BORN FREE: Grade 12 pupil Mpulukeng Ndiliso has her documents scanned as IEC outreach officials visit Thembilihle High School in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, to register pupils who are 16 and older. Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

This is gonna be a fascinating political year for us. Not just because we are heading for elections soon but also because we celebrate 20 years of democracy.

Inevitably there’ll be plenty of stocktaking about the state of our democracy. So let’s get the ball rolling. Twenty years on, just how solid is our democracy?

In two words: very solid. Many of us are often very self-deprecating about the health of our democratic institutions. Last year, whenever I spoke at conferences consisting mostly of local businesspeople, I often found myself defending this view in rooms filled with sceptics.

But here’s my justification.

A healthy democracy is not just about regular free and fair elections. That would be a very formal, and narrow, success criterion. And of course it is a criterion we do satisfy. We hold efficient and credible elections, and there’s little reason to think that will change.


There is a richer set of facts about our democracy that is the basis of my optimism. We have a vigorous civil society, fearless media, constitutional supremacy is entrenched, opposition politics are lively, and our Chapter 9 oversight institutions have become stronger in recent years.

These features are absent in countries that had Arab Springs. And some of these features are not deeply entrenched in many so-called established democracies. Our human rights jurisprudence, for example, is far more impressive than the human rights case law in England.

These facts are salient. I find that sceptics about our democracy’s health pick out only what’s not great. The triple scourge of deep inequality, high levels of unemployment and callous poverty are stains on our democratic shine.

From these observations about material inequities there quickly follows the conclusion that we have the ingredients here for social unrest. Throw into the mix service delivery protests that are regular and often violent, and it becomes almost reasonable to deny we have a very solid democracy.


But this reasoning is flawed. It is not only the common material inequalities we share with countries that had revolts which matter. It’s just as important to reflect on what we do not have in common. Differences are often more instructive than similarities.

There were no democratic cultures entrenched in these societies. No free press, multiparty democracy, judicial independence and effective civil-society movements. We can’t take these aspects of our democracy for granted. They are the basis of why we are solid, and why comparisons with Arab Springs are misplaced.

Does this mean we’re a perfect democracy? Of course not. Until the majority of us live more prosperous lives, our democracy will remain under pressure. That pressure is most visibly seen in service delivery protests.

Yet even these protests are forms of accountability, democracy in action, beyond the formal definition of regular free and fair elections. So while they may cost us in terms of damage to public property, reputational loss, etc, they do not, in my view, count as facts in support of a sceptical view about the health of our democracy.


A more interesting challenge for our democracy is a lack of effective political competition.

Although we have many political parties, the electoral dominance of the ANC makes the government less responsive to our needs because it isn’t realistically going to lose its majority any time soon. That breeds complacency and arrogance.

A further gift for the ANC are opposition political parties, including the DA, that make many tactical errors in how they go about trying to persuade unhappy citizens to abandon the ANC.

The net result is a party-political system that isn’t conducive to accountable governance. This is why the 2014 elections will be interesting. One of the key questions that this year’s polls will settle is whether voters will usher in a more competitive political system or stick with one-party dominance.

Whatever the outcome, voters will have decided freely, precisely because we are a solid democracy.

Don’t believe the sceptics.

The Star