In a few weeks SA will have been a democracy for 27 years. This is not a long time as far as the history of democracy goes, but it is long enough to tell us what the key characteristics of SA’s democracy are.

A most striking feature is that a large proportion of the electorate has already lost interest in elections and no longer bother to vote. For a recently liberated country it is noticeable how quickly voter turnout has declined. The turnout reached its peak in 1999 during the second democratic election at 89.3% of registered voters. By 2019 it had declined to 65.9%.

What this surely indicates is that many South Africans now realise democracy has benefited only a small number of their fellow citizens. For many, democracy has proved to be a mirage. This calls for a review of SA’s governance. Are we really a full democracy, or some form of stunted democracy?

Recent figures released by polling company Ipsos show a downward trend in support for the two main parties, the ANC and DA, since local government elections in 2016. In the 2016 local government election 55.7% of registered voters opted for the ANC and 24.6% for the DA. A survey of voting-age adults 18 years and over conducted in September 2020 asked who they would vote for if an election was held tomorrow. Half said they would vote for the ANC and 16% for the DA, a significant decline for both parties. Strikingly, the third-largest party, the EFF, has shown a growth trend. Whereas it achieved 8.3% of the vote in 2016 this had jumped to 13% by the September 2020 survey.

SA is the most prosperous non-oil producing country on the African mainland by GDP per capita. Only citizens of the island states of Mauritius and Seychelles are richer than South Africans. By this reckoning we should be among the happiest people in Africa, yet we are not. 

Significant numbers of well-off and highly skilled South Africans — increasingly of all races — aged between 24 and 44 emigrate annually. It is estimated that 900,000 South Africans have left the country since 1990. As to be expected, the absolute size of SA’s white population has not increased for 30 years, reflecting growing numbers leaving the country permanently.

There are many reasons for the unhappiness and emigration of skilled, well-off South Africans. Fear of political instability is certainly one of them. A recent survey of high net worth individuals in five African countries by Standard Bank found that the largest percentage of people who worried about their country’s political stability were South Africans at 82%. This is compared with 69% for Ghana, 55% for Kenya, 31% for Mauritius and 64% for Nigeria.

There are other indications that SA is a highly stressed country despite its relative prosperity compared with other African countries. SA has among the highest prevalence of tuberculosis, HIV/Aids, Covid-19, crime (58 people are murdered every day) and unemployment in Africa, if not the world. The school system has comparatively poor education outcomes. The country has an increasingly corrupt, incompetent and indifferent government that has run the state-owned enterprises it inherited from the apartheid regime into the ground, thereby contributing to bringing the country to the edge of the fiscal cliff.

At the heart of SA’s political instability, real or imagined, and the many other maladies mentioned above, is the country’s failure to restructure the economy it inherited from the British 110 years ago. In the last quarter of the 19th century the British sunk vast amounts of treasure and blood to take over SA and reorganise it from a small-scale agricultural country into a sprawling mining and minerals-exporting country.

To achieve their economic objectives the British fought and defeated several communities, especially the Zulus and the Afrikaners. After crushing their enemies the British proceeded to reshape SA into essentially the society we have today.

As a second stage after defeating various independent communities, the British compelled African males to work in the mines and related industries as migrant workers by imposing on them taxes that had to be paid in cash on pain of heavy punishment. The migrant labour system, according to the British, had the main advantage of keeping down costs because labourers’ families were presumed to be able to fend for themselves in rural areas through access to plots of land allocated to them by the traditional leaders who were now part of the British colonial administration.

The reality, of course, was somewhat different. The migrant labour system created a vast pool of poor rural African families that formed the backbone of SA’s underclass and unemployed. Today this class, a growing proportion in urban areas, comprise half of SA’s economically active population. As a result of the social grants they started receiving from the state in 1996, the underclass and unemployed have become wards of the state and therefore voting fodder for the new regime.

This elaborate system of forced, disenfranchised, indentured labour was handed over lock, stock and barrel to the Afrikaner elite in 1910, themselves landowners who were interested in forced labour for their farms. The Afrikaner elite in turn handed this system over to management by the African elite that has controlled the democratic government since 1994.

Where large numbers of the population are marginalised and live in poverty as in SA it is inevitable that there will be repression. The history of SA during the last 110 years has therefore been a history of massacres. To mention only the most recent there was the massacre of anti-pass law demonstrators at Sharpeville on March 21 1960, of student demonstrators opposing the imposition of Afrikaans in Soweto on June 16 1976, and of miners demanding increased pay from Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana on August 16 2012.

Since 1910 governance in SA has been dominated by nationalist parties — the National Party and the ANC. Nationalism is a social and political movement that is driven by a deep sense of grievance. Population groups become aggrieved when they feel a strong sense of exclusion from enjoying the political, social and economic benefits in a given society. In the case of SA there are two schools of nationalism, Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism, both of which were aggrieved because of exclusion from the benefits of colonialism by the British.

Nationalists therefore do not fight to change the socioeconomic structure of the colonial system. They fight to be included in it as part of its privileged elite. Ironically, nationalism is itself exclusionary because it is elitist and favours its alleged community. This is why the SA economic system organised by the British between 1900 and 1909 to exploit the country’s vast mineral resources and cheap black labour remains essentially intact to this day.

• Mbeki is deputy chairman of the SA Institute of International Affairs, an independent think-tank based at Wits University.


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