Cape Town - No better time than this polling day to test the pulse of our democracy. How are we doing 20 years on and into our ninth ballot including national and local elections?
The posh London Financial Times wrote a sniffy editorial the other day about our “neophyte democracy” failing to fulfil expectations, but the accuracy of that sentiment very much depends on who is framing those expectations and how realistic they were in the first place.
I also suspect the Financial Times, like many, is conflating the performance of the ANC in government with the state of our democracy.
The ruling party may have disappointed some, but our democratic institutions are pretty robust. As the man who ran that historic first election in 1994, Judge Johann Kriegler, drolly observed: “We’ve come a long way – nowadays we are concerned about libellous text messages, back then we feared being sent to our graves with AK-47s.”
Our elections since 1994 have been commendably routine and, with one or two worrying exceptions, generally peaceable.
IEC boss Pansy Tlakula is mired in controversy but the organisation she leads has held up well through the various stewardships of herself, Kriegler and Brigalia Bam, and there have been no serious allegations of voting or counting processes being anything other than substantially free and fair.
And our elections are for real and not just for show – no 99 percent for The Beloved Leader or 100 percent for The Great Party. The DA runs a substantial province and has grown nationally while other vibrant opposition parties have appeared.
Some express concern about the populist extremism of the EFF, as if that were a systemic flaw particular to us, but we share that syndrome with just about any democracy – the Tea Party in the US, the UK Independence Party in Britain and the National Front in France all assess issues on a Malema-esque level of simplicity and venality.
We have also avoided Africa’s fateful Big Man Syndrome, running through four presidents while the likes of Angola and Zimbabwe are still stuck with the same one – no South African president has yet served two full terms and there isn’t much smart money on the embattled Jacob Zuma bucking that trend.
Our public debate remains lively and critical. The government has a choke chain on SABC TV (though some of the state radio stuff still contains decent debate) and it has moved to close down free media space but resistance has been strong, and you only have to scan the front pages or tune into talk radio or consume free-to-air eNCA news to know we still have a strong and independent media.
And the good news is that the more digital media spreads via ubiquitous cellphones, the harder it becomes for any government to ever get a really firm grip on the flow of news.
So, against that checklist I think we’ve done pretty well, especially when compared to other countries in the class of ’89. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave birth to a cluster of new democracies at around the same time that we were stumbling into the new future and many of those nations are struggling and some are disintegrating – most notably Ukraine at the moment. At least we have held our state together and secession movements are considered a joke.
No one can doubt that we have some serious work to do defending our constitution and all that flows from it, but being a “neophyte democracy” demonstrably is not an easy business and I reckon we’ve made a reasonable fist of it, whatever the Financial Times might think.