Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

September 15 is #WorldDemocracyDay. This year’s theme, determined by the UN, is "Democracy Under Strain, Solutions for a Changing World".

I’d be surprised if anybody disagreed that democracy is under strain globally, or that ours is under more strain than others right now, despite the "new dawn".

I was recently asked whether social accountability can save democracy. There is no question that democracy, as implemented today, is imperfect, yet it’s the best mechanism for regulating human coexistence conceptualised to date.

Globally, democracy is under strain as electorates have, oddly, chosen accountability-deploring despots who promise quick solutions to complex economic growth.

It doesn’t help when political leaders, including some in parliament, blatantly violate their constitutional obligations by inciting others to unlawfully invade the private property of others in the name of redressing the colonial and apartheid legacy of racialised poverty.

These cracks in democracy are also apparent in countless violent public protests, many of which are eroding already inadequate and ageing public infrastructure — such as schools and health facilities.

Paradoxically, some historically advantaged groups are equally disaffected. For example, we’ve seen AfriForum calling upon US president Donald Trump to come to its rescue in the face of nonexistent government land-grabbing.

Now, we can blame extremists and nationalists all we want for besieging democracy, but if we are honest, we’ll agree there are core reasons for democracy’s crisis.

For a start, the obscene levels of social injustice, characterised by extreme poverty and inequality along the contours of colonial and apartheid structures, are straining the belief in democracy. The hungry and angry are resentful. And when governance fails, things fall apart. Increasingly, policies are pronounced with- out being thought through or without consultation having taken place.


There’s also a huge integrity deficit in democratic institutions, thanks to what researchers call "corruption, clientelism and capture". Here, democracy is perverted as the will of the bribers, client groups and elites replaces the will of the people.

This fuels mistrust.

The beneficiaries of this corruption then use the resentment they generate to mobilise support for themselves from the very public they loot, as seen in the White Monopoly Capital campaign aimed at derailing the public protector’s state-capture investi- gation in 2016.

Democracy is facing a crisis of credibility as the promised benefit of greater equality hasn’t happened

So, can social accountability save democracy? The World Bank describes "social accountability" as an approach towards building accountability that relies on civic engagement. It’s about fostering direct involvement of the people in government decision-making.

We saw it when people, using the hashtag #PayBackTheMoney, forced former President Jacob Zuma to comply with the public protector’s directive to pay part of the price of improving his Nkandla residence. But for social accountability to work, we need some preconditions:

• An enabling legal and constitutional environment, such as a strong constitution;

• Democracy, literacy and leadership in government and society;

• Transparency, backed by an active independent media;

• A functional overall accountability framework;

• Technological development;

• Mature and purpose-driven leadership that isn’t thin- skinned; and

• Incentive structures that encourage functionaries to do the right thing.

The conversation on "democracy under strain" allows us to reflect on ways to strengthen, defend and even reimagine democracy. To save democracy from its own decay, we need to ensure that it not only works but that it works for all. This is why social accountability is a nonnegotiable.