Never before has the question: Sifike kanjani apha? (How did we get here?) rang relevant to me like it has following the recent events in our body politics. Never before have had I imagined people would lower their moral guard to remain in the political elite. New stars are born and legends are carried to their graves at an unprecedented pace. But for the ordinary folk, the lodestars of culture, society and politics remain the same.

Then there are those times in which time crawls and at other times everything changes all at once. Political newcomers (both between and within parties) storm the stage. Voters clamour for policies that were unthinkable until yesterday. Social polarization that had long simmered under the surface erupts into terrifying explosions. A ‘people’s democracy’ that had seemed immutable looks as though it might come apart. This is the kind of moment in which we now find ourselves.

At the close of the twentieth century it appeared that the great ideological battles between fascism, com­munism and liberalism resulted in the overwhelming victory of liberalism. Democratic politics, human rights and free-market capitalism seemed destined to conquer the entire world.

Until recently, liberal democracy reigned triumphant. For all its shortcomings, most citizens seemed deeply committed to their form of government. The economy was growing. Radical parties were insignificant. Political scientists thought that democracy in places like the United States had long ago been set in stone, and would change little in the years to come.

Politically speaking, it seemed, the future would not be much different from the past. But as usual, history took an unexpected turn, and after fascism and communism collapsed, now liberalism is in a jam. So where are we heading?

Citizens have long been disillusioned with politics; now, they have grown restless, angry, and even disdainful. When thousands marched in major cities calling for the resignation of the former President Zuma, many mistook this as a challenge to the ruling party. Our party based political system has long seemed comatose; today, authoritarian populists are on the rise, from South Africa to America, and from Asia to Australia.

Voters have long disliked particular parties, politicians or governments; now, many of them have become fed up with liberal democracy itself.

The Donald Trump’s election to the White House has been the most striking manifestation of democracy’s crisis. It is difficult to overstate the significance of his rise. But it is hardly an isolated incident. In Russia and Turkey, elected strongmen have succeeded in turning fledgling democracies into electoral dictatorships. In Poland and Hungary, populist leaders are using that same playbook to destroy the free media, to undermine independent institutions and to muzzle the opposition.

There can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment. The question is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age – and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt.

We are increasingly seeing what happens when a politics of enemies supplants a politics of adversaries. And the new crop of populists who have stormed the political stage over the past shoulder a lot of the blame for this.

The rise of political newcomers is as likely to be a sign of democratic health and vitality as it is of imminent sickness. Political systems benefit from a thorough contest of ideas and from a regular substitution of one ruling elite for another. New parties can help in both ways. By forcing long-neglected issues on to the political agenda, they increase the representativeness of the political system. And by catapulting a new crop of politicians into office, they inject the system with fresh blood.

One possible explanation for the shifts in tertiary institution Student Representative Council (SRC) elections is that young people have little conception of what it would mean to live in a different political system. People born in the 1970s and 80s experienced the wrath of apartheid as children or were raised by people who actively fought it. They spent their formative years during the apartheid war. When they are asked whether it is important to them to live in a democracy, they have some sense of what the alternative might mean.

Millennials or born frees, by contrast, barely experienced the apartheid war and may not even know anybody who fought apartheid in their family. To them, the question of whether it is important to live in a democracy is far more abstract. Doesn’t this imply that, if they were actually faced with a threat to their system, they would be sure to rally to its defence?

I’m not so sure. The very fact that young people have so little idea of what it would mean to live in a system other than their own may make them willing to engage in political experimentation. Used to seeing and criticising the (very real) injustices and hypocrisies of the system in which they grew up, many of them have mistakenly started to take its positive aspects for granted.

As Yascha Mounk (The People vs Democracy: Why our freedom is in danger and how to save it, 2018) puts it; “Both the history of the enlightenment and the reality of liberal democracy are complex. Any attempt to present them in uncritical terms is bound to run counter to the basic enlightenment value of veracity, and to undermine the basic democratic principle of striving toward political equality.”

It is the recognition of these facts – as well as understandable anger at the blithe dismissal of them on large parts of the right – that makes it so tempting for many of today’s journalists and academics to settle into a pose of pure and persistent critique.

We will only be able to contain the rise of populism if we ensure that the political system overcomes the very real shortcomings that have fuelled it. Ordinary people have long felt that politicians don’t listen to them when they make their decisions. They are sceptical for a reason: the rich and powerful (including criminal patronage) really have had a worrying degree of influence over public policy for a very long time. The revolving door between financiers and legislators, the outsized role of private money in political lifeblood, and the tight links between politics and industry really have undermined the degree to which the popular will steers public policy.

All of this has had a large impact on the government’s ability to deliver for ordinary people. After growing rapidly in the immediate post-apartheid era, the living standards of ordinary people have, in many parts, been stagnating. And the growing frustration about a lack of material progress has, in turn, helped to fuel a massive cultural backlash against the ideals of an equal, rainbow nation.

These shortcomings can only be addressed through substantial modification. Institutions need to curb the influence of money on politics and find new ways to allow citizens to have a say. Politicians need to recover the will and the imagination to ensure that the fruits of democracy are distributed much more equally. And citizens – all of us – need to work even harder to build an inclusive patriotism that protects vulnerable minorities against discrimination while emphasising what unites rather than what divides us.

But the project of saving democracy also calls for something higher-minded than wonkish transformation. Populists have only been able to celebrate such astounding successes because the moral foundations of our system are far more brittle than we realised. And so anybody who seeks to make a contribution to revitalising democracy must first help to rebuild it on a more stable ideological footing.

Chris Maxon is the Deputy Manager at the Department of Health in KZN

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