On the Quality of South Africa's Democracy

By Leonard Gentle · 17 Jun 2011

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Picture: World Economic Forum
Picture: World Economic Forum

Now that the dust has settled on the 2011 local government elections and the frenzied one-upmanship of the leading political parties has momentarily calmed down, its time to take a long hard look at the results of the South African people’s most recent exercise in democracy. 

Much has been made of the gains that the Democratic Alliance (DA) made on the African National Congress (ANC), but the ANC still won the election and continues to govern all the major cities except for Cape Town. 

The latest salvo in the debate on local government elections is President Jacob Zuma’s announcement, during his budget vote in the National Assembly on 14 June 2011, that government is exploring the idea of a single election for national, provincial and local government. This idea has of course raised the displeasure of opposition parties who hold more sway at the local level and perceive the recent shift in voting patterns as evidence of a vote of no confidence in the ANC.

In the media and amongst election commentators the focus has mostly been on the fact that the DA won many votes amongst the black middle classes. These commentators argue that the success of the DA is a good thing because having a strong opposition is good for democracy. They also say that people are beginning to vote outside of racial and tribal affiliations (Of course it’s not clear why black people voting for a white party is “good for democracy” and evidence of voting on “non-tribal lines,” while white people voting for a black party isn’t).

Somewhere in all of this is the great liberal hope for a historical trajectory – one often articulated by Helen Zille – that in time the ANC will split into its liberal and nationalist-communist wings and that the ANC liberals will make common cause with the DA and we will have a kind of triumph of the liberal project. 

The DA has long trumpeted South Africa’s Constitution and the current order, the separation of executive from the judiciary, the rule of law and so on, as liberal triumphs at the negotiations which took place from 1989 to 1994. In this view, South Africa has been a bit of an anomaly: a liberal dispensation presided over by a nationalist-communist alliance. So the DA’s performance in 2011 is the first rung in the ladder of this anticipated trajectory and thus cause for celebration.

From the side of the ANC, interestingly enough, despite the decline in votes, the elections are also cause for celebration.             

The ANC achieved more than 63% of the votes, only slightly down on the 66% it achieved at the last local government elections in 2006. The ANC claimed that the significance of the victory was that it was achieved despite the media being pro-DA or the fact that “minorities” didn’t vote for it.

These celebratory exercises, by both the current governing party and the aspirant one, show that there is a great deal of convergence between the ANC and the DA.  

Of course they compete, sometimes stridently and passionately, the way Manchester United and Barcelona do, but the rules are laid out and respected and the outcome is accepted without question by both sides. 

The ANC’s role in achieving this state of existence cannot be underestimated and it has every right to be upset that its credentials to preside over this order - rather than the DA for instance - is so under-recognised by the media and the predominantly white middle classes.

Indeed, how much the ANC has transformed itself in the service of solving the great South African conundrum is remarkably unappreciated.

How is it possible to deliver (largely) white entitlement, wealth and security in a sea of (mostly) black poverty, and still emerge with political credibility and stability? 

What commentators in 1994 used to call the South African “miracle” – the peaceful settlement to a seemingly intractable problem – lives on today in the form of apartheid ghettos, 40% unemployment and the extreme wealth and success of corporate South Africa. 

In response to this potential powder keg, the ANC has successfully managed to keep the institutions of the current order intact and functional.

How could it do so?

Precisely because it still carries the legitimacy of having been a liberation movement. 

As such, the ANC is the “broad church” from Nelson Mandela to Tokyo Sexwale and Pravin Gordhan to Julius Malema. The ANC’s qualification to manage the new South Africa is precisely that it can take along with it, COSATU, the SACP and the angry, frustrated black middle classes. It can provide a home for these elements, rely on the ongoing votes of the working class and poor (a constituency that it has long abandoned) and yet deliver a balanced budget, a strong Rand, and membership of the BRICS. 

The ANC has never canvassed elections on the basis of reminding whites of their own complicity in apartheid’s savagery. In both provinces where they had to contend with the possibilities of regional challenges, the Western Cape and Kwazulu Natal, they did not expose the role of Buthelezi’s IFP in killing thousands of activists or the Nationalist Party in forced removals. Instead, they placed reconciliation above settling scores.

The ANC has tried so desperately to be the “great South African party,” the natural party of governance, technically competent and showing statesmanlike qualities. The latter includes the CODESA negotiations, the sunset clauses, the concessions to white capital, the merging with the Nats, including “Die Stem” in the national anthem, sending Tony Leon to Argentina as ambassador, giving a Deputy Minister position to the Freedom Front’s Pieter Mulder, committing to consultation on everything, supporting the Springboks…the list goes on.

This was not just, as some would claim, a “Mandela Project.” Remember he always said that he was just a “disciplined member of the ANC.”

To stand back and reflect on this phenomenon a little more globally, this is what political parties, now referred to as the “centre left,” with historically plebeian electoral support, are so ideally suited for. They have the necessary political credibility to carry out unpopular programmes. Who is carrying out the most far-reaching austerity programme in Spain today? The Socialist Party. Who is knuckling down to carrying out the IMF’s demand that everything must be privatised in Greece? Why, PASOK, the Greek Socialist Party, of course.

Who had the moral authority to implement GEAR, to help the South African monopolies go global, to cut corporate tax and yet preside over a country with the highest inequality in the world without unleashing a revolution? Why, the ANC, of course.

Remember when white people hoarded candles and tins of baked beans in preparation for the 1994 elections? Well the collapse didn’t come.

Remember the doomsday books written about what would happen “when Mandela goes?” Well he went and the whites continued to do very nicely, thank you very much.

Remember when the much-maligned “cold” Mbeki (but at least he’s one of us and speaks good English) was being kicked out by the frightening Zuma of the “bring me my machine gun” fame? Well, Mbeki was kicked out and Zuma smoothed himself out. Okay, so he still has too many wives and girlfriends, but he appointed the highly professional, Pravin Gordhan as Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel as Planning Minister and the Freedom Front’s Pieter Mulder into the cabinet -- and it was business as usual.

The ANC has delivered every time.

So you might have to put up with being insulted by Julius Malema and cringe at the boorish manners of the nouveau riche, Kenneth Kunene. But, as they say, “Africa is not for sissies.” Surely it’s a small price to pay for that holiday home in Plet?

Of course this is not a project of liberation or social justice (the historical mandate of the ANC when it was still a liberation movement). It is a project in which all the institutions of the current order are respected and taken as a point of departure even for those in opposition to the ANC. Economic policy is not even debated by the political parties in parliament (what is the DA’s economic policy anyway?).

On the issue of macro economic policy, all accept GEAR and its neo-liberal prescriptions as inviolate. This consensus extends beyond the ANC and the DA. It includes the succession debates within the ANC and the various contenders for leadership within the party.

And the service delivery issue? Well the ANC says that’s not about policy or resources. That’s just about getting counsellors to sign performance contracts and knuckle down and do the job. The DA also says that the policies are fine and that the resources are there. It’s just that the ANC appoints the wrong people for the job because of “cadre deployment.”

This is not to suggest that the ANC entered this scenario wilfully and with full knowledge of its responsibility to keep the old order intact. No, the ANC made its choices between 1989 and 1994 on a much simpler objective: compromise now to get political power and then use the political spaces to build a broader transformation.

Its strategy was to use the institutions of the state and complement these by reaching out to a broader “South Africanism” to ensure that everyone accepted their credentials as the party, which could be trusted with the new order.

But the ANC underestimated the stranglehold of South Africa’s monopolies and white intransigence, as well as the neo-liberal ethos dominating the world today. And it underestimated how morally corrosive the trappings of power would be, and how much a class of beneficiaries would emerge for which political power is not a vehicle for social transformation but for personal enrichment and aggrandisement.

The transformation of the ANC is now complete.

How have the beneficiaries responded?

White monopoly capital takes an extremely anti-developmental approach, while the white middle classes find the ANC’s lack of sophistication intolerable despite enjoying the best living standards in the world. And the black born-frees? Well, they’ve got the same benefits as their white counterparts and they share the same concerns – so it’s the DA for them.

But what does this say about the quality of our democracy?

What this says is that our democracy has been reduced to a choice between rival technocrats rather than contesting different policies though mobilisation and campaigning. This is called taking the politics out of politics.

But outside this politics of consensus, of the crowded middle, something else is happening.

What the elections reveal, is a declining sense of expectation amongst working class people that things will change. In their estimation political power is about little more than corruption and patronage. Despite improved voter turnout, the overall large election stay-away speaks to this disillusionment, rather than the development of any revolutionary consciousness amongst the poor.

Where the working class votes, it votes in the main for the only party where there is any hope of gaining anything immediate, not as a class, but as individuals or individual communities wanting very basic things, such as a plot of ground to build a shack, water connections or a social grant.

And that is what the ANC can provide. This is the ANC where the counsellor will put in a good word about a house, or follow up on a request for a plot of serviced land. This is not the ANC of liberation or something grand.

Just 17 years after the people first won the right to vote, after almost a century of struggling for the franchise, this is the most damning comment on the current neo-liberal order in South Africa.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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Comments

Jim Powell
16 Jun

Five Year Dictatorship

Good article, but it ignores the fact that the ANC and DA are happy to fight each other over the right to have power over the voters. What is needed is true democracy in the form of referendum and right to recall so that the voters are in control of the politicians at all times

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

Trust

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

Media

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

National Democratic Revolution threaten the 1994

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

So-called


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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

Corrupt ANC and Public Service

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

Living Standards: White SA Workers not Highest in the World

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

Treachery of the ANC Unacceptable

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

ANC Cadre Deployment in Public Service Wrong

"It is a project in which all the institutions of the current order are respected."

You are either an outright liar or do not know what is going on.

The basic philosophy of the ANC is very clear.

They want to control all levers of power.

The illegal cadre deployment of the ANC is amongst others threatening the professionalism and impartiality of the entire range of Chapter 9 State Institutions that must support and safeguard our fragile and young supposedly open multi-party equal opportunity democracy.

The partisan SA Police Force under control of Popcru and an inexperienced ANC cadre that do not understand his role and responsibilities as a leading public servant is

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

Unacceptable Mocking of Ordinary White Workers

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

SA Became a Violent Country under ANC Rule

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

Sunset Clauses?

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TheDrake Verified user
16 Jun

Reconciliation, Nation Building due to racist NDR a mirage

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Penzyg
17 Jun

Blacks and Whites

Believe me there is very little that this country can achieve in the current temperament. Often when I hear people respond to a good article like this one, I hear two issues.

First, 'This country must be led by white people because they are well experienced and know what they are doing. Blacks are leading this country astray."

Second, "What can white people tell us? They need to grasp the fact that they lost rule. This country belongs to black people so there is no way we are going to let them rule us again!"

The question I ask myself is whether these people in their right thinking senses think we can really have what they seem to want us to have in terms of who rules? Frankly I dont see black people saying, "You know what, white people are the ones that have to rule this country. So they must take government in the next elections."

I don't hear white people saying "black people will lead us, so we are fully behing you."

So I am thinking - how can people in their right minds think there is the possibility to even argue so passionately? The sooner we learn to accept that we are going to have to trust one another if we are going to get anywhere, the better.

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The Drake
19 Jun

Mutual Trust Should be Earned

@Penzyg
"The sooner we learn to accept that we are going to have to trust one another if we are going to get anywhere, the better."

That was a very nice thing to say.

However, trust and respect should be earned. In my view the SACP/ANC regime is definitely not worthy of our trust anymore.

The communists and pan-Africanists in the ANC and ANC-YL are amongst others openly hostile towards minorities and are gradually working towards undoing the Constitution, 1996 at their earliest convenience.

They are not criticised merely because they are black

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Penzyg
20 Jun

Trust and National Building

@ The Drake I understand your cry and I am fully behind you. The kind of revolutionarism we have doesn't help us build a united nation.

However, my argument goes a bit beyond. I am arguing that Black people including those of the SACP/ANC lack this aspect of trust. This country has not worked towards building this trust. Hence we act out of fear either of the past or of the unknown/uncertain future. The end result, as I am arguing, is that we tend to stifle constructive debate.

While my argument reprimands this, I am also against the kind of thinking I sense underlying your response and argument. And please note that I say this in a spirit of debate not apportioning blame. To me, underlying the kind of response I hear coming out, is the same kind of insecurity as that of the revolutionaries of the SACP/ANC. So instead of talking about issues of real matter, constructive debate and real consequence, we talk about who is right, not based on their ideas, but on personality.

It is a fact that everyone who is really committed to seeing change in this country will have to employ very radical thinking and very counter-cultural personal decisions of lifestyle. And we are going to have to do this together as a nation or individuals in this nation. This is the only way a statement can be made of what we envisage this country to be.

I don't know how we conceive the idea of a New South Africa. At a conceptual level do we really appreciate what the New South Africa really is all about? This would have been very helpful to think about not only in relation to where we had come from but also in terms of where we are going. It does seem that we have used the problem of apartheid to address our current and future issues so much that we may end up creating a new apartheid or maybe not even really moving forward.

Whether old or new apartheid, the fact is it would still be new issues, because the transition was a real thing by far. Perhaps this was also part of the implications of a New South Africa we did not realize and still don

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Calamity Jane
20 Jun

Congrats

A nice article, Leonard! Agree with you for about 90%. (The other 10% don't matter in the whole.) It's time for a real good opposition party with a progressive transformation programme, which would also stimulate the ANC itself. As it is now, opposition and debate must mainly occur inside the Alliance, so people aren't really party to it.

To Mr. The Drake, I do feel for you. Although I am sorry you have to voice your suffering in such racial terms. It's just not helpful. Remember the same happens to very many people and unfortunately the great majority of them happen to be black. And you know that.

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