The impact of poor governance on support for democracy: A reflection on South Africa

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Historically, the societal landscape of South Africa has been defined by polarisation across the lines of race, income, and class. Under the apartheid regime, the government had imposed polarisation of South African society through their radical racial and economic policy of segregation. This policy separated the politically and economically privileged white population (the minority in-groups) from the underprivileged and racially diverse population (the majority out-groups). Yet despite government’s efforts to segregate South African society, the superficial divisions ultimately failed when the racially diverse persons of colour banded together to overthrow the apartheid regime.

Once South Africa became a democracy, the economic and racial tensions eased significantly as they were moderated by hope for a fair and unified ‘rainbow nation’, to use the famous phrase coined by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But as I argue in my article, “The Polarizing Effects of Poor Governance“, in the July 2022 special edition of the Taiwan Journal of Democracy, new tensions have sadly emerged within the current democratic context, albeit not to the extraordinarily high levels of the apartheid era. What is just as worrying is the fact that poor government appears to be undermining support for democracy itself.

Inequality and democracy

Studies show that as result of the general deterioration in living standards, South African citizens – the majority of whom previously championed democracy – are now by and large hugely disillusioned with and are developing increasing disdain for democracy.

The initial euphoria in the wake of the transition to democracy, which came with the widely prevalent expectation that the democratic regime would transform life by offering equality of opportunity to all, has been stifled by deep socio-economic inequality, job scarcity and unequal access to quality education. This new reality has created the perception that democracy has failed to deliver. Unsurprisingly, dissatisfaction with democracy is rising.

The annual South African Social Attitudes Survey conducted by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) found that between 2004 and 2020 the number of South Africans dissatisfied with the way in which democracy was working has increased by 11%. The sharpest rise occurred during the administration of Jacob Zuma, when the figure increased from 39% in 2009 to 50% in 2018.

Similarly, in 2020, an Afrobarometer survey established that by mid-2018 only a slight majority (54%) of South Africans expressed the view that democracy was preferable to any other form of government. This marked a 16% drop since 2011. At the same time, the Afrobarometer survey revealed that opposition to authoritarian alternatives has weakened to 69 percent against presidential dictatorships, 62 percent against one-party rule and 57 percent against military rule. The most unsettling finding was that six in ten South Africans were willing to forfeit democracy in favour of a non-elected government – albeit on the assumption that it could guarantee social and economic security.

These statistics confirm that poor governance can undermine support for the democratic project, and with it the “rainbow nation”.

Patronage, polarization, and democracy

While the ruling ANC instituted the National Democratic Revolution (NRD) project, with its praiseworthy aim of constructing a new society defined not by divisive labels but united as a nation, the accompanying cadre deployment transformed the project into an unconstitutional and partisan enterprise. Appointing ANC loyalists to leadership positions laid the foundations for the NRD project to crumble, allowing the compromised figure of Jacob Zuma to rise to the highest office in the land and ultimately to capture the South African state.

The Zuma administration has had a devastating impact of the South African economy, with widening gaps between the rich and the poor, job scarcity, raising rates of unemployment and crime. This has led to growing fears of economic and political unrest – such as that which occurred in July 2021 after Zuma was arrested having left office in 2018 – and has given rise to sporadic instances of protest, often accompanied by violence and vandalism that, collectively, signal democratic deconsolidation.

The article closes with the cautious expectation that things could still turn around under the administration of Cyril Ramaphosa, things might be turned around once more if the ANC were to be reinvigorated and rid itself of corruption. Although South African’s have grown weary of broken promises and the failure of democracy to general economic change, they remain committed to the gains of the anti-apartheid struggle, and that includes democratic institutions and practices.

This is the foundation on which a more succesful and stable democratic government can be built.

Jordan Fredericks-Erispe is a researcher and analyst for sub-Sahara Africa at Global Intelligence and Cyber Security Consultancy: S-RM.

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