A tainted freedom

Phephelaphi Dube reflects on Freedom Day 2018

A tainted freedom – Reflections on Freedom Day 2018

30 April 2018

24 years ago, South Africans from all walks of life stood in snaking queues to cast votes in the nation’s historic first multi-racial democratic elections. The mood for most, was buoyant, if not a little uncertain, given the challenges that lay ahead for the nation.

Today, South Africa’s position as a constitutional democracy is well solidified, with its citizens, to a large extent, enjoying the nation’s democratic dividends. There has been visible progress - notably in areas such as electrification - across the country. Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) shows that in 1994 to 1995, 50.9% of South African households had access to electricity, that figure by 2012 had increased to 85.3%. In general, while crime rates are at unacceptably high levels, the murder rate in particular has decreased, although this fact has done little to assuage the perceptions regarding the prevalence of violence in South Africa. In 1995, the nation’s murder rate stood at 66.9 per 100 000 people according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). In 2012 to 2013, the murder rate, according to the South African Police Service (SAPS) had decreased to 31.3 per 100 000 people. 

Another positive aspect is the fact that South Africans living in formal housing has steadily increased from 65.1% in 1996, to 77.6% in 2013 according to Stats SA. In the same period, the number of South Africans dwelling in informal settlements decreased from 16.3% to just 13.6%.

While concerns over the quality of education offered in schools across South Africa remain, however, the enrollment figures at secondary school level according to the World Bank Development Indicators, stand at almost 100%. Coupled with this, Stats SA found that the majority of young people aged 20 to 34 have a higher level of education than their parents.

This suggests, at the bare minimum, that South Africa’s democratic dividend is being enjoyed by its citizens. This, however, is an incomplete narrative, as governance failures in key state institutions, including organs of state, threaten the hard-won freedoms which the 1994 ballot box assured.  These failings in turn, erode the democratic dividend which the constitutional democracy supposedly assures. As such, while South Africa, relative to its counterparts on the African continent, may score favourably on the Democracy Index (the Index), a closer inspection reveals that this classification is that of a ‘flawed democracy’. Using indicators such as functioning of government, political participation, political culture and human rights, the Index shows that South Africa, despite an entrenched human rights culture, has problems of poor governance. This poor governance problem is coupled with underdeveloped political culture, as well as low levels of political participation. 

South Africa finds itself on the cusp of political changes, including other ‘hot potato’ issues such as possible amendments to the property clause in the Constitution, as well as ensuring a sustainable free higher education funding model. This requires astute and ethical leadership across all sectors of society. In forging ahead, the preamble in the Constitution contains an injunction to “improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”. This should serve as a beacon to ensure increased and improved dividends of democracy. 

By Ms Phephelaphi Dube, Director, Centre for Constitutional Rights, 30 April 2018