Why ‘active citizenship’ should not be reduced into mere balloting

SOUTH AFRICA - Cape Town - 8 May 2019 - Ballot boxes at Kalkfontein Primary School voting station in Kuilsriver as South Africans head to the polls today to vote in the country's sixth national elections. Pictures: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

It is worth to first acknowledge the importance of voting. In the context of South Africa, this right did not come in a state of tranquil. In other words, many people who were the catalysts of this right were slaughtered by the racist regime of the apartheid. Thus, in honour of those people it becomes imperative for the citizens of South Africa to utilise this right in order to advance this country for the better. In fact, voting is the only opportunity for citizens to shape the power dynamics (to a lesser extent) of their country.  In this opinion piece, I argue that in the post-apartheid South Africa casting ones vote is just a part of active citizenship and not the beginning and the end in itself.

The concept of democracy emerged from the ancient city of Athenians in Greece. They defined democracy as the people’s power. For the Athenians, democracy was beyond just balloting, it involved political participation such as rigorous debates on issues that affected them. Of course their democracy was not perfect since it came at the expense of women, slaves and children. It becomes necessary to mention in passing that there is no such a thing as a perfect democracy although some societies are democratically stronger than others. 

Over the years, different theorists tried to conceptualise a democracy that is suitable for modern capitalists’ societies which are far more complex than primitive societies. Interestingly, there is no widely accepted model of democracy; our democracy has always been extoled for being one of the best democracies in the world. Such is fairly true, there aren’t many countries with similar historical exigencies who managed to attain the kind of democracy we have. For example, if one takes a look at our Zimbabwean neighbours who were also colonised by Britain, it becomes clear that their ‘democracy’ has long been in calamity with little to no leeway of positive change as things stand. Even though the colonisers have long left, violence continues to haunt the Zimbabwean citizens. In most instances, it is often meted out by their own liberators just like in the case of the Marikana massacre. 

What we have at the moment is a majoritarian form of democracy and that is problematic as I ought to show. Most if not all South African political parties often expound that they are the exponents of democratic centralism. What this means is that, if a political party wins elections, all of its members of the parliament (MP) are expected to be politically expedient in order to advance the party mandate. This is sometimes done at the expense of the views of the minority. If a member of parliament decides to offer an antithetical perspective to that of his or her party; that MP can in fact lose their job even if they stood for the right thing or the interests of the citizens. To further drive this discussion, most political parties have (including the ruling party) abused this right to hire and fire MPs who ought to veer from the party command. Most South Africans saw this when a number of MPs (such as Andile Mngxitama) publicly denounced Malema’s iron fist rule and were later fired from parliament by the Economic Freedom fighters (EFF).  

More to the above, this majoritarian democracy has led to enamours corruption whereby the opposition did not have power to avert it. During the tenure of former president Jacob Zuma there was excessive looting of state coffers, the country was downgraded by rating agencies (e.g. S&P Global). To make it worse, Bosasa (as claimed by Angelo Agrizzi) captured the cabinet and opened flood gates of corruption in the entire government of the Republic of South Africa. Similar accounts of state capture were offered by the charismatic former Police Minister Fikile Mbalula who attested to the views that the Guptas captured the South African government.

In all of the aforementioned instances, it is clear that the will of the people is unheeded for personal gains. Therefore, democracy becomes meaningless when it is not rooted in the interests of the people. Even with voting which happens only after five year or so, citizens only have the power to vote for their preferred political party and not the actual people whom they want to govern or represent them in parliament. The power to choose the people who ought to be representatives in parliament is given to the few elite members of the so-called political parties.  It is upon this reason that Ministers such as Nomvula Mokonyane, Bathabile Dlamini (and others) have somehow made it to the African National Congress (ANC) list to parliament despite poor records of service and public outcry which has been disregarded by the ANC. When one ponders about these instances, they get to realise that the so-called will of the people is often subverted for the sole purpose of self-enrichment and protecting of their comrade’s interests.

In concluding this discussion, I contend that the most suitable and possible solution for the aforementioned undemocratic hurdles is a form of Consociational democracy (power-sharing) whereby the opposition will have some form of power even instances whereby the ruling has managed to secure  an overwhelming two thirds majority. Such will help deter situations whereby the ruling veers from the will or the interests of the people. Power-sharing helped end apartheid in a peaceful manner in South Africa. 

Hence, it can assist in alleviating inequality by making sure that the interest of the people are always at the behest of all decision-making bodies in government.  In addition to this, there needs to be a critical engagement on the fact that members of political parties are expected to be politically expedient even when such (towing the party line) puts the interests of the people in jeopardy. In short, we need to learn from matured democracies such as that of the United States and Britain whereby MPs party are allowed to not concur with their own political parties and not fear for their jobs. A notable example is when members of the Conservative Party disagreed and voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal in many instances. 


Gift Sonkqayi is currently studying towards a masters degree in Education at the University of the Witwatersrand.