Evaluating the index of democratic frustration in South Africa and urging action for transformation

Picture: Tebelelo Lentsoane gives views on democracy and citizens’s frustration. Supplied/Activate! Change Drivers & the Activate! Academy

Picture: Tebelelo Lentsoane gives views on democracy and citizens’s frustration. Supplied/Activate! Change Drivers & the Activate! Academy

Published Feb 3, 2024


By Tebelelo Lentsoane and Tebogo Suping

The dawn of South Africa's democratic government in 1994 heralded an era of boundless hope and jubilation, resonating with the noble aspirations of prosperity and justice for all. Yet, while these grand ambitions were palpable, the intricate mechanisms required to sustain them remain elusive. Three decades since, democracy has come under intense scrutiny, with a pervasive critique of its shortcomings eroding public trust in its underlying principles and functions. Engaging in this vital discourse demands a comprehensive examination of the intricate challenges and opportunities inherent within South Africa's democratic framework.

Equally noticeable is the absence of measures necessary to ensure the realisation of the slogan promising a better life for all that came with the dawn of the new democratic dispensation. Without the essential tools of accountability and mechanisms for holding our elected representatives—and ourselves—accountable, democracy will continue to be an elusive concept seldom put into practice, let alone experienced as an empowering system for the majority of South Africans.

We have found that many citizens, with whom we have engaged in recent times through our grassroots civic work, gauge the success or failure of democracy based on tangible outcomes, scrutinising its impact on critical facets such as the economy, access to opportunities, and overall well-being. An Afrobarometer report also reveals that "70% of South Africans express dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy," highlighting the urgency of addressing these concerns. Lest we find ourselves in the dire situation where the vast majority of citizens will no longer find value in participating in democratic processes as a direct result of it being perceived to serve no meaningful purpose in contributing to the much-desired changes to their daily lived experiences.

While acknowledging this common contention against democracy, which emerges from citizens equating its failures with the absence of its promised benefits, it often inadvertently overlooks the fundamental nature of democracy as a framework designed to address societal issues, with the requisite time and work input, and not without the governing influence of the people. Thus, pressing upon us as ACTIVATE! Change Drivers to take on the hard work to educate the public to recognise democracy as an ongoing process that necessitates active citizen participation and vigilant oversight.

The three decades of democracy have triggered a widespread critique of its failures, leading to a significant erosion of trust in it as a system of governance. This requires a nuanced analysis of the intricate challenges and opportunities present within a democratic system, especially within the South African context. We need to equally tackle the scepticism and disillusionment felt by many citizens, particularly the youth, who perceive democracy as falling short of delivering on its pledges of prosperity and justice, as well as lacking the ability to facilitate meaningful change.

On closer inspection and greater interrogation, it would not be amiss to deduce that certain aspects of these public reflections and evaluations primarily revolve more around the efficacy of governance processes rather than a direct indictment of democracy itself. To most people, there is no distinction between governance and democracy, nor the required in-depth interrogation of both terms, and this seemingly lack of clarity creates ample room for individuals to reject these concepts entirely, a situation we must vigorously strive to prevent. This includes evaluating the influence of governance on critical aspects such as safety and security, employment opportunities, and other factors that directly impact the well-being and aspirations of the people.

An Afrobarometer report noted that a sizeable number of eligible voters are exhibiting a willingness to accept dictatorship for benefits, in trade for freedom and democracy: There is a trend of increasing willingness to accept a non-elected government if it can provide basic goods and services, such as has been the worrying case in central and western Africa, which has heightened in recent times.

Amidst the ongoing socio-political and economic challenges faced by many, particularly the youth in our country, it's hardly surprising then that they continue to question the value of voting and participating in democracy as their living conditions deteriorate. This sentiment underpins a common thread emerging not only in South Africa but also across the region: that democracy is in decline. From numerous civic education initiatives hosted nationwide by ACTIVATE! over the years, a pivotal question continues to emerge: "What is the point of defending a democracy that fails to address our needs and interests as young people?" This emphasises how, when faced with a choice between socio-economic rights and democracy, young people prioritise the former, as stated above.

This question is not to be dismissed but should rather compel us, both individually and as a society, to engage in introspection about our collective roles and responsibilities outlined in the constitution towards strengthening our democracy and responding to the inherent challenges within it.

Therefore, the arduous task that lies ahead of us is that of combating poverty, inequality, and unemployment, as democracy only functions when we actively work on it to meaningfully respond to the challenges of our times.

Thus, it is incumbent upon all of us to channel our frustrations constructively, momentarily setting aside personal interests or differences, to prioritise and put democracy into practice in navigating our socio-political landscape. For active citizenry stands as a potent mechanism for building and sustaining democratic societies, complemented by long-term investments in civic education to drive behavioural change.

Moreover, addressing these challenges requires considerable political will from the state, adequately responding to the basic needs of society while upholding the rule of law. The state must ensure that service delivery contributes to people's daily experiences by implementing sustainable socio-economic interventions that uphold the tenets of our democracy: justice, equality, dignity, transparency, and equal access to human rights.

For it is when people begin to experience democracy first-hand as a functioning governing system, that they will assimilate its principles, thereby effectively safeguarding its credibility and future.

And with all said and done, we say to all South Africans and particularly young people, that: "The time has come to arise. Though you may lack substantial material and financial resources, your youthfulness endows you with resilience and a powerful collective voice to be heard."

The youth vote alone has the potential to reshape history and radically change the outcome of upcoming elections. And we all need to show up with our heads, hearts, and minds united to ensure no young person is left behind in the quest to overcome socio-economic challenges in our lifetime.

Let us lead in our respective spheres, unwavering and unapologetic in holding our leaders accountable. Let us champion the sustainable agenda from the grassroots up, leaving a legacy we can be proud of for generations to come.

Hesitation and abstaining from the democratic process of voting is no longer an option but an opportunity to wield the vote as a tool to bring democracy to life. And very significantly, mere voting without sustained engagement throughout the electoral cycle is no longer sufficient.

We must all begin to learn to translate political interests into tangible everyday actions. As the final registration weekend approaches on February 3rd and 4th, let us seize the moment to register to vote or confirm our registration status, actively defending democracy and encouraging others to join us as we do so.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.