Closing South Africa’s democratic deficit

Tim Cohen

South Africa of the new era is often considered to be the victim of an odd and rather bizarrely undefined ailment: a democratic deficit.

Technically, a democratic deficit is thought to be a situation where an entity considers itself to be democratic or somehow understands itself as at least aspiring to the notion of democracy but, for some reason or another, actually falls short.

The classic example is the European Union. The EU is a body with substantial but rather ill-defined and vacillating responsibilities. It purports to be a democratic institution yet its powers are exercised mainly through representatives of constituent governments.

The EU does have a rather poorly supported parliament, although its powers are less than authoritative. And of course the representatives of constituent governments are themselves democratically elected.

However, in theory this circumscribed process has created a kind of distance between the institution and its nominal electorate, and it’s in the EU context that the term “democratic deficit” seems to get used the most.

The argument that South Africa has a democratic deficit is based on the same notion but with a different set of causes. The theory is that the horrors of the country’s apartheid history have created such powerful reaction that many voters seem to be voting their past rather than their future.

This powerful groundswell of political affiliation takes its concrete form in the huge and almost devotional support for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which won just on 80% of the vote in the most recent election.

To put this into context, bear in mind that white, Indian and mixed-race South Africa constitute about 15% of the total electorate. Consequently, the outcome suggest that almost the entire black population of South Africa voted practically unanimously for the ANC in 2004. This also suggest that voters who are not black practically unanimously voted against the ANC.

This racial barrier is also, in a way, evidence of the democratic deficit. It surely doesn’t stand to reason that voters should so overwhelmingly vote for political parties in alignment with their skin colour.

Further evidence, if you are looking for it, of the democratic deficit in South Africa can be seen in the very broadness of the ANC’s support base. The party is supported by everyone from teachers to industrial workers, to rural subsistence farmers, to intellectuals, to billionaire business people. The same sort of span of support is rare in the democratic world. It suggests that individuals are voting according to notions of affiliation rather exercising a considered choice.

The problem with the notion of the democratic deficit is that it’s a bit slippery. In a sense, most democracies have a democratic deficit, since not all citizens choose to vote.  Often we don’t know whether these voters are not voting because they simply acquiesce with the current system, or because they think their vote won’t make a difference, or because they just don’t care. In a sense, the notion of a democratic deficit suggests that everybody should care; that they almost have a duty to care and if they don’t something is wrong. But is that true?

In South Africa, the same sort of question applies, but in a different way. What if the ANC’s policies are just so attractive in one way or another to all its different constituencies that voters are in fact exercising a considered choice? Actually they are not voting their history; instead they are voting for the only party with sufficiently competent leaders and sufficiently balanced policies which together are capable of holding together such a fractious country.  In other words, the ANC majority at the polls is earned, not granted as a matter of course.

The point is that South Africa is about to learn whether it has a democratic deficit or not. The break-away grouping founded this last weekend, on 1 and 2 November, by former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota and former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa  is the first real credible threat to the ANC dominance at the polls. Lekota described his decision to leave the ANC “a divorce” and, officially, the papers were served at the weekend.

For neutral observers of South Africa’s relatively new and unfolding democracy, the likely creation of a new party is excellent news. It creates the prospect of a more strongly contested election and potentially a break-up the ice-flows that have characterised the South African political scene since democracy in 1994.

There is no certainty that the new party will amount to much. In fact, the ANC’s hugely supported rally on Sunday 2 November, was a defiant show of force aimed to take the wind out of the sails of the new grouping.

But yet, the omens suggest that the new party will put in a solid showing during the elections due to take place after April next year. The analytical consensus seems to be that they will win at least enough support to ensure the ANC does not have the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution on its own. The new grouping’s leadership is well known and generally well liked. They appear to be resolved, and are drawing support from a broad range of different areas across the country.

The 2009 election is shaping up to be perhaps the most significant since the first democratic election in 2004. If nothing else it will demonstrate whether there is a democratic deficit in South Africa or not.

Tim Cohen is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of South African publications. He is currently contracted as a columnist to Business Day and the Weekender, where he worked for most of his career, and financial website Moneyweb where he writes on business and corporate activity for an associate site called Dealweb. He was the 2004 Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year.