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Making the most of SA’s unruly real democracy

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There probably was a time in the 1970s or 1980s when the ANC in exile considered their chances of governing South Africa and wondered if the fact that they had absolutely no experience of being on the governing side of government might create some difficulties.

After a few moments of pondering they may have quickly dismissed any fears that the lack of practice would present problems, pointing to the fact that South Africans appeared to be very easy to lead.

Back then, with some notable and honourable exceptions, South African citizens on the whole seemed remarkably willing to accept orders from their government.

Well, so much for learning from history. By the late 1980s, it seemed South Africans of all colours had become intoxicated by the whiff of democracy. There were already signs that they were becoming increasingly unruly and reluctant to submit to anything that might look like an attempt at government.

Now, 19 years after the implementation of democracy, the ANC government has still not succeeded in imposing its stamp of authority. Indeed, every day it seems to lose a little more authority.

News that Rashied Staggie, who is on day parole from Pollsmoor prison, has joined two ex-convicts, Kenny Kunene and Gayton McKenzie, to become a member of the recently established Patriotic Alliance party, has prompted the suspicion that in South Africa democracy means “one voter, one party”. And in true South African fashion, the news has produced some hilarious headlines, the best of which might be from The Voice, which declared yesterday morning: “Staggie joins a gang party.” Of course, Mamphela Ramphele might not see the humour in it.

Perhaps it’s in reaction to memories of our over-eagerness to obey the previous government, perhaps it’s in reaction to the increasing concerns about government corruption, in particular at local level, perhaps it is due to frustration caused by a government that is so obviously practising on the job, perhaps it’s all of the above. Whatever the cause, we certainly have become unruly.

Every member of every single constituency in the country demands that its needs and rights are addressed before anybody else’s. And, because they are now part of a democracy, they quickly point out that only by satisfying their demands can the broader interests of society be met.

The business community demands that red tape, including labour laws, be removed or relaxed and that the National Development Plan (NDP) be implemented as a matter of urgency. The trade unions demand that labour laws are enforced, including more equitable minimum wages, and they insist that the government must abandon most of the NDP.

Everything the government does is ignored, rejected or challenged by the citizens of what must be one of the most robust and boisterous democracies in the world. The inevitable result is what might be called democracy inaction.

When people, particularly business people, look to countries such as China, Singapore and South Korea and yearn for the sort of economic growth rates these states have achieved in recent decades, they tend to overlook the single most important factor in that growth – the lack of democracy.

The absolute quiescence of the citizens, the lack of an unfettered media and the absence of a vigorous civil society ensured that the political leaders of those rapidly growing countries had all the room they needed to practice governing.

Not much chance of that happening here at home. Just recently the media was warned not to take photos of Nkandla because it is a “national key point.” So what happens? Every media outlet in the country ensured that President Jacob Zuma’s home immediately occupied pride of place on their newspaper or screen.

Then there are Gauteng’s e-tolls. As a Cape Town resident I sympathise enormously with Gautengers who face what seem to be hugely inappropriate costs for their beautiful new “world-class” roads. How frustrating that all the democratic action – the protests, the legal challenges – didn’t lead to a more acceptable outcome. But it still might.

Right now South Africa doesn’t look much like the great, but unrealistic, rainbow nation we thought it might become overnight but it is probably doing the best it can in its unique circumstances. And, judging from the excellent Africa Check website, it’s doing a lot better than many of us like to think.


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