Voters wait in a 90-minute line to cast their ballots on the first day of the state’s in-person early voting for the national elections in Durham, North Carolina. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN DRAKE
Voters wait in a 90-minute line to cast their ballots on the first day of the state’s in-person early voting for the national elections in Durham, North Carolina. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN DRAKE

If South Africans learnt one thing from the disastrous Jacob Zuma presidency it’s that institutions are ultimately as good as the people who are entrusted to look after them.

That’s why by the time Zuma left, the country’s law enforcement and tax authorities, to name just two, were in tatters, having been the envy of the world less than a decade earlier.

And for those that stayed strong and true to their mission, such as the Reserve Bank and the judiciary, that was owed to the strength and principled resistance of those in charge. With a different governor and chief justice, we might well have been singing a different tune.

The vulnerability of our institutions could to an extent be explained by the youthfulness of SA’s democracy, so we thought. Institutions and political cultures need time to become fully entrenched and become a defining part of a republic’s character and identity.

And before 2016 — the year that brought us Donald Trump and Brexit in the UK — we used to look to older democracies in Europe and the US to see what was possible, and what we could aspire to. Their democratic histories could be counted in centuries rather than a couple of decades, and had a track record of peaceful change in government after peaceful elections.

As US citizens head to the polls on Tuesday, they do so with the Trump presidency having disabused us of the notion that longevity somehow ensures the resilience of institutions. What Trump has shown is how much harm an individual and his enablers — and he has had many — can cause.

It speaks to the level of damage that has been inflicted on what was regarded as the world’s leading democracy that the concern going into Tuesday’s vote is less about the result than the aftermath. Most polls put Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden well ahead. They could well be wrong of course, as they were four years ago when they predicted a win for Hillary Clinton.

That’s beside the point. What is in peril is the credibility of the US as Trump has threatened not to respect the results if they don’t go his way. Just over the weekend, he reinforced that message while other media reported that gangs of his supporters were blocking highways, forcing the Democrats to cancel at least one event. That has seen law-enforcement officials being worried about the potential for violence.

There are other ways that Trump has sought to undermine US institutions, most recently the pre-election rush to get a conservative justice into the Supreme Court, and the hope that Amy Coney Barrett would swing disputed results his way.

In William Barr he has an attorney-general whose sycophancy would have seen him fit well in a Zuma administration, drawing accusations that he sees himself more as Trump’s personal lawyer. Most recently he was blocked by a court when he sought to have the justice department replace Trump as the defendant in a lawsuit by columnist E Jean Carroll, who has accused the president of rape and defamation.

In recent months the presidency has been dominated by the blatant mismanagement of the Covid-19 outbreak that has killed more than 230,000, incompetence that led to the president himself ending up in hospital.  

One view of American history will point out that its democracy and institutions have faced bigger tests than Trump, most notably the Civil War in the 19th century, and have proved themselves resilient, if not perfect. The rest of the world will be watching to see how they negotiate this challenge.

No matter what one thinks of the US and the overstated view of itself as “a leader of the free world”, it will be a sad day for democrats and constitutionalists everywhere if what we learn from this election, as the Financial Times headline put it, is that democracy can fail anywhere. 

A positive reading of course would be to see this as a dire warning never to take our hard-won democracy for granted.

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