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Democracy loses its glow for South Africans amid persistent inequality

There is a sense of disempowerment among especially young South Africans.
Image: Luca Sola/AFP/Getty Images

South Africans believed that the introduction of democracy in 1994 would transform their lives for the better through equality of opportunities. This hasn’t happened.

Socio-economic inequality and job scarcity, as well as unequal opportunity to quality education have created a view that democracy has not delivered a better life for all.

The country celebrates 28 years of democracy at a time when democracy is under threat globally, in the context of growing inequality and mistrust in democratic institutions.

Increasingly, scholars focus on what makes democracy valuable amid its decline. This is important given the global rise in populist and anti-democratic politics and authoritarianism.

The Human Science Research Council’s South African Social Attitudes Survey, conducted annually, show that South Africans are increasingly dissatisfied with democracy. In 2004, when the country celebrated a decade of democracy, 59% were satisfied with democracy. Now only 32% are satisfied with how democracy is working in South Africa.

Democratic satisfaction: Constructed from the Human Science Research Council South African Social Attitudes Survey

Some are asking whether South Africans are giving up on democracy. And what’s to be made of some political elites who are speaking out against the value of the country’s constitutional democracy?

After almost three decades of democracy, it is important to ask: What meaning do South Africans attach to the idea of democracy? This is important considering that democracies endure when there is an intrinsic commitment to democratic values and principles, even during economic hardship.

Based on my research, as well as the results of recent surveys, it’s clear that there is a sense of disempowerment among South Africans, most notably among young people. This sense of disempowerment is premised on the view that their voice, life choices, and sense of freedom are undermined by a lack of equality of opportunity.

This inequality of opportunity is seen as a form of continued oppression informed by the view that the quality of life has not necessarily improved for most South Africans.

Views of democracy

South Africans attach an instrumentalist value to democracy. This is evident in the views that democracy does not deliver, most notably among the youth. Democracy is valued more because of delivering socio-economic goods such as social welfare, housing, and income grants. They don’t necessarily view democracy as having intrinsic value as the best political system to achieve a just society based on human rights, dignity, freedom and equality.

In other words, they value democracy based on what it can do for them, not because they believe it is the best form of government.

This is evident in the growing levels of institutional mistrust and growing political disengagement from formal democratic processes like voting.

This creates a weak foundation for the sustainability of the country’s democracy in that in times of economic hardship, the legitimacy of democracy as a political system declines in the public view. Therefore, democracy becomes ‘illegitimate’ because it cannot deliver social and economic goods to create equality of opportunity.

It is not surprising that citizens place a high value on equality as an essential democratic principle given that South Africa is still the most unequal society globally.

Why do South Africans hold a strong instrumentalist attachment to democracy? The answer may lie in the expectations of what freedom and democracy meant in 1994, when apartheid came to an end.

Tales of despair

My research shows that the ‘Dream of 1994’ was the restoration of human dignity, something centuries of settler colonialism and apartheid had denied the black majority. Indeed, asked what 1994 meant for them, an interviewee said:

I was very happy. I felt extremely happy because this was the first time that black people gained freedom … And it made me feel free as a person as well. Even just strolling around I felt free; I didn’t have to be so conscious around white people. There was no longer any fear … I felt good, really good. What I was thinking. I was thinking that now we are free. That you can talk with everybody, you can walk with everybody. You know, that you can be friends with everyone that you want to be friends with. I thought that now that the party {the ANC} would take over, they’d know what we had gone through then.

Equality of opportunity was an essential characteristic of what the ‘Dream of 1994’ meant for South Africans. An interviewee reflected:

Talking of expectations, because I grew up in that old era, in that old regime. So my intention was, should Nelson Mandela be free, we would be living in a free country … our expectations were that we would gain free education and that there’d be lots of jobs, that everyone would be employed, things like that. And that everyone would have his or her own house, things like that … and those were the things that we expected, which I expected.

The sense that freedom and democracy remain an illusion was more palpable among the youth. An interviewee said:

I think, in my own opinion for those who lived before 1994, their aim of freedom was to free Mandela, then after it was to have their own black government. But for me, who was born in 1987, the word freedom for me is still an idea … the reason I say that is because for me the word freedom is too big for South Africa. If education was free, then I would say yes, we have freedom.

Historical patterns

South Africans see a continuation of historical patterns of exclusion and marginalisation where equality of opportunity is not a lived reality for many.

And, given that South Africans may continue to delegitimise democracy on the basis that it has not delivered on the expectations of the Dream of 1994, stronger populist and anti-democratic rhetoric are likely to take root in the future.The Conversation

Joleen Steyn Kotze, Chief Research Specialist in Democracy and Citizenship at the Human Science Research Council and a Research Fellow Centre for African Studies, University of the Free State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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What is the alternative –A full blown dictatorship and civil war??
Democracy is viewed through the eyes who have been deceived by their leaders and their lies — NOT by Democracy !!
Sadly you get exactly what you voted for in a Democracy.
The SA populace thoroughly deserve every bit of misery they voted for !!!

What has kept inequality persistent for SA and the rest of Africa is corruption, mismanagement and policies like bee.

The SA youth have persistently voted themselves into economic servitude through persistently voting for the ANC (or eff) in spite of overwhelming evidence of the above.

You get what you vote for.

Democracy is alive and well, and working perfectly in South Africa. Democracy delivers exactly what it is supposed to. A democratic dispensation enables citizens to express their mindset, attitude, and cultural belief systems. Democracy simply reflects the level of sophistication of the voter. It delivers the manifestation of the mindset of the majority. Democracy works. If we are not satisfied with the results, it says that we are not satisfied with the voters!

For some groups, this means economic prosperity, full employment, clean audits, functional roads, and working infrastructure. For other communities, the unemployment, poverty, and sewage that runs down the streets to fill the potholes and pollute the rivers, is the accurate manifestation of their mindsets.

Both these groups throw the same piece of paper into the same ballot box. The fact that they tick different boxes on that piece of paper makes all the difference. This actually proves the efficiency and power of democracy. The position of that little mark can stop your neighbor’s sewage from running into your child’s room and can create employment opportunities for yourself and your entire family.

Democracy is so powerful and dangerous that some groups should be protected from themselves. A pen and ballot in the hands of a collectivist are like a loaded shotgun in the hands of a child. They cause destruction and mayhem, mostly to themselves, with their vote. There are various ways in which we can protect collectivist voters from themselves.

China simply removed all the alternatives for voters. The government decides what is best for citizens. Although the Chinese Communist Party is highly efficient, citizens are not free.

In our democracy, we can privatize everything that can be damaged by collectivist voters. Privatization will act as a circuit-breaker between the mindset of the voter and the level of sophistication of infrastructure and services.

Alternatively, we can restrict the right to vote to citizens who have a certain level of education, pays a certain amount of taxes, or owns a title deed. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas though.

The fact that we have all these viable and highly efficient solutions, and choose not to implement them, again, proves the power of democracy. We constantly use, and implement, our democratic right to destroy ourselves.

That brings us to the realization that, in a democracy, it is impossible to prevent a collectivist voter to bring equilibrium between his circumstances and his mindset. If the voting majority is collectivist, the circumstances will look like the Transkei.

Exactly — The Transkei is the longest democratic part of SA. look at all the smart cities, bullet trains and prosperous economically active and industrialization they manage to achieve over 50 years !!!!

It is clear that the majority do not understand the meaning of democracy and freedom. Freedom does not mean free stuff. It means that people have the right and the power to destroy themselves and their surroundings.

Voters are free to use their votes to destroy the economy, infrastructure, and job opportunities. Therefore, freedom is unsustainable and unviable without accountability. Accountability is not part of the collectivist mindset. This means that democracy enables collectivist communities to destroy themselves. It is clear that freedom and democracy cannot exist for long in collectivist communities, and it never does.

Democracy is a powerful enabling force that multiplies the positive or negative attributes of voters.

Democracy is an illusion, a word used so often by the ruling elite it has become meaningless. We are taught from a young age that it is our duty to vote – when the choice is between arsenic or cyanide, abstention is also a vote.

Democracy is dominated by group think and herd mentality, the fear of not being part of the collective. You vote for one set of career politicians or the other, but they have one overwhelming trait in common – self serving interest, not yours. The “wishes” of the least qualified at assessing their choices, become the deciding factor, hence the term pandering to the lowest common denominator, which is what career politicians are experts at.

Look at the French election over the weekend. Out of 48 million registered voters, nearly 30% abstained (the most in 60 years). 38% voted for Macron and 32% for Le Pen. You now have Macron back in power where only 18m out 48m people voted for him. 15m voted against him and 14m abstained for one reason or another – i doubt a major reason was indifference. As such i expect that this term will be dominated by protests that will make the yellow vest ones pale – they will have fuel from nearly 2/3rds of the population.

Do i have an alternative suggestion, probably not now, with the state of most of the western world, not just SA. However, i would start by eliminating careers politicians, establish strict term limits. Politicians are hardly likely to impose laws and regulations (taxes) that cripple them when they leave office. Make qualifications essential specifically relevant to your office, with a track record of successful work experience, not just an arts or social sciences degree, if any at all. How many presidents/ PMs the world over are voted in and then appoint an absurdly incompetent herd of friends and cadres to powerful positions (in control of massive budgets), as rewards for “loyalty”. Same when cabinets are reshuffled. Try running a business like this and see how long you stay solvent. Hence the reason most western governments are not. Maybe abstention at a certain % threshold should trigger and void the vote – to be rerun?

How do you change a rigged system though – typically start with a large scale drive in real education. Teaching the next generation how to think critically and independently. Not what to think. The ruling elite have been doing the opposite for 50 years intentionally and are hardly likely to change now.

The public company structure is the most democratic and benevolent system ever invented. People get two distinct chances to vote and accountability is enforced throughout the entire structure.

Firstly, the number of shares purchased by the investor determines the weight of his vote to influence the direction of the company, elect board members, appoint managers, and serve consumers, while it also aligns his interests with the interests of other shareholders, consumers, and the company in general.

Secondly, consumers who are not shareholders, actually have more power than the owners themselves. Consumers vote with their money. They put their money where their mouths are, so to speak. Consumers, as a group, use their vote to determine the bankruptcy or the prosperity of this company. They vote for, or against the wealth of the shareholders on an ongoing basis. The election is an ongoing, daily process and lasts for as long as the shops are open.

If some company delivers a better product at a better price, voters will immediately fire the old company, and support the new company and its shareholders, as they fired Nokia to support Samsung. Think what advantages this could bring if we abandoned political municipal structures in favor of private companies?

Similar to any government, the company also employs people. In contrast with any government, those employees are forced to be accountable to consumers. Unlike government employees, the employees of a private company are rewarded in direct proportion to their level of service to consumers. Employees who neglect consumers will face immediate disciplinary action and be fired.

When a company is plagued by corruption to such an extent that it detracts from the consumer’s experience, that company will simply go bankrupt. Anyhow, unlike in the case of a government structure, if the board members, or managers are corrupt, the consumer still loses nothing. The cost of corruption is borne entirely by the owners of that company. Steinhoff’s clients lost nothing. They still had voluntary access to mattresses. The owners(investors) were punished immediately by the market with a loss of 90% of share value. It is similar to the local government corruption being ringfenced in Luthuli House. Wouldn’t that be great? Cyril would have lost 90% of his BEE billions before the first sitting of the Zondo Commission!

We need to privatize the entire political and economic structure and allow market forces to sort out the criminality and inefficiencies for the benefit of all citizens.

“South Africa is still the most unequal society globally.” Because it’s run by the corrupt. How hard was that?

Equal opportunities will not solve inequalities in SA. As a white South African I could not study because my parents just could not afford it. That did not stop me from studying once I could afford it, but with great sacrifice. I sometimes think politicians has no mathematics skills. Say we take all the jobs from whites in South Africa that gives about 1.5 million or so free jobs. Given 7.8 million jobless minus 1.5 million still leaves 6.3 million jobless. How is BEE going to provide those 6.3 million with job opportunities seeing no more colonists are stealing their jobs. In my experience I have seen that BEE has caused more Black South Africans to loose their jobs than creating jobs for them. South Africa does not need more graduates, it needs more artisans that can build it.

Zululand has never been out of their hands for at least 400 years and today it still is an overgrazed donga with pregnant teenagers carrying a mobile phone, that she pays for with a social grant

End of comments.




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