Democratic Watch

Zuma at the heart of South Africa’s democratic crisis

Zuma in eye of democratic storm

Worldwide, like in South Africa, democracy seems to be in deep trouble and often- controversial heads of state are at the core of that trouble. South Africa is no exception to this trend.

In March of this year, shortly before the general election, we wrote about the wide disengagement by voters from the processes of democracy.

In an article that has just been published, celebrated author Don Tapscott for LinkedIn under the title “Is Democracy in Deep Trouble?” writes: “We need more than changes to politics. It’s time to reinvent democracy itself – everywhere.”

The details of the democratic crisis might differ somewhat from country to country, but there are some trends that are quite common. One of those fingered by Tapscott is that “… everywhere democratic governments seem stalled, and citizens are getting fed up …” and “everywhere, it seems government leaders are behaving badly”.

Among the examples he lists are British MP’s secretive and outlandish expense claims, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s “immoral and illegal” actions and Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s drug and drinking habits.

Only last week the proliferation of controversies President Jacob Zuma constantly finds himself involved in, and his ducking and diving to avoid accountability, threatened to bring the South African parliament to a standstill.

While the immediate crisis facing the South African parliament seems to have been averted by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s intervention that might not be the end of it. Unless there comes full transparency as to Ramaphosa’s role (or absence of a role) in calling the public order police unit to parliament, as head of government business in parliament, he might soon himself tarnished by controversy.

There is also the possibility that he might be implicated in the Marikana tragedy in the final Farlam Commission’s report.

Then there is also strong evidence that the controversies surrounding Mr Zuma have played a role in the disappointing participation of voters in the May elections, especially in areas like Gauteng. It is also there that he was booed at the Mandela memorial service.

Low voter participation in elections is another prominent factor in democracy’s worldwide crisis, highlighted by Tapscott: “As the recent US congressional elections show, a growing number of citizens aren’t voting, reasoning that their ballot won’t change anything. Especially young citizens, people everywhere agree with the bumper sticker: ‘Don’t Vote! It Only Encourages Them!’”

According to him, with the recent congressional elections and the determination of many Republicans to shift congress “from a lame duck to a dead duck (presidency), the US has entered a tipping point”.

With Mr Zuma having largely disappeared from the public eye on all matters of critical local importance, including parliament, South Africa is increasingly finding itself with a lame duck presidency of its own.

In the latest congressional elections in the US the voter turnout was only 36%, the lowest since 1942. In a pattern, also seen in South Africa, “increasingly young people feel voting is a waste of time. They are looking for other ways to bring about social change. A new youth radicalization has begun,” Tapscott writes.

In March this year we also reported: “A study of 49 democracies found that there had been a decline in voter turnout of 10% points between 1980-84 and 2007-13. A survey of seven European countries in 2012 found that more than half of voters ‘had no trust in government’ whatsoever.”

And in South Africa, amid rising service delivery protests and even land invasions, effectively only 55% of voters took part in the May general election. About 25% of eligible citizens did not even bother to register as voters.

More than democracy at stake

Democracy’s crisis will not be resolved by political leadership alone. In fact, the democratic crisis coincides with a crisis in its twin economic system of free market capitalism.

On 23 October this year the conservative and authoritative German magazine Der Spiegel published an article by its editor, Michael Sauga, under the telling headline “The Zombie System: How Capitalism Has Gone Off the Rails,” airing concerns about social cohesion worldwide.

And last week Garth Cilliers wrote that the world might soon be facing a “Berlin Wall moment” again in the near future – this time on the global economic/financial front.

On the crisis facing democracy and its relation to the world of economic and business activity, Tapscott writes: “Businesses and entrepreneurs need to care, because if democracy is in trouble so is the free market system. Business can't succeed in a world that's failing.”

Deputy President Ramaphosa did well with multi-party talks to avert the immediate crisis in parliament, but a much wider national dialogue involving civil society in all its formations is needed to steer the country through the crisis time that has already started.

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by Piet Coetzer

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