Parliament. Picture: GCIS
Parliament. Picture: GCIS

The ugly scenes that played out at the US Capitol recently were a stark reminder of the fragility of democratic systems and the institutions that underpin them. After all, if one of the world’s oldest democracies can be hijacked by a small group motivated by racial animus and the politics of grievance, then we need to ask hard questions about our own young democracy.

Many South Africans could not help but express a sense of schadenfreude as they watched transfixed as the chaotic scenes played out in Washington. This is disappointing not only because the world is a more dangerous and unstable place without a sensible, moderate US playing a leading role in global affairs, but also because this ignores that SA’s democracy has yet to pass its greatest test of all — the peaceful transfer of national power — something which despite all its manifest faults and failings the US has managed to achieve for the past 233 years.

The omens for SA have not been particularly favourable in this regard. Most recently, ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte made the startling claim that “SA without the ANC is unimaginable, and it would lead to civil war”. While she tried to walk back this claim in the days that followed, the fact remains that the ANC and its leaders simply cannot fathom a world in which they do not (mis)govern the country, so blind is their belief in the primacy of the party.

Examples abound of this hostility to respecting democratic outcomes. When an opposition coalition first took over the running of Cape Town in 2006 the ANC tried every possible trick in the book to unseat it. This was followed by an avowed “ungovernability” programme when the province was later lost to the opposition. Even more recently we witnessed violent scenes in the Nelson Mandela Bay council chamber, and the culture of political assassinations continues in many parts of the country — all driven by hostility to democratic outcomes.

I have more direct and personal experience of the ANC’s lack of respect for democratic outcomes. When I was leading the multiparty coalition government in Johannesburg the ANC either directly or through its proxies sought to disrupt (often violently) just about every council meeting, and many other meetings I held with communities throughout the city. There is a clear trend, which played itself out on the international stage as well.

Successive ANC governments have sought to defend the most fundamentally undemocratic regimes possible. Perhaps the most egregious example was the mediation efforts of former president Thabo Mbeki in Zimbabwe, which forced the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) into a government of national unity with the ruling Zanu (PF) when every credible observer mission report made it clear that the MDC had been duly elected.

This is the sad reality of liberation movements in this region — they have an intolerance towards opposition forces, which almost always leads to the violent suppression of dissent. But here is the good news — SA has the real potential to break this trend. Already we have achieved something almost unique in the region, the largely peaceful (albeit disrupted) transfer of power at regional level. If the close to 18.3-million South Africans who have opted out of voting chose to exercise their democratic will and vote for change there is little or no chance that the ANC would be able to resist the tide.

The ANC is desperate to hold on to power not because it is fully wedded to a vision of a better future for all South Africans, but because it is more of a criminal syndicate than a modern political party. It lives in constant fear of losing its access to state resources, without which its web of patronage and corruption could not be sustained.

Voters are seeing this reality, evidenced by the ANC in many important metros no longer having majority support. We therefore have a historical opportunity in the local government elections later in 2021, and the national elections of 2024, to ensure that SA bucks the regional trend and ushers in a change of power at national level.

If the recent scenes at the Capitol have taught us anything it is that we dare not take our precious democratic freedoms for granted. The best way to celebrate the efforts of the founders of our democracy would be to come together and ensure national power changes hands peacefully. Only when this has been achieved will South Africans be able to look to the rest of the world with confidence.

• Mashaba, a former Johannesburg mayor, is president of ActionSA.

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