Democracy is increasingly under pressure in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa

The situation in South Africa is a microcosm of what is prevailing in the rest of Africa. The marginalised majority have continued, over these three decades, to live in hope.

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ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
Photo: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

On 7 July 2021, former President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma turned himself over to prison authorities to begin a fifteen-month jail sentence, handed down by the Constitutional Court , for failing to obey an order of court to appear before an official inquiry investigating corruption allegations he faced. His incarceration set off an unprecedented wave of protests, looting, and rioting unseen in South Africa for the entire period of its young democracy established in 1994. 

The failure of the South African government and society to address the deep structural challenges inherited from apartheid, roll back poverty, create employment, and narrow the inequality gap will continue to threaten its stability #VasuGounden

Major highways were barricaded, a large number of long-haul trucks were burnt along the main arterial road from the port city of Durban to the economic heartland of Johannesburg in an attempt to destabilise supply lines and cripple the already weak economy. This was followed by six days of rioting and looting of businesses in and around Durban and Johannesburg that led to the death of over three hundred people and the destruction of 50 billion Rands ($3.3 billion) of commercial property and goods.

The sheer scale and pace of the destruction was unprecedented in a democratic South Africa and left a grossly unprepared security apparatus paralyzed. The local police and intelligence services were found wanting when it came to anticipating and responding to the chaos, prompting the President to deploy the military to arrest the situation. In the absence of the police, citizens turned to arming themselves and hiring private security to protect their property and families.

On 1 November 2021, fresh out of the six days of chaos, South Africans went to the polls to elect representatives for local government, the tier of governance where service delivery matters. The voter turnout was the lowest it had been in years and the ruling African National Congress  (ANC) of Nelson Mandela was punished at the polls by polling less than fifty percent for the first time since it took power in 1994. ANC voters did not necessarily vote for other parties but they stayed away from the polls. However, the two major parties, the ANC, a centre-left party and the Democratic Alliance a centre-right party lost votes to urban parties on the right, signifying a shift among elites to the right.

The incidents of July and the election results of November 01, have implications for the future of democracy in South Africa and the rest of Africa. The initial violent protests, which were clearly orchestrated, quickly morphed into widespread looting and rioting which was driven by a number of factors including a failure by successive governments to deal with an exponentially growing population that was rapidly urbanising into an unchanged apartheid-era spatial development that accentuated race and class, coupled with a slow growing economy that was not creating jobs or meeting the developmental needs of its growing population. The consequence was increased poverty, unemployment and inequality. The COVID-19 pandemic, and especially the lockdowns that the government introduced to prevent the spread of the disease and to ease the pressure on the health services, has exacerbated these underlying socio-economic tensions in the South African society, and has further undermined social cohesion and public trust.

In Africa hope is turning to frustration and desperation and people are taking to the streets to remove governments, turn to radicalised extremists, or to criminal syndicates to meet their basic needs #VasuGounden

The inability of the police to deal with the situation for six days further eroded any trust that citizens and the private sector had in the government to provide them with security. This resort to private arms will lead to a more securitised and militarised country with the police competing with private security and private citizens to have a monopoly on arms and violence. In addition, the rise of vigilantism which resulted in some of the killings had racial overtones that threaten the fragile social cohesion that exists in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society with deep class fissures. 

South Africa is arguably Africa’s most advanced and sophisticated economy. It has delivered regular free and fair elections and thus far it has been relatively stable. However, its failure to address the deep structural challenges inherited from apartheid and roll back poverty, create employment, and narrow the inequality gap will continue to threaten its stability. The State which oversees a deteriorating public service, including a police service that is increasingly challenged to maintain law and order is fast losing the trust and confidence of its citizens. This will lead to an electorate that, like other parts of the world, either disengages from exercising its democratic right to vote or will in its vote prioritise stability over democracy. 

This move to the right begs the question of whether democracy is delivering or dying. The situation in South Africa is a microcosm of what is prevailing in the rest of Africa. Three decades of neoliberal democracy has seen small groups of political and business elites benefiting by exploiting state resources through a system of corruption and cronyism under the guise of democracy. The marginalised majority have continued, over these three decades, to live in hope. 

South Africa will have to make stark choices in how they configure their social compact to maintain stability and democracy and ensure rapid development #VasuGounden

However, it is increasingly clear that that hope is turning to frustration and desperation and people are taking to the streets to remove governments or turning to radicalised extremists, or criminal syndicates to meet their basic needs. In response, we have seen a steady move to authoritarianism either through the centralisation of power by force or the removal of governments and the subsequent centralisation of power by the military. 

South Africa is not in danger of being replaced by an authoritarian government or the military anytime soon. However, if nothing changes it will steadily move on this trajectory. South Africa will therefore have to make stark choices on how they configure their social compact to maintain stability and democracy and ensure rapid development. It has a choice to continue along its neoliberal path in the hope that this will eventually deliver inclusive development, or like several African countries it can shift its eye towards the Chinese model of developmental authoritarianism in the hope that it will get stability and development. A third option may be for South Africa and other African countries to forge their own social compact that ensures development and democracy, creating the conditions for stability. Such a social democratic compact has been successfully implemented in the Nordic countries with exceptional results for democracy, development, equity, and stability.  

Adv Vasu Gounden is the founder and executive director of ACCORD.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

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