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Civil society, citizens must take lead in shaping democracy

There were snaking queues of South Africans eager to vote in a new government during the first democratic election in 1994. But hope for a better future has become overshadowed by corruption and allegations of state capture. Now Parliament has three months left to heed the deadline pronounced by the Constitutional Court for reform of the Electoral Act 73 of 1998, say the writers. Picture: African News Agency (ANA) Archives

There were snaking queues of South Africans eager to vote in a new government during the first democratic election in 1994. But hope for a better future has become overshadowed by corruption and allegations of state capture. Now Parliament has three months left to heed the deadline pronounced by the Constitutional Court for reform of the Electoral Act 73 of 1998, say the writers. Picture: African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Apr 17, 2022


By Omry Makgoale, Prof Lesiba Teffo and Koogan Pillay

In the midst of Human Rights and Freedom months, we reflect on the progress made since that historical moment of April 27, 1994.

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Nelson Mandela’s Freedom and Democracy Project of 1994 was heralded globally as a miracle, culminating in the Constitution of South Africa in 1996. It was the end of an era. Various policies and legislation were put in place to redress the socio-economic disparities of apartheid.

The RDP and BEE programmes, among others, were signals of a new dawn. Mandela’s miracle gave way to successor Thabo Mbeki’s age of hope, which was abruptly brought to a halt eight months before completion of his tenure.

After Mbeki, the wobbly transition had to contend with two presidents, Baleka Mbete and Kgalema Motlanthe, one after the other. And then came one reputed as a man of the people, into whose hands the baton of the State fell following the general elections of 2009: President Jacob Zuma.

The promising start of a responsive government reaped applause for the momentum gained in the roll-out plan of antiretroviral drugs to stem the tide of HIV/Aids. The applause had hardly died when murmurings escaped from the corridors of power, alleging that Zuma had not only become liberal with the affairs of the state, but also delegated the exercise of public power to the unelected three Gupta brothers.

The head of State’s counter was that the Guptas were nothing more than friends. True of false, the road to a better life nevertheless veered into unfamiliar humps and bumps spelling corruption that then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela brought under the microscope.

Not all was found to be well, paving the way to the establishment of a commission of inquiry headed by current Chief Justice Raymond Zondo into the state of capture.

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Having escaped the chop of numerous Parliamentary votes of no confidence, Zuma’s exit was not as salutary as was his entrance. In came President Cyril Ramaphosa, proclaiming unity, renewal, self-correction and yet another promise of the new dawn, and a governing party poised to turn the corner after the general elections of May 2019. By then the country’s residual hope was quickly eroding.

The outbreak of the global Covid-19 pandemic literally found South Africa hurting, but under a judicial microscope for a deeper understanding of a more pronounced disease – the runaway corruption taking the centre stage of public life.

Just when it was thought shame would give way to remorse in deference to saving lives against Covid-19, greed was back in town in 2020 – despite the Zondo Commission in session over corruption – sauntering defiantly to claim its pound of feed on personal protective equipment (PPE).

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How could the nation carry on believing yet another dawn was on the horizon? The pandemic further exacerbated and accentuated the structural fault lines in society. At the 2020 Annual Nelson Mandela lecture, UN secretary-general António Guterres spoke about the pandemic revealing the broken political, governance and economic systems globally, with resulting detrimental and prejudicial effects on citizens, which goes against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights principle that no one should be left behind.

A potential threat for global peace and security. If ever Guterres had a message, it came in one ear and left via another. The meaning of democracy was taking a strain to still make sense.

Poverty, inequality and unemployment had fallen from the priority list of issues, pointing to direct government focus and urgent action. Even when there were signs that South Africa was sitting on a time bomb, it all seemed likely, when the explosion was witnessed in the July 2021 unrest and looting that shocked the country and claimed 350 lives, to give a rationale for another commission of inquiry.

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During the November 2021 local government election, Afrobarometer released a survey on the widening trust deficit between citizens and politicians, leading to the lowest voter turnout – 30% – since democracy.

Further, convicted fraudsters and rapists made it on to the nominations list for local government councillors and senior leaders in the governing ANC, refusing to heed the party’s resolutions of 2021 to step aside if convicted of serious crimes.

This is an indictment of Mandela’s 1994 moment. On January 4, 2022, when receiving the first part of the State Capture report from Justice Raymond Zondo, Ramaphosa remarked that it was a defining moment, and a decisive break from the era of corruption that had become so endemic and systemically entrenched in our society.

While Ramaphosa’s message of hope and a new dawn was welcomed in his State if the Nation Address of 2018, the slow progress, and unabating corruption, prompted civil society group, the New Nation Movement, to take the question of ethical and accountable leadership to court, specifically calling for direct representation of citizens with the requisite integrity and competence.

This led to the Constitutional Court pronouncing on the matter in June 2020, calling for reform of the Electoral Act 73 of 1998, to bring in much-needed accountability to the processes governing the election of leaders in society.

Following the Concourt decision, there was much delay before Parliament finally got the process under way, putting in jeopardy the two-year deadline stipulated by the Concourt.

Regrettably, some of the leaders in Parliament have also been implicated in state capture, casting doubt on Ramaphosa’s renewal agenda and planned reforms to improve governance, such as electoral reforms.

Parliament then deferred the legislative reform to the executive, with Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi appointing a Ministerial Advisory Committee, chaired by former minister Valli Moosa.

The committee made a submission to Parliament on Budget day, February 23, which recommended a hybrid system of party-list appointees in huge constituencies; treating each province as a single constituency, and with independent, individual candidates competing with political parties throughout the provinces.

This is not an improvement on the parliamentary electoral laws, but vulgarisation of the introduction of independent candidates. Parliament appears to have ignored submissions made to it, considering its own proposal, for tabling to public consultations it has initiated.

Parliament has ignored the recommendations from civil society organisations, the SACC (SA Council of Churches), SAC, the New Nation Movement, 70s Group and other civic and non-governmental organisations, which have called for the implementation of the majority recommendations of the Electoral Task Team headed by the late Dr Frederick van Zyl Slabbert in January 2003.

Van Zyl Slabbert had recommended for 75% (300) of members of Parliament to be elected directly as individuals on behalf of political parties in large, multi-member constituencies, in conjunction with individual independent candidates.

We need to establish individual and collective accountability of all Members of Parliament irrespective of party affiliation, to prevent another capture of the state. As Parliament has three months to heed the deadline by the Constitutional Court, the challenge rests on civil society organisations and citizens broadly to shape the journey that will be responsive to the will of the people that the party-political system is inclined to disregard.

* Makgoale (an ANC veteran), and Professors Teffo and Pillay (Leaders for Integrity) are members of the 70s Group Electoral Committee.