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On whom do we rely for our democratic future?


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On whom do we rely for our democratic future?

On whom do we rely for our democratic future?

13th August 2018

By: Raymond Suttner


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Who is the custodian of our democratic and transformational project, who do we look to in order to see it through and safeguard its integrity and potentially emancipatory qualities?  Whenever one embarks on or supports a venture, whether it is political, social, cultural, economic or involving any other sphere of life, one looks for leadership on whom one can rely, whom one trusts to ensure that the programme succeeds and that blockages along the way are avoided.  

In 1994 many did not ask such questions because they were optimistic about what lay ahead.  Even many whites who had benefitted from apartheid were reconciled to the emerging order.  Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, there was a large reservoir of trust and the ANC also benefitted to a large extent from these sentiments, for the first decade or more of democracy.


This issue has come under focus in recent years with the doubts that many have come to feel in the ANC as the primary bearer of this political responsibility. This loss of trust was manifested electorally in reverses it experienced in the 2016 local government elections.  The general sense of disquiet related to a substantial extent to the actions of the Jacob Zuma presidency, supported as it was by his organisation, the ANC, and its allies in the SACP and COSATU until very late in the day.

The ANC may no longer be seen as the primary political force in South Africa -despite some important steps taken to regularise state functioning. It remains in crisis, despite a change of leadership.  (See earlier articles: and It may still win the next elections, despite losing support. It may limp along like the Congress of India, which sometimes wins elections, but is a shadow of its former self.


There is a vacuum that the ANC no longer fills nor is this met by any other political party.  There is no going back to the days of apartheid.  It is a question of going forward to realise the hopes of 1994, hopefully enriched in various ways by what we have come to understand in the 24 years that have passed. Who can be entrusted with that task?

While some confidently suggest that the answer is to “vote them out” is that an answer that will provide us with a sense of a secure democratic future, with people’s lives improving?

The DA and the EFF

The two strongest opposition parties have both experienced identity crises since the resignation of Zuma as state president.  In the case of the DA, the problems that have surfaced are mainly old ones, but they were less obviously present when the battle to topple Zuma preoccupied the DA and the public.

The DA has eroded much of the confidence that it elicited after the 2016 local government elections through problems in managing coalitions, especially in Nelson Mandela Bay, how it has handled questions related to race, “diversity”, inequality, and the de Lille saga in Cape Town.  The organisation is gripped by internal turmoil over leadership contests.

The DA wants to increase its support amongst black communities, but it does not appreciate that it cannot do this while treating race as an unfortunate and artificial invention of apartheid, allegedly colluded in by the ANC.  Racial categories have real social consequences for people, conditioning the opportunities they have in life.  Any party that underestimates this, invites failure.

The DA is correct in being critical of abuse of race, but it remains the dominant fault line between rich and poor, privileged and dispossessed in South Africa.  The DA’s tone deafness on race  is seen in the ambiguous position that black people have inside the DA, how they are represented or inadequately represented as delegates in their congresses, how they fare in leadership contests, who is seen or believed to take decisions in the organisation and conflicting messages on questions that have a lot of significance for black people, for example, steps by government  to remedy disadvantages inherited from the apartheid era.  There is no need to agree with the ANC, but to dismiss questions of black empowerment as some do, is insensitive to what many of its members believe need to be addressed, one way or another.

Two years ago, the DA appeared unified as the leading factor in a range of local government alliances, holding the prospect of displacing the ANC as national government.  Since then that unity is tattered and indeed, apart from de Lille, other mayors and office bearers have been removed from office.  The DA seems to be at war with itself.

The paralysis induced through its handling of the de Lille saga and the Cape Town water crisis has punctured the image that the DA sought to project as an efficient government that gets things done.  Taken together with its unwillingness to unambiguously stand against inequality, its electoral appeal and its message have lacked appeal and coherence.

And what of the EFF, which played a very important role in defeating Jacob Zuma, though this was not his final defeat with remnants of his followers remaining (and the EFF paradoxically involved in protecting some of these)?

The EFF joined with other parties in holding Zuma accountable for Nkandla and other acts of corruption and sought to enforce answerability for his acts of state capture, in parliament and the courts.  Many who were not EFF supporters nevertheless admired their inventiveness in disrupting Zumaism as well as facing beatings from bouncers hired by parliament.

But since the fall of Zuma, there have been a range of actions by the EFF that cast doubt on its reliability in cleansing South Africa of the scourge of corruption and state capture and also building a non-racial democratic society

The EFF has always embodied elements of the Zuma project, in their patterns of conduct.  One of these is a celebration of macho masculinity and militarism.   It is notorious that Julius Malema was one of those who was prepared, not like Nelson Mandela “to die” for his beliefs, but to “kill for Zuma”.  In forming the EFF, the organisation copied Fidel Castro in designating its leader’s primary title as Commander-in-Chief, above being president of the EFF.  This together with a range of military titles used to designate organisational structures at all levels and in a range of spheres, creates the impression that the EFF is as much a military formation as a political one. 

While they are not engaged in war, there is something intimidatory in the way in which the EFF engages in politics.  There are continual threats emanating from leading figures, sometimes carrying ambiguous meanings.  For example, Malema said, in relation to Mayor Athol Trollip, that one must cut the throat of whiteness.  This is not intended as a sophisticated formulation, drawing the distinction between whites and whiteness, whiteness referring to a range of structures and cultural patterns that are embodied in white power over black people.  It was meant to appeal to the most racially chauvinist amongst his potential followers as a real threat to whites, represented as an undifferentiated group of exploiters and oppressors.  There is also the ambiguity in statements referring to taking land by force, but “not yet”.  The EFF is quick to deny a violent meaning to its words, but it continually trades in this ambiguous and dangerous language.  In short, it does not act responsibly in relation to the question of peace and non-violence, as principles or it does not in fact value these. (On the principle of non-violence, see: and and

The importance of this use of ambiguity is that it is intended that statements bear a meaning that is unclear to listeners.  The EFF is not keen to provide the public with clarity regarding what they stand for and how it will be realised.  They resent the appellation “populist”, but it is characteristic of populism that one focuses on popular phrases without addressing modalities for realisation. That is why they have successfully mobilised (not organised) around the notion of expropriation without compensation, without clarity on who can claim land, how people will get land and how they will be assisted, in the different places where these are located.

It is significant that the EFF has never engaged in debate over what the constitutional provisions on land acquisition provide, the extent to which it already provides scope for expropriation without compensation. It has preferred demagoguery to debate. Nor has it tried to create the political will that could unblock the stalled land restitution process.

Some of the threats need to be taken seriously, given that they come from leaders.  Some members may believe that they have licence to assault or kill people. We have seen the unprovoked resort to violence by EFF Deputy President Floyd Shivambu against a journalist who, quite legitimately, photographed him. What do ordinary members or followers learn from this?

There is another serious area of ambiguity that amounts to an attack on the Treasury and efforts to institute a clean-up of corrupt individuals and state-owned entities.  It has, however, emerged in the EFF focus on Indians, in this case Ismail Momoniat and Pravin Gordhan, now Deputy Director-General in the Treasury and Minister of Public Enterprises respectively, suggesting that Momoniat has no respect for African leadership, notably embodied in the Director General, Dondo Mogajane, whom he allegedly undermines. The EFF alleges that Momoniat runs the Treasury, a claim denied by Mogajane.  Gordhan is said to be engaged in a reign of terror against allegedly corrupt people and the EFF has written offering support to some of those fingered in state capture reports, just as it has come out in support of SARS commissioner, Tom Moyane, in his allegation of irregularities in the enquiries he faces.  See articles by Carol Paton: ( and

There are two issues here. The one is that there remains tension between Indians and Africans in KZN and parts of Gauteng, with the identification of Indians as relatively successful traders and wealthier than Africans, although many Indians are poor or wage workers.  There are ambiguous EFF statements about Indians being racist or sometimes that “most” Indians are racist. The truth is we do not know how many Indians or Africans are racist and generalisations do not assist us to build a consciousness that shows respect for all the people of South Africa.  How does the EFF square this with its claim to adhere to and advance the Freedom Charter and the constitution? The statements of the EFF, in this respect, again feed into narrow African chauvinism, rather than trying to build unity.  It is a dangerous game, we know, from the 1949 African-Indian conflict. We also know from that period how mature leaders like Chief Albert Luthuli and Dr Monty Naicker responded, in rebuilding trust between communities.

We may also ask, what is behind the EFF rising to the defence of the VBS bank against its being placed under curatorship?    It would be interesting to know, whether the EFF has any connection with the VBS bank, that it has risen so stridently in their defence?

Also, what exactly is the connection between the EFF and gangsters that have been named and not denied as funders of the organisation?

What emerges from the EFF in its 2018 incarnation, is that it is impatient with debate.  It prefers threats and slogans.  This is unconducive to building the type of democratic life that is needed for an emancipatory political life.  It contributes little to public debate.

Who can we trust?

If we cannot trust or rely on existing political parties to safeguard our democratic future, in whom should we place our trust?  In the 1980s the answer would have been, to rely on ourselves, as the people of South Africa, on our own power to set ourselves free, referring primarily here to black South Africans, (by the word “black”, I follow the usage of the black consciousness movement referring to Africans, Coloureds and Indians). 

The democratic movement, united against apartheid, built organisations in a range of spheres -schools, universities, trade unions, community organisations, cultural and women’s organisations, organisations of traders and many others, all of which played a crucial role, along with other places of struggle in bringing down apartheid.

In post-apartheid South Africa, however, the idea was encouraged that we should look to government to deliver the improved lives that so many longed for.  The Freedom Charter clause “The people shall govern!” has come to mean, govern indirectly through those who became elected representatives.  The people were to be embodied in the government, which is common in national liberation movement discourse, referring to ANC or SWAPO as “the nation” or as “the people”.

With the outrage that erupted around the abuses of the Jacob Zuma era, we saw a renewed resort to popular power, with a range of people protesting in gatherings in many parts of the country.  What was distinct about these manifestations was the broad non-sectarian basis of the protests.  Some were ANC supporters, many were from other political parties and others belonged to a range of political formations and organisations of civil society and sections of business.  It was not driven by the poor, to anything like the extent that was the case with the UDF but included broad sections of society, including many whites.  They shared limited goals, primarily removing Zuma and ending corruption and restoring legality

In truth the problems of South Africa and the issues on which we need to build consensus needs to be conceived more widely and anyone who cherishes democracy will know that it involves slow, patient organisation.  Discourses of violence and pseudo radicalism do not substitute for slow, patient building of organisation and understandings. That may include existing political parties, but the participation of social movements and other organisations in civil society is now crucial.  Involvement in a march or public meetings is powerful mobilisation. That must be sustained and expanded through organisational forms in a range of spheres of society so that we can truly rebuild our democratic order and continue to enhance its qualities.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His most recent book is his prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison reissued in 2017, with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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