Disgruntled with democracy

Andrew Donaldson on the rising dissatisfaction of the youth in SA and abroad


A NEW study, hailed as the most comprehensive of its kind, suggests that millennials in democracies throughout the world, including South Africa, are more disillusioned with their system of government than any young generation in living memory. 

Worryingly, these ingrates grow more enthusiastic about democracy when it empowers populists, whether on the left or right. The little bastards are also more likely to regard those who don’t share their opinions or beliefs as morally flawed.

Researchers at Cambridge University’s Bennet Institute for Public Policy drew on data from nearly five million people in more than 160 countries who were interviewed between 1973 and 2020. They found that those born between 1981 and 1996 had considerably less faith in democratic institutions than their parents or grandparents did when they were in their 20s and 30s.

According to their reportGlobal Satisfaction with Democracy 2020, this collapse in trust is particularly evident in the “Anglo-Saxon democracies”, like the United Kingdom, the US and Australia. But similar trends were noted in Sub-Saharan Africa, southern Europe and Latin America. Of the 2.3 billion people in the countries covered by the report, 1.6 billion — or seven out ten — live in states with sharply declining satisfaction in democracy. 

In Britain, for example, 62 per cent of Generation X-ers — those born between 1965 and 1980 — reported a satisfaction with democracy during the 1990s and 2000s. For millennials, this has dropped to 48 per cent. In 1973, when the study started, 54 per cent of 30-year-old Britons were satisfied with democracy.

Unfortunately, there are no corresponding figures for many African countries, which were among the last in the world to experience widespread democratisation. Several states only had their first relatively free and fair elections in the 1990s, following long post-independence periods of despotic rule. Public faith in democracy was then quite robust, according to the researchers. 

“In every country first surveyed at that time — South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Mali, and Ghana — a majority of the public expressed a positive view of the performance of democracy in their country. Such enthusiasm is unsurprising: given the deeply corrupt, personalistic, and brutal systems of rule which prevailed across Sub-Saharan Africa prior to democratisation.”

Hopes were soon dashed, though, as crime, urban poverty and persistent corruption eroded democratic legitimacy. In South Africa, singled out as a “country of focus” in the report, the blame for this dissatisfaction lies firmly with the ANC. 

“Of all the democratic transitions that occurred from the 1970s to 1990s … few raised as much hope or excitement as the fall of apartheid in South Africa and its succession by a multiracial, pluralist democracy,” the authors state. “Barring the period following Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994, for which no data is available, optimism regarding the health of democracy in South Africa subsequently peaked in the mid-2000s, towards the end of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency.”

At the time the economy was growing at an average rate of 4.5 per cent a year, a significant black middle class was emerging and it seemed that the country was succeeding in combining a globally-integrated free market economy with a social transformation programme. Then came a spectacular slump as the problems due economic mismanagement, crime and clientelism increased.

“Already under Mbeki, electricity rationing and widespread blackouts in 2008 revealed a deeper legacy of underinvestment and energy overallocation for political ends. The next year Jacob Zuma, who had previously been charged for corruption, won the presidency as candidate for the African National Congress. Under his administration from 2009 to 2018 a majority of South Africans turned negative in their evaluation of their democracy for the first time.

“The Zuma years have been characterised by economic stagnation, with per capita income declining for six successive years and unemployment levels rising. Yet be- hind this lies a more fundamental political decay — misuse of resources, indebted- ness in state-owned entities, rising public debt, and outflows of foreign capital — which Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has vowed to reverse.”

None of which is perhaps new to any of us. But the authors do suggest a number of other factors that may have contributed to global discontent. The financial crises, foreign policy failures and the rise of populism has eroded perceptions that western democratic institutions produce effective balanced governance. Elsewhere, in Latin America, Africa and Asia, it’s the same old, same old: corruption, criminality, and state fragility.

There is also the hopeful suggestion that rising dissatisfaction is a reflection of higher civic standards, that millennials are better educated and informed than previous generations when it comes to the integrity of politicians. The authors suggest this is highly unlikely; if this was the case, quality government would exist hand-in-hand with a critical public. In reality, though, most politically satisfied societies are those in which institutions are transparent, responsive, and free of corruption, and those where satisfaction is at its lowest are uniformly characterised by instability and conflict.

“If confidence in democracy has been slipping,” the authors state, “then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.”

Well, doh! But you try telling these young scamps anything and see where you get. 

Meanwhile, the report reveals that there are a number of countries where satisfaction with democracy is at an all-time high. They are generally the small, unfussy places: Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example. 

Significantly, the authors stress that the concurrence of populism and democratic satisfaction is a reminder that faith in democracy is not the same as a belief in liberal principles or values. This is as much due to congruence between popular sentiment and the attitudes expressed by the political class, whatever those sentiments may be. They also point out that a growing dissatisfaction with democracy did not mean that voters will support an autocratic alternative. They’re merely frustrated that their government isn’t working for them. 

The big struggle — oddly enough — is to convince them they are permitted to vote for a different government. The sky will not fall on their heads should that happen.

One for the Human Resources department

The ANC has written to senior advocate Gcina Malindi for guidelines on how members implicated in corruption should be asked to “step aside”. The party also wants a legal opinion on whether family members of politicians should be barred from doing business with the state. It’s as if they have enough on their plate, thank you very much, and don’t need further trouble with labour lawyers at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. Moreover, and according to News24’s sources, Malindi was approached by none other than secretary-general Ace Magashule. He of much murk in the background department.

Malindi is perhaps the go-to guy in these matters. He’s well acquainted with the unusual difficulties facing the friends and relatives of politicians. He appeared for Jacob Zuma in May 2012 when the ANC launched a High Court bid to effectively ban Brett Murray’s The Spear. His client’s revealing affidavit details the unedifying effect this flattering painting had on the president’s sprawling clan and coterie of hangers-on. 

“In particular,” Accused Number One stated, “the portrait depicts me in a manner that suggests that I am a philanderer, a womaniser and one with no respect. It is an undignified depiction of my personality and seeks to create doubt about my personality in the eyes of my fellow citizens, family and children … [The] portrait is meant to convey a message that I am an abuser of power, corrupt and suffer political ineptness.” 

Well, whatever. Further details of this assault on artistic freedom can be found in my well-received monograph, Heart of Dickness: Jacob Zuma and The Spear (Tafelberg, 2012). But it seems a shame that prominent members of the ruling criminal enterprise should seek expensive legal advice on how they may get rid of themselves. Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) there are several experts standing by to offer their services at a fraction of the cost.

An old thickening plot

On Monday, the Economic Freedom Fighters marked the 34th anniversary of the Samora Machel’s death with a promise that, when it is swept into power, it will reopen the “inconclusive investigation” into the aircraft crash that claimed the lives of the Mozambican president and 33 others. 

As they put it, “President Machel was killed by apartheid South Africa for his undying commitment to the full freedom of all African people in the region. Mozambique is still reeling from President Machel’s death, as is the rest of the Southern African region. We salute President Machel and vow to pick up the spear and fight for genuine decolonisation of this country and the rest of the African continent in his honour.”

The Margo Commission, which included high-level international representations, concluded the accident was caused by pilot error. Its findings were accepted by the International Civil Aviation Organisation — although, predictably, the Mozambican and Soviet Union governments rejected them. The latter claimed that Machel’s aircraft was intentionally lured off course by a decoy radio navigation beacon set the South Africans. Speculation about the accident has continued to the present day, particularly among conspiracists. My own suspicion is that the pilot and air crew, being Russians, were drunk at the time and fighting over a bottle of vodka.

But a more interesting, though implausible theory emerged in 2007. In his book, Memories at Low Altitude: The Autobiography of a Mozambican Security Chief (Zebra, 2012), Jacinto Veloso, one of Machel’s most loyal supporters, claimed that the president’s death was due to a conspiracy between both South African and Soviet secret services.

According to Veloso, the Soviet ambassador once asked Machel for an audience to convey the USSR’s concern about Mozambique’s increasing rapprochement with the West and a “sliding away” from Soviet influence. Storming out the room, Machel supposedly told the ambassador: “Vai à merda!” This was a less than polite invitation to visit the lavatory. Convinced that Machel had irrevocably moved out of their orbit, the Soviets allegedly decided to get rid of him — even if it meant sacrificing their own aircraft and crew. 

Mad about Saffron

To the US presidential campaign, and the one area where Donald Trump is soundly beating Joe Biden: the growing number of musicians angered by the use of their work at election rallies. Latest are Phil Collins and John Fogerty. They join, among others, Adele, Aerosmith, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Eddy Grant, Elton John, Linkin Park, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Nickleback, Pharrell Williams, Prince, Queen, REM, Rihanna, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and the Village People.

In many cases, the songs selected by Trump’s people suggests an alarming tone deafness as they seem to have no idea of what they’re about. This week, for instance, lawyers representing Collins issued a cease-and-desist order following the unauthorised use of his 1981 hitIn The Air Tonight, at an October 14 rally. Its lyrics warn of a liar’s impending downfall, and its vengeful mood is established in the first line of the first verse, “Well, if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand…” 

Last Friday, Fogerty announced he would be issuing his own cease-and-desist order over the use of the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hitFortunate Son, a critique of how the the wealthy dodged the draft and avoided paying taxes. Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World is perhaps the most abused of all anthems at Trump rallies, presenting as it does a nightmarish vision of rampant capitalism, military aggression, homelessness, destitution and urban decay cynically offset by a cheerfully chugging chorus. Hugely misinterpreted, it certainly isn’t the American Dream customarily promoted at election rallies.

In want of a decent tune, perhaps the Trump campaign could try Donovan’s Mellow Yellow. Contrary to popular belief, this Sixties pop smash is not about the joys of smoking dried banana skins (there are none) or even mischief with micturating Russian prostitutes. It’s a trippy paean to a vibrator. You may be pleased to know.