As South Africa celebrates 25 years of freedom, we may have on paper a democratic constitution, democratic institutions, and stage regular elections, but society is far from being democratised, which means democracy for most citizens is often not real.
Democracy is often seen simply as only having a constitution, a Parliament and elections. Constitutions, laws, and elections are only basic frameworks of democracy. Many struggling South Africans, weighted down by increasingly high costs of living, appallingly poor public services and corruption, are increasingly lamenting that democracy is not delivering.
The problem, however, is not that democracy is not delivering; it is that South African society has not been fully democratised yet. For democracy to deliver, all aspects of life must be democratised.
Political parties must themselves become more democratic. Leadership elections, decisions, and policy-making within parties must become democratic – not controlled by the leader or a few praise-singers of the leader. All political parties that receive public money must have gender, race and youth diversity, equality and inclusion. Parties, their leaders and members must behave in accordance with the principles of the constitution, democratic values, and norms.
Parliament, legislatures and local councils must themselves become democratic. Elected representatives must behave democratically, honestly and always make decisions in the widest interests of society and not for self-enrichment. Elected and public officials should become genuinely accountable to citizens – and not be treated as royalty by citizens.
The South African public service must be democratised. This means that the public service must become fully democratic in its internal functioning. The public service must become more caring, conscientious and honest.
Citizenship should be democratised. Large numbers of citizens often experience limited citizenship, with unequal access to supposedly proclaimed democratic rights. Citizens are treated unequally by the state, agencies, and institutions in terms of their democratic rights, social, political and economic status- Poor citizens are often treated as if they do not have rights by elected and public officials.
State agencies, institutions, and officials often treat ordinary citizens, who are not political, socially or economically well-connected, arrogantly, dismissively, and at times even with violent force. The rule of law often appears to be selectively applied. The governing president, party leadership and his family, have been above the rule of law.
One of the weaknesses of South Africa’s constitutional democracy has been the dearth of active citizens. The absence of mass engaged citizens has contributed to the lack of accountability, rising corruption, and mismanagement by public and elected representatives. Citizens are not holding elected and public officials sufficiently accountable. Imagine if citizens, civil society and the media sit in the offices of Home Affairs, monitoring their services, watch whether public servants are effective, polite and honest, and report them if they are incompetent, callous and corrupt.
South African cultures, traditions, and customs of all varieties must be democratised. Undemocratic aspects of cultures, traditions, and customs must be jettisoned. Gender equality must become the pillar of all South African cultures, traditions, and customs. In the constitution, gender equality trumps culture, traditions, and customs. Patriarchy in all spheres of life is among the single greatest obstacles to democracy and development in South Africa and the African continent.
The democratisation of society means there must be social equality between all citizens. All citizens must have equal value. Some citizens cannot have higher value because of their colour, because they were elected in the parliament, or because they have more wealth.
Often, supporting a political party is seen similarly as supporting a football club, which must be supported through thick and thin, even though the team fails. The belief is that over time the team will self-correct. This means no matter how corrupt, political parties are continually supported out of blind loyalty, in the forlorn hope that one day their party will come right. This wrong-headed belief has meant that many African governments get a free pass, despite mismanaging their countries. Often countries have to collapse into bankruptcy, secession, and civil war, because of mismanagement, corruption, and lack of accountability, before misguided supporters see the light.
In the history of politics everywhere, political leaders and parties do not self-correct magically by themselves, unless they fear being voted out, or good people throw out the corrupt leaders and members and overhaul the parties. The democratisation of society is when citizens do not vote for their own preferred parties as if they are football teams to be loyally supported through corruption, mismanagement, and greed.
Voting for other parties, even if you do not agree with their leaders, policies or colour, will make your own party and leaders, more accountable, responsive and honest – and is a better way of making democracy real.
*This article was published in IOL. To view the article on their website click here.