(1) On Heritage Day, 27 years into the post-apartheid republic’s existence, we may need to reflect on the health of our democratic institutions. This is particularly crucial given that we are now just on 5 weeks away from local government elections. What do the events of the past week tell us about the state of democracy in South Africa?
– We have strong institutions on paper, but human fallibility compromises the ability of these institutions to deliver the benefits they are meant to; the executive arm of government at all three tiers is marred by corruption and maladministration; the legislatures are not holding the executive to account and therefore also need to be strengthened; the judiciary has come under attack from outside its ranks, and there are troubles from within given the issues around Judge Hlophe and the remarks by the outgoing chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng. Political parties, plural, are in internal crisis, and there is a general rightward shift mistaken for populism in SA politics, with signs of xenophobic rhetoric peddled as solutions to problems not at all generated by the presence of non-SA people in the country; the IEC itself may need to clean its house not just ahead of the election in order to run it, but deep reflection will have to be done after to avoid the multiple errors of complacency and inertia which led to the court processes in the middle of this year which nearly caused a constitutional crisis and nearly delayed the polls.
(2) The IEC has, however, run a reasonably successful voter registration weekend, adding 1.7 million people to the voters roll. Does this bode well for the polls ahead?
– Yes, it is an important achievement — but it should be noted that there is still a substantial skewing of who registers in terms of age; despite being the majority in the country, younger people are disproportionally underrepresented on the voters roll; given the age imbalance in SA politics, and given that the crises ahead are engendered by decisions in our past and present, and that dealing with those crises depends on the decision we make now and in the future, it is imperative that young people grapple the control over the politics of this polity away from the elderly and actively secure their own future in the second half of this century. Not involving themselves is not an option given that their very survival a generation from now, when the political elite currently in power, are all dead, and the world is a very different place, mired in the climate catastrophe and the political and existential crises of food and water shortages, political instability and conflict, and mass migration across the planet away from these, have become realities on a hotter, more hostile planet. We need more than those 1.7 million to get stuck into politics.
(3) Is there, then, any cause for hope, as we reflect on the present and the future on this Heritage Day?
– Hope is the wellspring of all life, and for both the religious and the non-religious, our resilience comes from hope. Despair is not something our forebears have bequeathed us — struggle being so crucial in so many people’s lives here: not just the struggle against colonial and apartheid violation, but the struggle against poverty, against exploitation, against violence and dehumanisation at every level is part of the legacy South Africans can claim given their history, and not just in the previous century, but in this millennium as well — our victories over the desperate events of the Life Esidimeni tragedy, the many victories against government inaction and maladministration and non-delivery in education and health and housing (HIV-AIDS ARV treatment, norms and standards, forced removals reversals, landlessness and women’s rights, all fought for rather than gifted by government). This is the heritage we need to build on, the heritage we saw in the community action networks (CANs) which assisted millions during the privations of the 2020 lockdown, and the insistence on joyful living which millions of people queuing for vaccination demonstrate by singing and dancing and posting images of themselves getting jabbed — these are signs of hope and inspiration that we are the people who can make it better, despite government’s obstacles and political parties’ inertia and failures and self-interested games.