May 28

Taking The Pulse Of Our Democracy

An article by Ian Kilbride, published on 28 May 2024.

As South Africa heads into arguably the most important election since 1994, it is a good time to take the pulse of our democracy. In my view, our democracy is in rude health, but we must remain vigilant and guard against those who seek to undermine it for personal or political gain.

Given its long history of apartheid and racial exclusion, South Africa was in many respects an unlikely candidate for surviving as a democracy. Persistent poverty, joblessness and inequality have all conspired to undermine democracy in other countries and led to uprisings, revolutions, coups or dictatorships. Yet, even as the world’s most unequal country and with the highest unemployment rate of any advanced economy, South African democracy remains robust and arguably stronger than ever.

Evidence for this is to be found in the proliferation of new political parties, the emergence of independent candidates, the crumbling of one-party rule, the independence of the Independent Electoral Commission and the recent groundbreaking ruling of the Constitutional Court barring Jacob Zuma from election to Parliament.

Significantly too, the days of slavish media coverage and support of the majority party are long over. The emergence of credible independent broadcasters and news channels has provided alternative voices with a platform to put their case to the electorate and counter the obsequious ruling party coverage that characterised the early years of democracy.

The social media genie is also well and truly out of the bottle and has empowered anyone with a smart phone with a political voice. Mobile phone clips, YouTube, X, Tik Tok and other social media platforms have proved powerful tools in the hands of ordinary voters from Iran to India and Taiwan to South Africa. There is, however, a dangerous downside to the social media revolution as we have also seen malevolent forces influencing votes in the UK, the USA and South Africa through platforms such as Facebook.

The emergence of highly paid influencers who target specific voting groups and who are not beyond peddling untruths and bald lies at the behest of their (sometimes foreign) paymasters is difficult to monitor and harder still to counter and something our democracy will need to address in future.

South African elections are also ‘open’ to regional and foreign monitors who are free to observe voting behaviour across the country without let or hindrance and whose adjudication of the freeness and fairness of the plebiscite is delivered without sanction or censor.

The IEC will inevitably experience a number of logistical challenges on the day, particularly in rural voting districts, but there is no threat of a any citizen being denied the right to vote, particularly as already over one million have registered for special votes. Remarkably (too remarkably perhaps) Eskom has played ball for the past couple of months and so the threat of power cuts on voting day appears to have dimmed. Let’s see whether EFF Commander in Chief, Julius Malema, is right in forecasting that there will be power cuts at 21:30 on Wednesday 29 May.

Most encouragingly, given the country’s history of violence, high crime rates and the appalling anarchy of July 2021, this year’s election campaign has been remarkably peaceful. A welcome sign of democratic maturity.

But two or three tests of electoral democracy lie ahead. The first is whether the voting takes place freely and fairly and absent violence, threats and intimidation on the day itself. It is no exaggeration to say that KwaZulu-Natal is on a political and electoral knife edge and has all the ingredients of potential conflict, particularly given the exclusion of Jacob Zuma. The country simply cannot afford another bout of anarchy in KZN and so one hopes that Natjoints preparations have taken into account every contingency to prevent violence.

The second key test is the actual acceptance of the election outcome (note this Mr Trump). While results have been challenged in KZN in the past, parties have accepted the rulings of the IEC and Electoral Court without fail. Given the intensely contested nature of the 2024 elections and particularly with question marks about the registration and legitimacy of the MK party, the results are bound to be contested, which will put the IEC, electoral court and indeed our democracy to the test.

The final test is whether coalitions and more particularly stable and effective coalitions can be cobbled together and become the new normal. The majority party has never before been challenged at the national level and the recent track record of coalition government at the local level is not encouraging. So, if this model is anything to go by, we have a significant challenge ahead of us nationally, and certainly in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and perhaps even in the Western Cape.

Politics is not for sissies and the 2024 election is going to test the mettle of our democracy like no other since 1994, but on balance, I have faith that the centre will hold!