Reitumetse Makwea

By Reitumetse Makwea

Journalist


Voters ‘dissatisfied’ with quality of democracy in SA

Most citizens continue to face socioeconomic exclusion and persistent discrimination on the basis of race, gender and disability.


This year marked 29 years of democracy in South Africa – a democracy without development or evolution – and a “troubling economic and political trajectory risks the stability of the state”, as experts argue democracy is not what it seems.

Core of democracy

From its laws that “undermine democracy” to the economic and social stagnancy of South Africans, poverty, inequality, corruption and high rates of unemployment, have led to public discontent and debates about the effectiveness of the democratic system and its quality.

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“Democracy evolves over a period of time. At some point, people need to talk about formal participation, whether you can actually formally participate. Are you allowed to vote, are you allowed to vote as a woman?” political analyst Ralph Mathekga asked.

“It’s no longer just about the formal provision of the rights. We then look at what it means in terms of the reality of where people are on the ground?”

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“And when we start talking about the level of participation, we don’t start talking about expectations and where the challenge comes about with these laws.”

He said the critical question was the relationship between voters and the representative. What keeps the relationship healthy?

“Remember, that’s the core of democracy. Democracy is not about people being voted in and then going to save business interests. And we are not saying they should be voted in and therefore not serve business interests.

“No, we are saying when they serve those interests, those interests should be in line with their agenda of saving the broader public. We look at the quality of participation, the strength of institutions, how the law and the regulatory framework provide for that strength of institutions.

“When you use laws like the Electoral Bill to curtail, block or frustrate participation, you can’t be said to be active in the interest of democracy, you are diminishing the quality of democracy.”

Brink of state collapse

In their note Democracy at Stake in South Africa, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), Michael Walsh a senior fellow and Dr Phiwokuhle Mnyandu, an academic researcher, said there were growing fears SA was teetering on the brink of state collapse and a debt crisis.

“This has left many to openly question the value of a democratic future that was delivered, absent basic rights and fundamental freedoms. This is especially true for young people who are registering to vote in relatively low numbers,” they write.

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“Almost three decades after the election of Nelson Mandela, the divide between those who cherish democracy and those who do not, appears to be growing.”

Walsh and Mnyandu said over the past two decades, the government had slowly but steadily moved away from full democracy toward a hybrid regime.

“This has coincided with sub-structural shifts in basic civil liberties, functioning of governance, freedom of the judiciary, participation in politics, and suppression of opposition.

“Next year’s election could even bring about a significant change in the position that it occupies along the democracy-authoritarian spectrum. A year out, most voters appear extremely dissatisfied with the status quo.”

Socioeconomic exclusion

Political commentator Hillary Murray said the government was unable to fully uphold the rights enshrined in the country’s globally revered constitution.

She said, according to the Macro Social Report 2022, there had been a decline in essential socioeconomic indicators since 2006.

Most citizens continue to face socioeconomic exclusion and persistent discrimination on the basis of race, gender and disability.

“The socioeconomic and political changes SA made in the first decade of democracy produced positive results. But these have been undermined by weak governance and poor economic performance since 2006,” she said.

“And if that is not proof that government has failed its citizens and compromised democracy, the quality of democracy speaks volumes, and if that is compromised then what really is democracy?”

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