less than what is deserved or necessary, often by accepting gestures or minimal efforts in place of genuine solutions or improvements. The concept sheds light on the dangers of complacency and the importance of advocating for genuine progress and fairness.

South Africa’s socio economic problems are in part an overt reminder of how brutal and vicious apartheid was. Its effect and legacy are intergenerational; it would, therefore, be naïve to undermine and underestimate the significant milestones and achievements that South Africa has achieved over the past 30 years. 

At the same time, South Africans deserve and expect more. Notable strides need to be built upon as opposed to being reference points of what was. 

At its core, democracy is an ongoing process and experiment. In South Africa, a change in voter behaviour and political psyche has changed faster than political parties’ willingness and capacity to respond to this. 

Negative trends in democratic perceptions raise questions about the state of democracy in the country. But this issue must be approached with nuance. Declining support and satisfaction don’t necessarily mean that South Africans are giving up on democracy, but may indicate that they are dissatisfied with certain aspects of how they are governed.

These trends could reflect frustration with persistent problems such as corruption, inequality, unemployment and lack of tangible improvements in material well-being despite the democratic system in place. This calls for deeper reforms and greater accountability from political leaders and institutions.

Moreover, the active involvement of civil society, ongoing dialogue and efforts to address these concerns further demonstrate that South Africans are not giving up on democracy but are rather seeking accountability and improvement. 

This reinforces the notion that democracy is a dynamic process that requires continuous vigilance, participation and adaptation to meet the evolving needs and aspirations of citizens. 

It may be tempting to equate a decrease in support for and satisfaction with democracy with a disregard for the sacrifices made during the struggle for democracy, but this is a short-sighted analysis.

For many South Africans, the gap between the promises of democracy and the reality of daily life is widening, leading to a sense of disillusionment with and alienation from the democratic process. If these sentiments are not addressed from both a political and governance perspective, there’s a risk of increasing polarisation, growing nationalist sentiments and the potential for opportunistic actors to exploit this discontent for their own gain.

Addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction, such as lack of inclusive governance and corruption, while bolstering creativity and national unity, is essential for restoring faith in democracy and ensuring it remains responsive to the needs and aspirations of all South Africans. 

This requires genuine efforts from political parties, civil society and citizens alike to uphold democratic principles, promote accountability and work towards inclusive and equitable governance. 

It is evident that while the democratic system has shown resilience. It faces mounting challenges that test both the commitment to democracy and the stability of democratic institutions. Despite the progress made since the end of apartheid, the persistent problems continue to undermine the trust and confidence of citizens in the democratic process. 

Moreover, there is a growing segment of the population that demands better governance and accountability from political leaders and institutions. These voices represent a call for greater transparency, inclusivity and responsiveness in addressing people’s needs and aspirations. 

In this context, the future of democracy in South Africa hinges on the ability of political leaders, institutions, and citizens to confront these challenges collectively. 

It requires a renewed commitment to democratic principles, active citizen involvement and meaningful efforts to address the underlying issues that threaten the stability and integrity of the country’s democratic system. 

Mmabatho Mongae is a data analyst in the Governance Insights & Analytics Programme at Good Governance Africa.