Residents from Thembelihle and Vlakfontein blocking roads with burning tyres in protest after being deprived of electricity for three days in June 2014. File picture: Chris Collingridge/African News Agency (ANA)
Residents from Thembelihle and Vlakfontein blocking roads with burning tyres in protest after being deprived of electricity for three days in June 2014. File picture: Chris Collingridge/African News Agency (ANA)

Democracy in South Africa is not real

By WILLIAM GUMEDE Time of article published Apr 29, 2019

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As South Africans celebrate 25 years of freedom, we may, on paper, have a democratic Constitution, democratic institutions and stage regular elections, but society has not been democratised, which means democracy for most citizens is not real.

Democracy is often wrongly seen narrowly as only having a Constitution, parliament and elections. That is a very limited view of democracy. Constitutions, laws and elections are only basic frameworks of democracy.

Many struggling South Africans, burdened by increasingly high costs of living, power cuts and appallingly bad public services, are increasingly lamenting that democracy is not delivering.

The problem, however, is not that democracy is not delivering; it is that as South Africans we have not democratised society. For democracy to deliver, all aspects of life have to be democratised.

Political parties must themselves become more democratic. Undemocratic parties will deliver undemocratic societies. Leadership elections, decisions and policy-making within parties must become democratic - not controlled by the leader or a few of the leader’s praise singers. All political parties that receive public money must have gender, race and youth diversity, equality and inclusion.

Parties, their leaders and their members must behave in accordance with the principles of the Constitution, democratic values and norms. Although political parties may target particular constituencies or ideologies, they should act, make decisions and policies in the widest interest of society, rather than for their home base.

Parliament, legislatures and local councils must themselves become democratic. Elected representatives must behave democratically, honestly and make decisions in the widest interests of society, not for self-enrichment.

The public service must be democratised. This means that the public service must become fully democratic in its internal functioning. It must become reasonably merit-based - rather than patronage-based - efficient and accountable.

Citizenship should be democratised. Elected and public officials should become genuinely accountable to citizens, not be treated as royalty by citizens. It must be made mandatory for elected representatives to only use public hospitals, schools and public transport.

Such an approach would significantly boost public service delivery.

State agencies, institutions and officials often treat ordinary citizens, who are not political, socially or economically well-connected, arrogantly, dismissively, and at times even with violent force.

Elected representatives, public officials and the well-off cannot have more superior rights than ordinary people. In South Africa, the law has often been selectively applied. The governing president, party leadership and his family have been above the rule of law.

Citizens are not holding elected and public officials accountable. Imagine citizens, civil society and the media sitting in the offices of Home Affairs, monitoring their services, watching whether public servants are effective, polite and honest, and reporting them if they are incompetent, callous and corrupt.

South African cultures, traditions and customs of all varieties must be democratised. Undemocratic aspects of cultures, traditions and customs must be jettisoned. Gender equality must become the pillar of all South African cultures, traditions and customs.

In Africa, including South Africa, supporting a liberation movement is often seen as being similar to supporting a football club. It must be supported through thick and thin, even though the team is failing dismally. The belief is that, over time, the team will self-correct.

This means no matter how corrupt, political parties are continually supported out of blind faith in the hope that one day the party will come right. This wrong belief is at the heart of why countries collapse, supporters of ruling parties and leaders are totally impoverished, and the masses unemployed.

Democratisation of society is when citizens do not vote for their own preferred parties as if they are football teams.

Voting for other parties, even if you do not agree with their leaders, policies or colour, will make your own party and leaders more accountable, responsive and honest - and is a better way of making democracy real.

* Gumede is executive chairperson, Democracy Works Foundation ( and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

*** Click here for more #Elections2019 stories.

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