South Africans have learned that democracy is not just a destination they reached with the formal end of apartheid on April 27, 1994. It is also a lifelong quest to keep up the pressure on corruption and on elected officials to live up to their promises. .
A significant portion of the political strife comes from strife and lobbyists for a number of stand-alone organizations. Environmentalists, for example, address issues such as radioactive waste management; fossil fuel power plants and air and water pollution. Protests, street marches, media controversy are all part of this.
Defend our Democracy Campaign is the latest organization to join a veritable ecosystem of NGOs ranging from the Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement (Shack Dwellers’ Movement) to Afriforum. Abahlali focuses on street-by-street organization of informal settlers to defend their rights and improve their situation. Afriforum is a civil rights organization that “mobilizes Africans, Afrikaans-speaking people 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 conversation that “danger of law” – which refers to the legalization of politics – has replaced warfare or elections.
This extra-parliamentary policy is part of a deeper defense which, in my opinion, will give democracy more resilience in South Africa.
Democracy and voting
Usually, democracies depend on voters flowing between parties. A governing party or coalition that is ineffective or unable to improve the livelihoods of voters loses votes and an alternative party or coalition steps in.
But in South Africa, this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. This is because the ruling African National Congress (ANC) still has close to 50% of the vote at national level – admittedly well below the 60% plus it had previously – combined with the fact that the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, shows sparse signs of growth nationally from 20% to over 50% of the vote.
Instead of changing their votes, voters in increasing numbers choose not to vote and not to vote for any party.
What this means is that the heavy lifting when it comes to democracy will increasingly depend on NGOs, constitutional cases and street protests. Building public pressure and maintaining it by using the rights to make representations to parliamentary portfolio committees are among the ways in which NGOs without state power assert their presence.
The second reason why these organizations and approaches have the potential to keep democracy alive in South Africa is that they are encouraged by the event established in 1994. The most visible optics of the political earthquake that year was the transfer from white minority rule to black majority rule. But just as important was the denunciation of the century and a half of British doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament – Parliament, having replaced the King, takes over all his powers. Both British colonies and Boer republics in South Africa had followed this doctrine since the nineteenth century.
Instead, South Africa transformed itself into a constitutional democracy. That is, the Bill of Rights of the Constitution became supreme. Even the government of the time and its laws must be under the constitution, otherwise a law in itself can be considered illegal.
Here, South Africa drew on American and Indian prehistory.
But this system also has its drawbacks.
A comprehensive Bill of Rights, which can be brought to life through the courts, brings with it its own problems.
First, the tendency among South Africans to turn to the courts in the pursuit of change, or what is known as “lawfare.” This is problematic because the result is that the losing side tends to blame the judiciary, not their political party rivals. This structuring of political conflicts entails its own tensions, which must be managed.
Critical moments ahead
South Africa is now approaching a peak in its political cycle. This year, the African National Congress is scheduled to elect both new provincial and national leadership. All eyes see the balance of power between President Cyril Ramaphosa and his rivals in his party. In 2024, the country will hold a parliamentary election, with simultaneous voting for both the parliament and each of the nine provincial legislatures.
NGOs and the rest of civil society can increase the pressure on, for example, ANC leaders accused of corruption by being re-elected by their faction to ANC offices and structures.
So far, the opposition parties are doing best in local elections, and the ANC is doing best in parliamentary elections. But no matter what, South Africa can expect to hear much more from the new Defend Democracy organization, plus 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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