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South Africa’s democratic space is shrinking

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In its constitution and through the existence of its constitutionally guaranteed institutions, South Africa is a much-admired democracy. But in recent times the democratic space has come under attack.

The following are examples of recent events in South Africa that should have red lights flashing in this regard:


Chapter 1 of the constitution lists the founding provisions, including a multi-party system of democratic government, ensuring accountability, responsiveness and openness; and

Chapter 4 provides for a parliament elected on the basis of proportional representation. The founding intention was to include even the smallest minority in the highest central legislative and decision-making process to be heard in a spirit of compromise and accommodation.

Neither accountability, responsiveness and openness, nor the hearing and accommodation of minority parties have been practised much by the ruling majority party, the ANC, in the past year or more.

Arguably the unorthodox manner in which the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) tried to make its case in parliament may have triggered a knee-jerk reaction from the ANC. But the EFF together with the Democratic Alliance (DA) also represent an increasing threat to the ANC’s near monopoly on political power.

The reaction was to undemocratically limit and undermine the opposition’s effectiveness and ability to expose the ruling party’s sins and to attract popular support or generate opposition to the ANC.


Chapter 9 of the constitution prescribes six institutions intended to strengthen constitutional democracy, including the very important watchdog institution, the public protector.

Ever since current incumbent adv. Thuli Madonsela first investigated the Nkandla affair, President Zuma and/or the ANC have variously ignored, insulted and undermined her. Their actions are most likely unconstitutional. We suspect the Constitutional Court may yet confirm as much.

The treatment dished out to parliament and the public protector could undermine public confidence in these institutions and may spread to the other Chapter 9 institutions. If left unchallenged, it is likely to threaten their effective functioning and limit the democratic space within which South Africans can engage.


Chapter 2 of the constitution, to avoid a repeat of the infringements on press freedom of the apartheid era, in under the Bill of Rights, the freedom of expression and of the press and other media is explicitly protected.

Complaining that the mainstream media in South Africa is biased against it and under the guise of media transformation demands, the ANC and/or its cohorts and associates have extended their hold on the media by new media ventures. These include the Gupta-owned New Age newspaper; the ANC-friendly Sekunjalo Independent Media consortium’s buying of Independent newspaper group with the help of among others the Government Employees Pension Fund, a trust fund of the Umkhonto WeSizwe Veterans’ Association, trade union interests, and two Chinese state-owned companies.

The public broadcaster, the SABC, has been effectively transformed into a state broadcaster serving the ruling party’s interests, especially at election time.

SABC’s regional radio services have a near monopoly on information to rural populations, the ANC’s largest support base.

Even at “independent” e.TV government and political interference was recently one of the issues leading to the acrimonious departure of Hosken Consolidated Investment chairman Marcel Golding.

In the words of Alec Hogg on Biznews.com: “The Jacob Zuma Supporter’s Club celebrated another media sector victory yesterday. With the SABC tied up, Independent Newspapers and Gupta TV and newspaper in very friendly hands, the next target was the 12m viewers of e.tv.”

And still on the ANC agenda are plans for a media tribunal to strengthen control over the sector.

Zimbabwe-styled registration of journalists has also been mooted by SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, an ANC cadre deployee whose suspension has recently been ordered by the High Court.

Part of the assault on media freedom is the Protection of State Information Bill (passed but awaiting presidential sign-off) and the declaring of places of public interest, like President Zuma’s Nkandla homestead, national key points about which the media cannot write. A judge recently ruled that it was unlawful and unconstitutional for government to not reveal the approximately 250 national key points.

Other examples

Other examples of the growing assault on democracy in South Africa include:

• the unprecedented use by the ANC of public order police to evict opposition MPs from parliament;

• the police under command of a deputy provincial police commissioner last month assisting a disgraced ANC mayor in Mogalakwena, Limpopo, who had lawfully been removed from office, to forcefully try and reclaim the mayor’s seat;

• the calling in of the police at various ANC political meetings to remove dissenting members; and

• the right to freedom of association, assailed when the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA) was kicked out of the ANC-allied Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) for differing with it over policy and political matters and choosing to no longer support the ANC.

In the NUMSA case a subsequent smear document, carrying the hallmark of an intelligence dirty tricks campaign, discredited NUMSA’s leaders and their associates. The country’s national intelligence agencies have also previously been roped in – unlawfully – on ANC business.

In October the SA Institute of Race Relations published a policy paper about the assault on economic freedom in South Africa, including individual liberty, protection for property rights, and respect for market principles. It cautioned that it could lead to a Venezuelan-style economic collapse.

Government has also over the past year introduced a raft of bills, acts and policy papers aimed ar radically altering property relations and rights across the spectrum – some arguably in direct conflict with the Constitution.

Then there are the ongoing attempts by the ANC for greater centralisation relating to a single public service manned by its loyal cadres and a stated desire to tamper with the current system of provinces, which could cost the DA its control of the Western Cape.

In some municipal councils the ANC has refused to accept its loss of control by democratic means, for example in Tlokwe and Oudtshoorn. In others, for example Midvaal, it is arguably resorting to gerrymandering.


In almost all of the above examples of ANC encroachment on democratic freedom, the courts and the country’s legal system in one way or another came to the rescue. The role of the judiciary and its independence under the doctrine of the separation of powers, is protected in the constitution.

However, recently Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said in a speech at UNISA, that he was experiencing “unbelievable resistance from the executive” to giving the judiciary institutional independence. Weakening the independence of the judiciary was a threat to peace, stability and constitutional democracy, he said.

In the past the ANC has repeatedly complained when court judgements went against it, accusing the judiciary of overstepping its boundaries and saying it would have to be dealt with.

Master plan

The ANC does not have a “master plan” for reducing the democratic space and replacing it with ever more intolerant authoritarianism elements. But such a notion is woven into the fabric of its guiding Strategy & Tactics doctrine. Historically, in all its various documents, statements and actions, distinct traces of such an ingrained notion can be found.

Unless guarded against vigilantly with the constitutional tools and safeguards still available, it could easily become an irreversible status quo in South Africa.

by Stef Terblanche

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