A hollowing-out of our democracy?
David Welsh detects worrying signs of corrosion in South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy.
Summary - If democracy in a divided society is to be genuine, the political system must be inclusive and the marginalisation of minorities must be avoided. This means not only that all citizens have the right to vote and form political parties but also that the ruling party refrains from steam-rolling the legitimate interests and cultural rights of minorities. Winner-take-all outcomes as a regular feature of the political process are invariably fatal. While in principle all major parties in South Africa seek votes from all racial groups, in practice voter preference correlates very strongly with race. This is not surprising as voters in every heterogeneous society invariably vote for ‘their’ (ethnic) party. The overwhelming African support for the African National Congress (ANC) reflects the belief that the ANC is both the foremost party of liberation and the best guarantor of African interests. Smaller African-based parties have been marginalised and are probably on a downward trend. Thus single-party dominance is steadily being consolidated. This will almost certainly last for at least 15 to 20 years as it is highly unlikely that the existing opposition parties, singly or in alliance, will be able to defeat the ANC. Single-party dominance may provide stability but it has caused many problems in sub-Saharan Africa. Long tenure leads to political sclerosis, arrogance, endemic corruption and, commonly, aggressive action against minority ethnic groups. Moreover, there is a seemingly irresistible urge to conflate the interests of party and state. The degeneration of single-party dominant systems can cause radical economic decline which is difficult to arrest, let alone reverse. Zimbabwe provides the most dramatic example of this. South Africa is arguably different: it is more developed and its leaders have learned valuable lessons from watching the process of degeneration in neighbouring countries. The fact that the presidency is constitutionally limited to two five-year terms is another protection against tyranny. It is unlikely that president Mbeki will seek to amend the constitution to enable him to run for a third term, though he may try to ensure that his successor is an ideological clone. What about Jacob Zuma’s suitability as a successor? He is amiable, conciliatory and has a strong following. The problem is his involvement with Schabir Shaik. Zuma’s political future depends on the outcome of Shaik’s trial and the possibility that he himself may yet be prosecuted. Curiously, Trevor Manuel is rarely mentioned as a possible contender in the presidential succession stakes. Manuel is possibly the best minister of finance the country has ever had, and his struggle credentials are impeccable. But he is coloured. This throws into question the extent to which the ANC is honouring the non-racialism enjoined by the constitution. Is it conceivable that a non-African could become ANC leader? Or is the ANC fundamentally an African nationalist organisation that will reserve key leadership positions wherever possible for Africans? This seems to be the trend. The SABC, where former ANC political “commissar” Snuki Zikalala ‘forces his underlings to toe the government line’, is a case in point. The so-called ‘chapter 9’ institutions that supposedly strengthen democracy, such as the public protector, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission for Gender Equality and the Electoral Commission, have also been stuffed with ANC supporters, thus severely compromising their independence. The post of auditor general is critical for ensuring that public money is wisely spent and that corruption in the public service is detected. Yet the present incumbent, Shauket Fakie, is currently at the centre of a controversy arising out of the arms deal, and it is as yet unclear whether he was forced or persuaded by the executive to participate in a cover-up of irregularities in the tendering process. The effectiveness of parliament as a watchdog has visibly declined. This is perhaps inevitable when both chambers are so comprehensively dominated by the ANC. The president is rarely available for questioning, and portfolio committee chairpersons with ambitions for higher office are unlikely to go against the party line. The National Council of Provinces is little more than a rubber stamp, and the provinces are essentially conveyor-belts for the implementation of policies determined by the national government. Provincial premiers are to all intents and purposes deployed by ANC headquarters. Our constitution is based on the separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary. Instead, the executive has become dominant in relation to the legislature. This trend has been strengthened by the electoral system and the ‘anti-defection’ clause, which give the executive the power to discipline recalcitrant MPs. The judiciary is still formally independent, but this could be eroded by the appointment of ‘right-minded’ judges. The outer forms of democratic constitutionalism have been maintained but there are dangerous trends that could subvert it from within.
Any critical review of the condition of South African democracy written by a white liberal is likely to be dismissed by the African National Congress (ANC) with sneers and allegations that the writer hankers after the old order of racial domination. It is a standard technique of intimidating would-be critics. Any pre-emptive attempt to assure prospective accusers that no such thoughts, even subliminal ones, are in my mind is unlikely to succeed.
Nevertheless, let me preface my analysis by saying that the South Africa of 2005 is a far better country than it was 20 years ago, when a palpably eroding system of racial domination appeared to be leading inexorably to intensified conflict and economic ruination.
We have a democratic constitution (if not as wonderful as most eulogists claim it to be) which provides protection for civil liberties and the rule of law, and a state based upon the principle of constitutionalism. Framing it was a notable achievement since apartheid South Africa hardly provided fertile soil for the cultivation of a liberal-democratic order, and neither of the major players in the constitutional negotiations, the ANC and the National Party (NP), came to the table with strong liberal-democratic proclivities. To have retained democratic forms in so unequal and conflict-ravaged a society for ten years is no mean achievement, but it should not shield the ruling party from criticism, even coming from quarters of which it is deeply suspicious.
Sustaining democracy in divided societies is not easy, as the collapse of many ethnically-divided states’ political systems attests. Comparative analysis strongly suggests two strategies that must be implemented if genuine (as opposed to sham) democracy is to be a reality. First, the political system must be inclusive, which means more than guaranteeing that all citizens, whatever their race or ethnic background, have the right to vote and to form political parties. It means also that the ruling party should refrain from steam-rolling the legitimate interests and cultural rights of minorities. This is in no sense a veiled plea for some form of minority veto; merely a hope that where legitimate interests on either side come into conflict they be mutually accommodated by a process of bargaining and give-and-take. Put simply, ‘winner-take-all’ outcomes as a regular feature of the political process are invariably fatal to democracy in divided societies.
Secondly, the marginalisation of minorities must be avoided. This proposition follows logically from the first. I have long favoured broad-based governments of national unity (GNU) as a means of coping with ethnic/racial divisions. It is a device that is being used in several states in Africa as they attempt to pick up the pieces of failed democratic political systems. It is, obviously, unrealistic to suppose that the GNU of the interim constitution could be resurrected; but the wider issue remains: marginalised, economically significant minorities are inimical to the successful consolidation of democracy if their reasonable interests are ignored — or attacked.
In principle, all of the major parties in South Africa are so-called ‘catch-all’ parties, ie they seek votes from all racial groups. In practice, however, voter preference correlates very strongly with race: very few whites vote for the ANC, and very few Africans vote for ‘historically white’ parties such as the Democratic Alliance (DA). Again, this should come as no surprise: voting behaviour in every heterogeneous society suggests that voters invariably vote for ‘their’ (ethnic) party. Indeed, I know of no attested case where the ethnic/racial factor has given way to voting preferences based on, say, class or ideology.
The overwhelming African support for the ANC is not a simple knee-jerk racial reaction: it is a reflection of the belief that the ANC is both the foremost party of African liberation and the best guarantor of African interests. Voting for it is also an affirmation of African identity. Smaller African-based parties, like the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), have been electorally marginalised, and others, like the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which have some African support, are, in all probability, on an electoral downward trend.
With the ANC commanding a huge majority in Parliament, control of all nine provinces and all of the principal local authorities, single-party dominance is steadily being consolidated. How long it will last is a matter for conjecture. One may not agree with deputy president Jacob Zuma’s claim that it will be ‘until Jesus comes’, but one is surely looking at at least 15 to 20 years, and even then without being able to predict what kind of political upheaval might cause a split in the ANC-led alliance that leads in turn to a change of government. As matters presently stand it seems highly unlikely that any of the existing opposition parties, singly or in alliance, is capable of turning the ANC out of office.
Single-party dominance may provide stability — indeed, there is an argument that without its commanding majority the ANC would not have imposed its tough and necessary market-friendly economic policies on a population, many of whom are unemployed and poor. It is also arguable that in the circumstances of what is still far from being a consolidated democratic political system, vigorous party competition and a real possibility that the ANC could lose an election could have destabilising consequences.
There have been sufficient examples in sub-Saharan Africa to demonstrate a pattern of problems with the single-party dominant system, and, even more, the de jure one-party state. Long tenure of leadership positions in states such as Kenya, Ivory Coast, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, among others, display a common syndrome: political sclerosis, arrogance, endemic corruption and, commonly, aggressive action against minority ethnic groups. Moreover, when nationalist movements take over the reins of government there is a seemingly irresistible drive to conflate the interests of party and state, thereby blurring the critical line between the two. It may be contended that Botswana, a reasonably successful democracy since it received independence in 1966, shows that generalisations should not be made about African politics. The point should be taken, subject to two qualifications: first, that Botswana is an exception that proves the rule; and secondly, that the signs of incipient political sclerosis are apparent.
As the examples cited show, the degeneration of single-party dominant systems can cause radical economic decline, which is difficult for successor governments to arrest, let alone reverse. The shambles that Mugabe has made of Zimbabwe’s once promising economy is the most dramatic example — where the (essentially phony) issue of land was used as a means of whipping up declining electoral support, with disastrous consequences for the people. (It is also worth noting that Mugabe’s foolish policies have injected a racist toxin into neighbouring states, whose governments, fortunately, have thus far resisted the temptation to emulate his example.)
It can be contended that South Africa is different from any of the examples cited above, or, indeed, any of the failed states of Africa: it is more developed and, very importantly, its leaders have watched from close-up the process of degeneration in neighbouring states, learning valuable lessons while doing so. This is true, and gives grounds for optimism. Moreover, the constitutional limitation of presidential incumbency to two five-year terms should ensure that South Africa avoids the phenomenon of gerontocratic tyrants ruining their countries in lengthy tenure of presidential office.
On the whole, it is unlikely that president Mbeki will seek to amend the constitution to enable him to run for a third term. There are some in the ANC who appear to favour this, but it is highly doubtful that this would command majority support in the ANC, which has become increasingly faction-ridden as the unifying force of ‘the struggle’ fades in the memories of younger supporters. An element of ‘democratic centralist’ thinking remains, but one questions whether it could muster sufficient influence to sway the entire conference to be held in 2007 to follow the leadership’s bidding. It may well be that Mbeki and the powerful clique around him could seek to ensure that the successor is an ideological clone, who will continue with his policies (but, hopefully, dispatch Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the minister of health, to an ambassadorial posting in some remote state!)
These musings raise the question of deputy president Jacob Zuma’s suitability for the presidency when Mbeki steps down. Assuming (which one cannot) that the deputy president will almost automatically succeed the outgoing president, what are Zuma’s credentials? He is amiable, conciliatory and has quite a strong following in the ANC alliance, the latter factor being at least partly attributable to his populist inclinations. He is also a Zulu: does this count against him? The allegation that the ANC is ‘Xhosa-dominated’ has been overworked. It is certainly true that the Eastern Cape was the historic cradle of African nationalism, largely because missionary endeavours, including education, began there earlier and more intensively than anywhere else. But the ANC runs strongly in virtually all parts of the country, encountering strong African resistance only in KwaZulu-Natal.
The problem with Zuma’s quest for the presidency is less his ethnic background than his involvement in the affairs of Schabir Shaik, whose trial is proceeding. While it must be emphasised that Zuma himself is not on trial and that the evidence linking him with alleged criminal complicity has not been fully tested, his political future depends on the outcome of the trial and the possibility that he himself may yet be prosecuted. Should that happen, and even if he were to be acquitted, the chances are high that so much mud will have stuck to him that his presidential prospects would be seriously damaged.
Little purpose will be served by reviewing the state of the presidential succession stakes at this stage, except to note one aspect that relates to the question of the extent to which the non-racialism enjoined by the Constitution is being met by the ANC in its internal practices. Few of the press articles that speculate about the succession mention Trevor Manuel as a possible contender. Yet he is possibly the most effective cabinet minister to have served since 1994, and some would even say that he is the best minister of finance the country has ever had. Moreover, his ‘struggle’ credentials are impeccable. Manuel is coloured, and, as the wry saying in the coloured community goes, ‘not white enough under apartheid, and not black enough under the ANC’. Is it conceivable that a non-African could ever become the ANC leader?
This issue raises the question whether the ANC is at its core an African nationalist organisation, and while non-African support is welcomed, key leadership positions in the ANC, state organisations, parastatals and other institutions over which the government has de facto control are reserved, as far as possible, for Africans? There are indications that this is the trend. This is part of a wider process of ensuring that even ostensibly non-political state posts are filled by reliable cadres. The ANC candidly acknowledged its strategy in a discussion document entitled The State, Property Relations and Social Transformation (1998) which says that transformation required ‘first and foremost, extending the power of the [National Liberation Movement] over all the levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on’.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) may be taken as a case in point. As under the Nationalists in the old order, the public broadcaster has been inspanned to serve its new political masters. Chris Barron begins a trenchant article (Sunday Times, 25 July 2004) with the following paragraph:
“To say that the SABC is not a happy place is putting it mildly. Fear and discontent stalk the newsroom at Auckland Park as former ANC political commissar Snuki Zikalala forces his underlings to toe the government line.”
Much the same process of ‘deploying’ reliable ANC cadres extends to the so-called ‘chapter 9’ institutions provided for in the constitution that supposedly strengthen constitutional democracy. They include: the public protector, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities; the Commission for Gender Equality; the auditor general; and the Electoral Commission. In addition a Youth Commission was subsequently created. Stuffing the commissions with ANC-supporting individuals is partly a matter of patronage, and partly a matter of ensuring that their independence, which is constitutionally prescribed, is severely compromised.
The post of auditor general is a critical one in ensuring that public money is correctly spent and that corruption in the public service is detected. The present incumbent, Shauket Fakie, is currently at the centre of a controversy that goes to the heart of the question of the extent to which transparency and the independence of a key institution is being upheld: was he forced or persuaded by the executive to become party to a cover-up of irregularities in the process of tendering for the arms deal? At the time of writing neither the auditor general nor the government would answer the question whether the significant differences between a draft report and the final, published version were caused by undue and improper influence.
The arms deal saga has put the quality and integrity of state institutions to a severe test, and none has emerged with an enhanced reputation. Parliament’s constitutional duty to exercise oversight of executive activities and to demand accountability has been severely compromised. Its most important committee, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, which has been party to the alleged cover-up, has had its credibility badly dented.
The many contentious issues surrounding the arms deal cry out for a thorough judicial commission of inquiry — which is unlikely to be established. Ever since judge Willem Heath’s Special Investigative Unit was withdrawn from investigating the deal and subsequently disbanded, suspicions have lingered that the reason for doing so was that Heath was too independent.
The effectiveness of parliament as a watch-dog has visibly declined, which is perhaps inevitable when both chambers are so comprehensively dominated by the ANC. The portfolio committees, which review proposed legislation and the activities of departments, are the real engine room of the parliamentary process. It is an exaggeration to say that they operate in a perfunctory way because many, perhaps most, take the job of scrutinising bills seriously, and in many cases suggest changes. Their effectiveness or otherwise, however, depends to a considerable extent on the independence and conscientiousness of the chairperson. But these qualities are at a premium since few, if any, chairpersons with ambitions for higher offices are likely to go against the executive when issues of principle or party line are at stake.
A recent, well-documented analysis by the DA argues that parliament has become a lap-dog rather than a watch-dog, and that its importance in the political system has declined. The ability of opposition MPs to put questions to ministers has been drastically curtailed; while private members’ motions are virtually non-existent. A further complaint was the rareness of the president’s availability for close questioning by the opposition. (On the latter point an invidious comparison might be drawn with the British House of Commons, where the prime minister is subjected weekly to a thoroughgoing grilling by the opposition parties.)
Little needs to be said about the National Council of Provinces, whose role is now not much more than that of a rubber stamp. Any expectation that the constitution’s apparent flexibility might allow the system to transform itself in a more federal direction has had to be revised. I once described the constitution as providing for a ‘unitary state with federal fig-leaves’. As power has been centralised, the provinces enjoy severely limited autonomy. They serve as hardly more than conveyor-belts for the implementation of policies determined by the national government. Even their constitutional right to appoint their own premier has been reduced to a formality, since premiers are effectively deployed by the ANC’s headquarters. Ebrahim Rasool, Western Cape premier, has recently called for more powers to be extended to provincial governments, but the call is likely to fall on deaf ears. The fig-leaves are withering.
Supposedly the constitution is based upon the separation of the powers, meaning the relative autonomy of the executive, legislature and judiciary. What has happened is common to most parliamentary systems: the executive has become dominant in relation to the legislature. In this respect it is more accurate to speak of the ‘fusion’ rather than separation of powers. The whiphand possessed by the executive is much strengthened by the electoral system and the retention of the ‘anti-defection’ clause, the combined effect of which gives the executive the effective power to shape the electoral lists and also to ‘discipline’ recalcitrant or independent-minded MPs. Since expulsion from the party means loss of one’s seat, obedience to the party line is strengthened. The modification of the anti-defection clause by means of the floor-crossing legislation has been carefully calibrated to meet the ANC’s requirements. It was, for example, enabled to swallow the (residual) New National Party (NNP) virtually whole, partly, the opposition alleged, with offers of well-remunerated posts in the national and provincial legislatures, as well as in local government. The happy landing of many erstwhile NNP councillors in Cape Town was a case in point.
Little has been said in this article about two other vital components of democratic societies: the judiciary and civil society. Both require full analysis, which space precludes. Suffice it to say that both show signs of entering troubled waters. The judiciary remains formally independent, and one is gratified that, in spite of some apparent threats, the ANC has affirmed its commitment to independence. There are, however, suspicions that even this could be hollowed out by the appointment of ‘right-minded’ judges and, perhaps even more, the non-appointment of individuals whose ‘executive-mindedness’ cannot be relied upon.
A hollowed-out democracy? The argument has been that while the outer forms of democratic constitutionalism have been maintained, there are dangerous trends that could subvert it from within. One profoundly wishes that the ANC in general, and president Mbeki in particular, could engage with critics rather than attack their bona fides. Few if any people are sufficiently misanthropic actually to want to see South Africa fail.