South Africans have learned that democracy is not just a destination they reached with the official end of apartheid on April 27, 1994. It is also a lifelong quest to keep up the pressure against corruption and on elected officials to keep their promises.
Much of the political contestation comes from wrangling and lobbying for a variety of single-issue organizations. Ecologists, for example, address issues such as radioactive waste management; fossil fuel power plants and air and water pollution. Protests, street marches, media controversies are part of it.
Defend Our Campaign for Democracy is the latest organization to join a true ecosystem of NGOs that range from the grassroots Abahlali to the Mjondolo movement (shack dwellers’ movement) at Afriforum. Abahlali focuses on street-by-street organizing of informal settlement dwellers to defend their rights and improve their lot. Afriforum is a civil rights organization that “mobilizes Afrikaners, Afrikaans speakers and other minority groups in South Africa and protects their rights”.
Some of these NGOs, such as the Helen Suzman Foundation, focus on litigation, hence the discourse on “lawfare” – referring to the legalization of politics – having replaced war or elections.
This extra-parliamentary policy helps to be part of a deeper defense that I believe will give democracy more resilience in South Africa.
Democracy and Voting
Ordinarily, democracies depend on voters floating between parties. A ruling party or coalition that is ineffective or fails to improve the livelihoods of the electorate loses votes and another party or coalition enters office.
But in South Africa, that is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) still holds close to 50% of the vote nationally – admittedly well below the 60% and more it had previously – combined with the fact that the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, shows few signs of growth. at the national level from 20% to more than 50% of the votes.
Instead of trading their votes, voters are increasingly choosing to abstain and vote for no party.
This means that the heavy lifting of democracy will increasingly depend on NGOs, constitutional litigation and street protests. Building and sustaining public pressure, using rights to make representations to parliamentary portfolio committees, are among the ways non-state-powered NGOs make their presence felt.
The other reason why these organizations and approaches have the potential to sustain democracy in South Africa is that they are emboldened by the arrangement put in place in 1994. The most visible optic of the political earthquake of that year was the transfer from white minority rule to black majority rule. But equally important was the end of a century and a half of the British doctrine of the sovereignty of parliament – parliament, having replaced the king, assumes all his powers. The British colonies and the Boer republics of South Africa had followed this doctrine since the 19th century.
Instead, South Africa turned into a constitutional democracy. That is, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights has become supreme. Even the current government and its laws must be subject to the constitution, otherwise a law itself can be declared illegal.
Here, South Africa drew on American and Indian antecedents.
But this system also has its drawbacks.
A comprehensive bill of rights that can be enforced by the courts has its own problems.
First, the tendency of South Africans to turn to the courts in search of change, or so-called “lawfare”. This is problematic because the result is that the losing side tends to blame the justice system, not its political rivals. This structuring of the political conflict brings its own tensions, which must be managed.
Critical moments ahead
South Africa is now approaching a high point in its political cycle. This year, the African National Congress is due to elect new provincial and national leaders. All eyes are on the balance of power between President Cyril Ramaphosa and his rivals within his party. In 2024, the country will hold general elections, with simultaneous voting for parliament and each of the nine provincial legislatures.
NGOs and the rest of civil society can increase pressure against, for example, ANC leaders accused of corruption, re-elected by their faction to ANC offices and structures.
So far, opposition parties have done better in municipal elections, and the ANC has done better in general elections. But anyway, South Africa can expect to hear a lot more from the new organization Defend Democracy, as well as all the established NGOs. The country has a lot to think about on this Freedom Day, April 27.
Keith Gottschalk, political scientist, University of the Western Cape
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