Much argument over South African democracy revolves around the electoral dominance of the African National Congress (ANC), its repeated re-election as ruling party. Ten years ago I argued that there was nothing about ANC electoral dominance, in itself, that was necessarily antagonistic to constitutionalism. This was shown in political history, amongst other places in Sweden, where stable democracy coexisted with decades-long electoral dominance of the Social Democrats.
In contrast to much scholarship, I argued that existing constitutional safeguards were a better protection of democracy against any potential threat, than that attributed to increased electoral strength of opposition parties.
My argument then was that democracy depended on a range of factors, in particular the investment of the South African population in defending their rights, within a well-developed constitutional order.
The establishment of democracy in South Africa followed decades, indeed centuries, of resistance against dispossession and oppression. At times the prospects of achieving freedom seemed remote. It required patient building of political organisation and various forms of opposition. Over time the level of resistance and “ungovernability” in the 1980s created a crisis from which the apartheid regime could not free itself.
Nevertheless, the forces of resistance did not confront an “enemy” on its knees. They could not defeat the apartheid regime militarily. This balance of forces made the achievement of a negotiated settlement possible, thereby reducing bloodshed and achieving democratic rule.
In the course of the struggle many participants in the 1980s anticipated that democratic rule would not be confined to the ballot box, having themselves participated in direct popular action. Consequently they advanced a conception of democracy that stressed direct popular activity on a continuous basis, not seeing their civic role confined to periodic voting.
Negotiations however, concerned formal structures; agreeing on a constitutional order that would regulate government and its organs, in particular the legislature, executive and judiciary.
Informal structures, including direct popular forms of democracy were not addressed though these were not outlawed. Individuals were free to organise themselves on street and other levels to supplement efforts of government or to engage in matters of concern that were wholly independent of the state.
While street committees and other legacies of the popular power period do survive in some localities, generally the ANC has not encouraged organisation outside of its sway. The notion of politics that was embraced tended to focus on elections and actions by various government organs.
Representative democracy established in 1994, led to elections under a constitution that for the first time provided rights for black people who had previously been rightless. This represented a significant gain. The constitution also established institutions that would monitor actions of government in order to ensure that the rights accorded to the population were respected and realised.
These institutions included the judiciary, in particular a constitutional court, charged with being the guardian of the bill of rights and foundational democratic values. A number of other institutions contribute towards consolidation of democratic rule. These included chapter 9 institutions like the Public Protector and various commissions protecting and advancing specific rights.
Regrettably, the constitutional scheme so carefully crafted may no longer be secure.
Institutions are more important than individual leaders. But what individual leaders do can undermine constitutionalism and institutionalisation of democracy. That is indeed what we have seen in recent times, undermining the basis that has sustained South African democracy.
President Jacob Zuma became president of South Africa in the wake of hundreds of charges of fraud and corruption being suppressed by a decision that was open to question. In the light of recent court decisions it may soon be re-evaluated and possibly lead to reinstitution of the charges.
The entire period of Zuma’s presidency has been marked by evasion of constitutional obligations and a sense of impunity on the part of those who breach regulations in order to enrich themselves or favour those who are their family or political allies.
Not only have funds, often intended for the poor, been diverted from their designated purposes, but institutions have also been weakened. In recent times the president has ignored binding findings of the Public Protector regarding unauthorised spending and personal enrichment through the refurbishment of his Nkandla estate. Instead of complying with constitutional requirements to respond to the Protector’s report, he has pursued quite a different course and evaded providing an answer.
This is but one example of the way in which the current leadership is exercising its power to erode the constitutional duties of organs of state. Other institutions under pressure include the prosecuting authority and the courts. Looking back, while the fetishisation of ANC electoral dominance may not have been a valid basis for questioning the consolidation of South African democracy, the constitutional safeguards that I raised as a counter-weight have come under sustained attack.
These threats and attacks are not a matter affecting a limited number of individuals but the hard won rights of all citizens. This is an issue for all South Africans, irrespective of ideological or political affiliation, not a problem for opposition forces alone. Defending constitutionalism is to defend the freedom of all South Africans.
Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst on current political questions and leadership issues. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance in the 1990s. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner