Democracy is not real in South Africa

Tasmin Timunique Wee, 3, at the Union Buildings ahead of Feedom Day. Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)

As South Africa celebrate 25 years of freedom, we may on paper have a democratic constitution, democratic institutions and stage regular elections, but society has not been democratised, which means democracy for most citizens is not real.  Democracy is often wrongly seen narrowly as only having a constitution, a parliament and elections. That is a very limited view of democracy. Constitutions, laws and elections are only basic frameworks of democracy.

Many struggling South Africans, burdened by increasingly high costs of living, power cuts and appallingly poor public services, are increasingly lamenting that democracy is not delivering. The problem however, is not that democracy is not delivering, is that as South Africans we have not democratised society. For democracy to deliver, all aspects of life has to be democratised.

Political parties must themselves become more democratic. Undemocratic parties will deliver undemocratic societies. Leadership elections, decisions and policy-making within parties must become democratic – not controlled by the leader or a few praise-singers of the leader. All political parties that receive public money must have gender, race and youth diversity, equality and inclusion.  

Parties, their leaders and members must behave in accordance to the principles of the constitution, democratic values and norms. Although political parties may target particular constituencies or ideologies, they should act, make decisions and policies in the widest interest of society, rather than for their home base. Parliament, legislatures and local councils must themselves become democratic. Elected representatives must behave democratically, honestly and make decisions at all times in the widest interests of society, not for self-enrichment, for their party or their ethnic group, colour or village.

The South African public service must be democratised. This means that the public service must become fully democratic in its internal functioning. It must become reasonably merit-based, rather than patronage based, become efficient and accountable.   The public service must become more caring, conscientious and honest. Citizenship should be democratised.

Elected and public officials should become genuinely accountable to citizens – not be treated as royalty by citizens. Elected and public officials should be made to call citizens “honorary”, not the other way around. It must be made mandatory for elected representatives to only use public hospitals, schools and public transport.

Such an approach will significantly boost public service delivery. Unless elected representatives live like or among their poorest constituents, they will also live in bubble, spouting pro-poor rhetoric, struggle slogans and radical transformation, while living in the lap of taxpayer funded luxury. Large numbers of citizens often experience limited citizenship, with unequal access to supposedly proclaimed democratic rights. Citizens are treated unequally by the state, agencies and institutions, in terms of their democratic rights, depending on their social, political and economic status.

Poor citizens are often not treated as if they do not have rights by elected and public officials. They are often not equally treated under the law, neither do they have equal access to rights, public services and responsiveness from public officials. The rule of law often selectively applied. State agencies, institutions and officials often treat ordinary citizens, who are not political, socially or economically well-connected, arrogantly, dismissively, and at times even with violent force.   

Elected representatives, public officials and the well-off cannot have more superior rights than ordinary people. In South Africa, the law has often been selectively applied. The governing president, party leadership and his family, have been above the rule of law. One of the weaknesses of South Africa’s constitutional democracy has been the dearth of active citizens. The absence of mass engaged citizens has contributed to the lack of accountability, rising corruption and mismanagement by public and elected representatives.

Citizens are not holding elected and public officials accountable. Imagine if citizens, civil society and the media sit in the offices of Home Affairs, monitoring their services, watch whether public servants are effective, polite and honest, and report them, and protest right at the delivery site, if they are incompetent, callous and corrupt.

Most importantly, South African cultures, traditions and customs of all varieties must be democratised. Undemocratic aspects of cultures, traditions and customs must be jettisoned. Gender equality must become the pillar of all South African cultures, traditions and customs. In the constitution, gender equality trumps culture, traditions and customs.

Patriarchy in all spheres of life is among the single greatest obstacles to democracy, development and growth, in South Africa and Africa. Traditional, customary law and systems must immediately be abolished. There can only be one set of laws in South Africa – the democratic constitutions, laws and institutions.

Traditional kings, chiefs and authorities must either be abolished, as happened in Tanzania immediately after independence, or thoroughly democratised. Democratisation of traditional authorities would mean that traditional leadership should become purely symbolic, with no power whatsoever. Democratisation of society, means there has to be social equality between all citizens. All citizens must have equal value. Some citizens cannot have higher value because of their colour, because they are elected, because they have wealth or because they are traditional leaders.

In Africa, including South Africa, supporting a liberation movement type of political party is often seen similarly as supporting a football club, like Kaizer Chiefs, it must be supported through thick and thin, even though if the team fail spectacularly. The belief is that over time, the team will self-correct.

This means no matter how corrupt, political parties are continually supported out of blind loyalty, the hope that one day the party will come right. This wrong belief is at the heart of why countries totally collapse, the supporters of governing parties and leaders totally impoverished and mass unemployed, because of mismanagement, corruption and callousness of governing parties and leaders, before the members and supporters began ditch their unresponsive leaders and parties. By then it is too late.

In the history of politics everywhere, political leaders and parties do not self-correct magically by themselves, unless they fear being voted out, or good people throw out the corrupt leaders and members, and overhaul the parties. Democratisation of society is when citizens do not vote for their own preferred parties as if they are football teams to be loyally supported through thick and thin.

Voting for other parties, even if you do not agree with their leaders, policies or colour, will make your own party and leaders, more accountable, responsive and honest – and is a better way of making democracy real.

William Gumede is Executive Chairman, Democracy Works Foundation (; and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).