Five problems with SA's democracy

Ernst Roets says the reality is that our system is at best crippled and at worst not worthy of that description

Five reasons why South Africa should rather not be called a “democracy”

There are few words in any language that are as popular as the word "democracy". The term has become a buzzword that is so frequently used that its true significance has largely been lost.

In 1849 already the French statesman Francois Guizot noted that the idea of democracy is rhetorically so overwhelming that no government or party can survive without showing itself to be serving democracy. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) even declared decades ago that there is no longer any official disapproval of democracy.

Everyone wants to be democratic and even the cruellest dictators claim to be democrats. The term is tossed around daily in political debates, often by people who have no idea what it means. It is in this context that Francis Fukuyama noted that there are about as many definitions of the word "democracy" as there are jurists. It is in this spirit that Giovanni Sartori made the comment that "democracy" can be defined as a "high flown name for something that does not exist".

Needless to say, the idea of democracy is also extremely popular in South Africa. South Africa is often described as one of the world's most modern democracies and it is often claimed that the rest of the world can learn from South Africa what democracy actually means.

This is nonsense. The reality is that South Africa is at best about a crippled democracy and at worst it is not worthy of the term "democracy". The reason is that there are certain basic conditions for democracy, which are not to be found anywhere in South Africa.

I point out five of these conditions:

1. “You have fewer rights because you are a minority.”

“Sorry, we have more rights here because we are a majority. You have fewer rights because you are a minority. Absolutely, that’s how democracy works.” With these words, the President of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, proved to the world that the government has no idea what the word “democracy” means. What Zuma described here, is majority domination or majoritarianism.

The basic difference between democracy and majoritarianism is that minorities in a democracy are safeguarded. In a healthy democracy, minority groups not only have the same rights as the majority, but there should be special measures in place to ensure that the minority is not be suppressed by the majority. The only way to accomplish this is to give more rights to minorities, not less. In South Africa this is certainly not the case. On the contrary, the government is convinced that minority rights are "contra-democratic" because they do not know what democracy means.

2. Institutionalised, permanent discrimination

South Africa is the only country in the world where affirmative action is applied to protect the majority against the minority. Although, according to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, affirmative action may be applied in a democracy, the distorted affirmative action policies applied in South Africa are actually illegal in terms of international law. There are two reasons for this.

In the first place, the International Labour Organisation determines that no form of affirmative action may be permanent. In the second place, any affirmative action policies must ensure that non-racialism is promoted. South Africa's affirmative action policy is permanent because it is based on national demographics and it promotes racialism, instead of curbing it. A basic prerequisite for democracy is that non-racialism should not only exist on paper, but must be promoted in practice.

3. Accountable government

Another fundamental requirement for any democracy is that the government must be transparent and accountable. If the South African government were transparent and accountable, there would not be a cloud of controversy surrounding senior political appointments such as that of the Chief Justice and the national police commissioner.

If South Africa had a responsible government, the government would not use R246 million of taxpayers' money to “renovate” the president's private residence. The president's friends would not be able to use military air force bases and parliament would not be considered as a circus by the general public.

4. Healthy political landscape

Certain basic political factors are prerequisites for the functioning of a healthy democracy. One is that the government must change regularly (and peacefully). This implies that the opposition must be strong enough that there would be a substantial risk that the ruling party will lose power if they do not govern effectively.

In South Africa, the ruling ANC can virtually “govern” the country into the ground without fear that they will be voted out in the next election. This is compounded by the fact that the ANC to this day refuses to refer to itself as a political party, but in their strategy documents still refers to itself as a liberation movement that intends to carry out a revolution.

5. Rule of law

Fair enough, in South Africa there are still excellent judges and the government is often called to account in the courts. But is this sufficient reason to believe that there is universal respect for the rule of law in this country? Surely not.

In a country where the rule of law is respected, it would in the first place not have been possible for anyone who is charged with 783 counts of corruption to pursue any significant career, let alone become president of the country. The arms scandal (for which we are still waiting for answers) would never have happened and the government's recent failure to extradite an alleged perpetrator of genocide to the International Criminal Court would never have created an embarrassment to the country and its citizens.

Karl Popper rightly raises his concern about the "paradox of democracy" when he says that in a so-called democracy it is possible to elect a person as head of state who may then use that power to establish a tyranny. Samuel Huntington describes this paradox as the phenomenon where a democratically elected government manipulates the democratic institutions that are at its disposal (the parliament, the courts and other democratic institutions such as the Public Protector in South Africa's case) or suppresses it with political power in order to do undemocratic things.

For this reason we should not refer to South Africa as a democracy – or then at least not without qualifying the statement.

Ernst Roets is deputy CEO of AfriForum. Follow Ernst on Twitter at @ernstroets.