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Khaya Sibeko

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How Democratic Are We?

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The latter years of former President Thabo Mbeki’s tenure will in all probability be viewed as one of the most trying and testing periods of South Africa’s formative years of the democratic dispensation. It was through that period that the net of democratic tolerance was cast wider than most imagined it would be for a country that was, until then, seen as the ‘miracle baby’ of the liberation tradition in Africa. The much cited Constitution has led to many, perhaps prematurely, hailing it as the most progressive in Africa and indeed on par with the greater international community. But wording and responsibilities contained are not the single yardstick with which a country’s democratic limitations are measured.

The litmus test for any democratic country remains its electoral process. From the campaigning aspects of parties that offer, with alacrity an alternative perspective from the governing party, to the ability of the electorates to interface and certainly cast votes without any undue influence and ‘alien’ forces coercing them a particular agenda. And the critical moment being the ability to abide by the prescribed code of conduct when the election results are announced by election regulating bodies, and more often than not in Africa, there seems to be a lack of abidance by this latter requirement that is always noted as a indicator of the astuteness of any democratic state.

When South Africans went to the polls for the fourth time since 1994, the pre election mood was described, by many political commentators and ‘analysts’, as the turning point and signalling the end of the ‘honey moon’ the governing African National Congress has enjoyed since the advent of majority rule. And to a certain extent the elections had their epoch ness about them as with previous ones. For the first time the ANC had what seemed like a ‘competitor’ in the form of its offshoot party, Congress Of the People. The campaigning strategies were revisited after years of them gathering dust, because in the past it became second nature for many to vote ANC. Grassroots tactics were strengthen through the traditional door to door visits of party volunteers to them more modern ‘Obamarized’ campaigns such as cyber use as a means of publicizing parties, which was very key in the US’s 2008 elections. But in all honesty the ANC had a light year gap between themselves and the rest of the parties as far as campaigning budget is concerned, in fact is was reported that the ANC’s publicity budget was in the region of 200 million rands.

Now as a matter of history, the ANC was once was again given the mandate of continuing with its social contract, so to speak. Perhaps without any amazement from any lay person who appreciates the monolithic presence of the governing party on the general national consciousness. Not even the usually volatile ‘markets’ didn’t flitch a muscle as the results were gradually released by the Independent Electoral Commission. With the ANC having received 65,9% of the votes, which translated into 264 seats in the National Assembly. And its ‘nearest’ rival scraping together a mere 67 seats, that being the feisty Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance. Can we honestly say that South Africa has experience robust and vigorous elections? The answer is an unfortunate and certain expected ‘No’. This can be ascribed to the fact that the governing party still enjoys the lion’s share of the electorates’ unwavering support, a trait traditional associated with liberation parties in the ‘Third World’. Whether this support is based on the party’s effective delivery of its political promises made in 1994, 1999 and 2004 or it is because of historical struggle credentials that have carried it can be debated until the cows come home.

Until such time that there exists a credible alternative party that will contest the space of governance through thoroughly and attractively packaged policies which will speak less of the ruling party but will steep itself in what it would like to see happen and how it can achieve that in the most plausible means and immediate future. If that does not occur then we will keep celebrating, as robust and cutting edge, electoral competition that a primary school pupil could predict effortlessly. Perhaps the emergency of COPE has changed the political landscape towards that essential direction. It is true and must be said that it was a bit ambitious of anyone to think that a four month old party, with a lot of hypocritical baggage could just shoot off to the helm of governance. But as time becomes more wrinkled COPE will shake off its archilies heel – that it is a party of those who did not want to be ruled post Polokwane however true the charge may be – and maybe it will organize itself along with other parties and contest the 2014 election and go toe to toe with its Ancestral political rival.

A lot of countries have dismally failed the test of political maturity in Africa and the greater ‘Third World’ but more especially here in our beloved Africa. Post colonial Africa is fraught coups and military dictators not willing to accept the outcome of elections that go against their self expectations, even the great Kwame Nkrumah proclaimed himself president for life as soon as the Gold Coast became Ghana in 1957. It became fashionable for leaders to over stay their presidential visits in the presidency and so the free fall continued even with ‘our people’ in power. Over the years the tide seems to be slightly changing and became encouraging as we saw the like of Ghanaians go to the polls and the outcome being declared as free and democratic even by the most fierce critics of Africa. Nigeria recently celebrated its 10th year since a its recommitment to democratic values, some might say it is not a big deal, but when you assess post colonial Nigerian politics then you will appreciate the little steps taken. It is these countries that we can cite as beacons of betterment and maturity of their people and understanding that a lack of maturity destroys what ever desired results that will be helpful to the country. Even the much revered Botswana can not lay claim to have been tested as the two west African nations, because Botswana has been ruled, since independence from Britain, by one party, namely the Botswana Democratic Party, now led by Ian Khama.

One is not advocating or using bloody coups and violent exchange of governance, as we saw in Kenya’s 2007 election between President Mwai Kibaki’s Kenya African National Union and Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, as the test for its democratic astuteness. But has to be noted that a country’s limits of tolerance of dissenting voices and exchange of governing responsibilities will in a probability be measured and examined by the response to a breaking of the traditional voting patterns. The recent general elections had a lot of positives aspects about them. And that has to be understood in the context of the history of South Africa and our attempt at shaking off the effects of our rather unpleasant past. But until we witness a transfer of political power to another party, we will not know how democratic we are as a country and whether we are justified in blowing our horn of constitutional and political superiority. It must be said that the removal of a president before his tenure concludes without any violence goes along way it suggesting that we are heading in the right direction. Democracy remains a dangling carrot to which we must strive to catch and taste. It is through the pursuit of democratic ideals that we foster development and betterment of our ability to accommodate differing perspectives and thereby enhance our individual, societal and ultimately national, if not universal respect and maturity.

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