TO Molefe
TO Molefe

South Africa, a democracy only in form

I’ve come to despise elections because they’ve been used to warp democracy. Invariably, each time I’ve said this, one of you lot has had a conniption because you’ve misinterpreted this as me saying people should not vote. Don’t assume. Read — and exercise your atrophied comprehension muscle.

There’s an accounting principle known as substance over form. It can curtly be summarised as cutting through the bullshit to get to what’s really going on. The principle calls for discerning the true nature of an arrangement by piercing its façade. It’s a kind of X-ray vision and I’d like to turn it on our democracy.

To find the substance of a democracy over its form, you must follow the money. In South Africa, money flows through the institutions of democracy, political parties and the media to weave the illusion that we have a government by the will of the people. You don’t have to look too hard to realise that simply is not true.

But instead of it being said the real problem is that we have a democracy in form, not in substance, and figuring out how to fix it, we’re told the problem is the internal failings of the party elected to government. It’s also said we must look critically at that party’s internal democratic processes and question angrily how its 4 500 voting delegates could consider re-electing their current leader, as they’re set to do in December.

Who those delegates elect, my friends, is their prerogative and that party’s internal democratic process is theirs alone to administer as they see fit. If you’re really that aggrieved at their decisions, the most effective way to have a say is to fill out a membership application, though that would be the same as attempting to put out a runaway fire with a flamethrower.

For a more effective, and correct, solution I suggest you consider the democratic mechanisms available to you: voting, participating in oversight and law-making, and the work done by the Chapter 9 and 10 institutions that strengthen democracy and assist in governing public administration.

Mmm? What’s that you say? You don’t really know much about what the latter two are about or entail? All you know is the first, voting, and some of you that other form of democratic expression: protest. That’s no coincidence. Everything has been twisted to make it seem that voting is democracy when in actual fact it’s a mere sliver of a larger, truly beautiful form of governance.

Following the money will tell you that our political parties spent close to R650 million to get you into the voting booth for the 2009 election, according to the Open Society Foundation’s money and politics project. About 85% of this was recalculated based on the difference between the total spent and what the parties disclosed publicly, because they had to, because it came out of your wallet.

It had to be recalculated because parties are under no obligation to disclose the money they raise from private sources, nor is funding from this source regulated. Private funding of political parties is the Wild West of politics, as I’ve heard said. There, gun-toting, beer-swilling, ill-mannered cowboys buy a wild night, or five years, with a political party of their choosing, but it’s your democracy that gets screwed.

Add to this R650 million what the Independent Electoral Commission spent on posters, advertisements, personnel and such to get you into the voting booth and to deliver a free and fair election, and you’ll come to a cool R1.7 billion — just to have you vote. At the going rate, that’s eight and a half Nkandla security systems.

Contrast this with the almost R1.4 billion over five years Parliament has been allocated for its public participation and constituency office programmes and you’ll see that per year, at least six times as much is spent on getting you interested in an election year than on keeping you interested in democracy during the five years thereafter. In addition there exists no comprehensive democracy education programme to ensure that every South African, or even, at least, those eligible to vote, know how to participate in supervising government’s work and law-making, and why these matter as much if not more than voting.

And poor Thuli Madonsela. Like the Chapter 9 and 10 institutions, her communications budget is laughable, which is why she’s forced to rely so heavily on the scandal generated from her investigations to get media coverage for what her institution does. Thankfully, for her, there’s been no shortage of scandal.

Which brings me to the media, which is caught between enabling “citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the time” as the press code says, and remaining viable businesses. In other words: chasing money. These are often competing and contradictory actions, but only one is in the official job description of the press. But in these dire global economic times, the allure of money is coming up trumps.

Which is why, as I’ve said, I’ve come to loathe elections as in them I see proof that money does indeed make the world go round and, unchecked, it brings us to our knees.

Tags: , , , ,

  • Pauw’s revelations and democracy
  • The truth about Nkandla
  • Combine the Chapter 9s? How about some time?
  • Are South Africans really all capitalists at heart?
    • michael

      To the majority and especially the polititians Democracy is a 7 year old nag running in the 3.30 at Greyville.

    • Momma Cyndi

      What a spectacularly good piece of writing. Thank you.

      You did, however, leave out the one and only good part of elections – something gets done. Once every 5 years, a road WILL be tarred or a community WILL get running water – okay, so it is a tenderpreneurial job and it doesn’t last very long, but something gets done.

    • Sterling ferguson

      @Molefe, the system in SA is a shame to make the people think that they have a voice in the government. There is nobody elected to office in SA and accountable to the people. This is why public oponion means nothing in SA because Zuma doesn’t have to face the people. You should be calling for direct elections in SA.

    • Piet Boerie

      South Africa is not a democracy, we are a 1 party state. A true Democracy only starts when there has been a change of power once.

      So Zimbobwe, Angola like South Africa are 1 party states.

    • Paul Whelan

      We have democracy ‘in form only’ because it is only in some ‘form’ or other you can have democracy. Obviously the forms differe and are modified with time. The ideal form suggested here of a wholly participatory democracy is not practical and is not going to happen – to put it at its very simplest, people have other things to do.

      For another view on the subject that may be of interest:

    • sandile memela

      What is to be done?
      No doubt there is absolutely nothing new in what you have outlined except to share monetary figures that some may find intriguing or enlightening and shocking, at the same time.
      It is what it is and, rightly or wrongly, this animal you call democracy is considered the best system in the world, right now.
      The problem is not the system itself but how peopleundertand and use it to not only exercise elusive people’s power but keep leaders accountable.
      In this beautiful country everybody is living to work, chasing money and thus believes exercising their democratic rights of active citizenry, oversight role and keeping government accountable is somebody else’s job.
      At the end, we get the democracy we deserve. In this country, the people have consciously and willingly handed over their power to politicians.
      Everything that happens in our democracy is our democratic choice as we are responsible for the quality of our democracy.

    • Chris Wyatt

      A thoughtful effort to raise a genuine issue and good title to do so. But I should point out two serious failings that do far more to limit your democracy. But first, filling out a membership form and joining the IFP will not give a person any insight or control whatsoever over the ANC. You seem to conflate “democracy” with the internal mechanisms of a political party. The ANC is NOT South Africa’s democracy. It is a participant in it.

      South Africans were denied a genuine representative democracy at CODESA. First, voters to not vote for candidates. You have zero say in the qualifications or quality of the person “sent” to represent you. South Africans vote in a beauty pageant for a POLITICAL PARTY. The parties select MPs. Those MPs can fail miserably and face NO recall, no danger of losing their position as long as they tow their party’s line. That is not democracy. That is not accountable government. And when one party holds a decades long advantage owing to identity based election outcomes (vice results based), it is easy to explain the abysmal service delivery record and rampant corruption.

      Second, the floor crossing period each year when voters can instantly become disenfranchised when any member can change parties is patently undemocratic. Given you don’t get to choose the representative, losing one who betrays the party that gained the seat based on proportional voting is simply the theft of representation from the voters.

    • The Creator

      Loathing elections because government doesn’t work, is a bit like loathing antibiotics because disease exists.

      Government doesn’t work predominantly because a small minority of rich people hijack it. They hijack elections, and if you organise a revolution, they hijack that too (look at the Arab Spring).

      If you don’t like this, try to do something about the small minority of rich people organising the problem.

    • Johan Swarts

      Spot on.

    • Tofolux

      @TO, which further brings me to the conclusion that we should avoid the American election system at all costs. Not only is it the most corrupt system on earth, this is where “dirty capital” comes into play. I suggest that you compare that with our system and lo and behold, thank goodness we had some sobre minds when we negotiated this electoral system. The American system is mooted by our opposition parties for obvious reasons. It is an open secret that most of the money that flows into opposition politics comes from monopoly capital. My problem however is that most of this capital is derived from licences that comes from our natural resources. Take the fishing industry for eg, if this resource does not belong to the shareholder of a major fishing company and if this resource belongs to all South Africans who live in it, how is it that profits gained from our resources should be channelled into oppositional politics? And I make the point of oppositional politics for good measure because much like Obama, this govt cannot deliver to the poor at the speed they want to because of bureacracy and oppositional tactics much like the republicans and democrats. And becos we have a situation whr constitution fear has been leapfrogged we seen this wierd situation of abuse of our court system. I believe in majority democracy and I am taken aback at the sheer lack of respect by da losing minority who try and supercede their rights at the expense of the majority. That, is an injustice.

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    • The Salamander Club

      One of the most excellent articles I’ve had the privilege of reading recently. And the comments too – this is exactly this kind of engagement that our country needs. The article’s author and the commentariat have raised valid issues. And the cry goes up again “what can we do?”
      In par 6 of the article the author does indeed offer some suggestions for active participation. Most of us will respond as in Par 7.
      As Nilson says in The Salamander Club, it’s time to get up off our butts, stop whining and complaining, inform ourselves and actually DO something.

    • Paul Whelan

      To other excellent points here it is essential to add this, or we can still go astray on what ‘democracy’ is and the part voting and voters’ play in the representative form of it.

      Such democracy is a culture and a fundamental part of that culture is each voter’s understanding that his/her vote, along obviously with everyone else’s, can change the government. Democratic governments, on their side, understand this also and realize they have only a lease on power.

      For these conditions to be met, however, an alternative party or parties of government has first to exist for people to act as agents of change and, equally important, to realize that they can.

      For the majority of SAns at this time, no such alternative party or combination of parties exists. SA cannot expect to behave like a democracy when it lacks the culture of one.

      As Piet Boerie says above, SA is a party-state – or monocracy – at this time.

    • Paul Whelan

      Sandile Memela’s point, for instance, that ‘everything that happens in our democracy is our democratic choice and we are responsible for the quality of our democracy’ [including its government] is hardly true.

      If the majority of SAns do not see a choice – for whatever reason – they have no choice.

    • Paul Whelan

      @Chris Wyatt – That the ANC is not SA’s democracy but [should be only] a participant in it puts the point very well.

      Again, we see the basic problem is precisely that the majority do ‘conflate democracy’ with one party and its inner workings – all because that is how it happened for them in 1994 and how they have continued to trust it to be up to now – with (naturally) every encouragement from the ANC to do so.

      What interests me is how quickly that perception and story may be changing. In a year that was marked out to be a great rolling celebration of the Centenary, things could have hardly gone worse for the party and its image.

      But just as I won’t be surprised if Mangaung turns out to be an anticlimax with regard to the leadership, so I would not be surprised at all if the party, with its great financial strength and powers of patronage, are successful in fighting back for a long time yet.

    • Paul Whelan

      Sandile Memela’s opening question, What is to be done? was of course the title of a famous tract by Lenin. Among his conclusions was that there must be a disciplined and centrally organized vanguard party to act in the interests of a crushed, cruelly exploited and helpless people and a party newspaper to help build its constituency.

      It is important to remember Lenin was writing more than a hundred years ago, influenced above all by conditions in Czarist Russia, a crumbling empire that was a byword for backwardness and resistance to change.

      Whether or not one believes his solution is suitable for SA today, it should be clear it is another form of ‘democracy’ altogether, and one many people would no longer call ‘democracy’ at all.

    • TO Molefe

      Folks, I think what’s to be done is that we need to first regulate party funding by limiting the amount parties can spend on election campaigns (at the current rate it’ll be over R750 million spent campaigning for 2014); banning private funding completely and funding only from the public purse (as Phosa has proposed); or at the very least forcing them to disclose their funders.

      We also need a comprehensive education programme that will teach every South African everything about democracy, not just how and where to vote.

      Finally we need electoral reform to push us to a system that’s a mix proportional representation and a constituency-based system.

      None of these solutions, however, are an immediate fix.

    • Bernpm

      Sorry mate, your insulting opening paragraph made me skip reading your article.

      Scanning through the comments, I did appreciate your own comment at the end. I do agree with your statement there.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Molefe,this a good article but you point out the problem now, you have to come up with a solution to the problem. The answer lies in changing the elector system in SA to give the people a voice in the government and the parties. The first act is to take the control of the money from the president and put it under parliament.

      I see you like to quote Fanon but you should read what he said about African leaders were more repressive then their colonial masters.

    • Mr. Direct


      I am not sure I really understand your point about opposition politics, are you saying that there should not be a well funded, well organised opposition? Or are you suggesting that the opposition is only there to slow the country’s growth? Surely difference of opinion is the main driver in a democracy, but I guess the current government simply cannot be wrong, and that everything proposed should simply be accepted.

      Perhaps you believe that self interest is not a basic human trait, and that people should not be allowed to express their basic self interest in party funding?

      Perhaps you also believe that a political party should be self funding? Say, invest in companies that prosper, with say, government tenders as their primary income? That to me, sounds like a much better way of funding. Less chance of corrupting democracy, although I cannot see how the political party and govenment can possibly claim no conflict in interest in this model.

      The author suggests that there are forces behind the political struggle that influences the democratic process, yet you believe that this only fits to the opposition? Are you sure the current government did not rise to power through back door investment? Are you sure ALL of their interests are COMPLETELY aligned with the voting public?

    • Rory Short

      True democracy exists only when the ultimate decision making authority always rests with the electorate, i.e. at the bottom most level of governance hierarchy, and is never ever passed up the hierarchy.

      That said the problem is to find mechanisms through which it can be realised. Elections every five years are not the answer. Our constitution should cater for voter initiated referenda in response to any propose legislation and it should also cater for the voter recall, at any time, of any elected official. These two measures would effectively ensure that the ultimate decision making authority always remained with the electorate

    • Tofolux

      @Mr Direct, allow me to be direct with you. If you care to reflect on politics in general and the different forms of politics esp the American system then one cannot deny the hand of capital that is at play when we see certain practises eg, the manipulation of agendas and procedures,horse-trading,formation of unstable coalitions on a clique basis and monitoring of confidence votes in parliamentary politics. You have seen a development of certain rituals and a particular rhetoric that is contrary to our everyday realities. A case in point is the DA’s argument through Kohler-Barnard insisting and arguing that foreigners who own companies in the security industry have more or better rights than SAns. You have also seen the failure of madam Zille to intervene and lead in the De Doorns farmworkers dispute. The unbalanced protection of capital over citizens by them is blatantly unconstitutional and undemocratic. When citizens of our country has chosen their ruling party through a democratic vote in a democratic sytem then the interests of the people are paramount. Capital cannot drive our developmental agenda. It must be driven by the cadres of the movement who has deployed them for this purpose. In closing it is because of this capital interest and their own agendas that we now have the Nkandla and previously the ‘arms-deal’ situation. Becos govt is successfully rooting out their manipulation over the state, they have reacted the way they have in these two examples.

    • RubinBanana

      Agree one hundred percent. We need a system that can keep a check on the ruling party. At the present rate the government is ruining the country at a breath-taking rate.
      @Tofolux: So you believe the American system is the worst there is? Rather than trying to defend it, let me just say that one outstanding benefit of their system is the fact that no party stays in power for too long, which means that corruption is controllable: If a party is corrupt, the other party will expose it when it comes to power, and if necessary take steps to rectify the situation and even throw the crooks in jail. (By the way, this is true for any Western democracy where parties are regularly voted into/out of power) Not that they wait for an election: members of both parties normally work together to expose corruption or abuse of power. Also, even if one belongs to a party, you are not bound by its caucus to vote with it on any law. And that I call democracy.
      I believe, for this very reason, the ANC cannot afford to let another party take over the government : They have too much to account for.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Tofolux, you are in a dream world because in SA the people don;t have a voice in the government and the government is highly corrupted. The sad part about it, the people can’t remove none of these corrupted officials in the government. You shouldn’t try to compare the political system in SA to the US. Speaking of big capital, it’s much easier to corrupt the ANC government in SA than in the US. Big money doesn’t all way win the elections in the US. The people went to the polls and rejected big money candidate Romney.

    • Paul Whelan

      @Rory Short – What you are suggesting is not ‘true’ democracy but another form of democracy. If you think about it, it would be unworkable.

    • Mr. Direct


      Are you serious, “big money” companies are really the devil behind the problems this country faces? I think your cadres of the movement have been blinded by greed, and majority have lost their way completely.

      There is a system of democracy in Switzerland called “direct democracy” that is actually very effective. 100 000 votes on a petitition, and the backing of a political party is all that is required to raise a topic for a national vote. Voting is done many times per year on distinct topics, and dileberation and disccusions in parliment are related to these initiatives. Political parties rally around the topic in yes / no vote campaigns.

      Also, the president rotates several times during the term in office, preventing a the absolute power of one person over the rest.

      Every country has scandals, but I am sure none with the above system have ended up with disasters such as the Gauteng Tolls, where the government and the voting public were in direct opposition regarding points of view.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Tofolux, the members of parliament aren’t elected and accountable to the people in SA. In the US the parties, like Rubin just told you, will worked together to expose corruption in the government. If Obama had used state money to build his personal home both political parties would be jumping all over him and SA this isn’t the case.

    • Tofolux

      @Mr Direct, your bias is clouding your judgement. Firstly, the democracy you are talking about is an ”old” democracy, ours is new. Secondly,we do note have money to waste on all these processes just to ensure that you are ”happy”. Thirdly, our form of democracy is a negotiated one.This nation decided on this form of democracy through democratic consensus. If one claims to respect democracy, it follows that you respect the outcome. But let me take issue with you on a particular ritual and rhetoric of the right-wing. In all socialist & communist states the deployment of cadres is normal. In fact today, because of this deployment you have seen the successes of Brazil, Bolivia, China, Venezuela, Cuba etc, which speaks for itself. But because the right-wing has misled you through rhetoric, you have failed to grasp the importance of deployment. Allow me to educate you on the principle of cadre deployment. Cadres are organisors. Cadres have an ideology and cadres are leaders. What the right-wing in this country has, is managers. Managers who have absolutely no organising skills. Managers who are not leaders and managers who have no influence. They lead because someone has imposed them into certain positions. The representation of this class in your ranks is obvious. Their major moral flaw is their disloyalty to a developmental agenda to redress an unequal society. They after all are mere employees who r remote controlled to follow an individual.

    • Mr. Direct


      I have no bias.

      If you can, please explain the difference between “cadre” and “clique” (both described in your previous posts as a positive and negative respectively). I am not completely sure that the cadre deployment that you refer to is very welcoming, as Mr. Malema may be experiencing at this point in time.

      Seems to be an interesting use of terms, but ultimately you support something domestically that you criticise internationally? Who is blinded by their bias?

    • Ubuntu

      @Molefe, Ntate, what a breath of fresh air to know that there are still people in this country, Mzansi who knows and sees the truth as it is. My NGO have managed to raise funding from international donors to conduct an extensive civil and voter education programme. We will be partnering with other like-minded NGOs and individuals such as yourself to ensure our people’s eyes see the truth. We are not going to be bashing any political party, but we are going to make sure they understand that what a real and true democracy is and how it’s supposed to be. This will not end after the 2014 elections comes to the end, we are going to advocate for the ‘majority voters’ to demand reform in the electoral system and also the governance process & system. If the ruling party is always claiming that the will of the people legitimised their existence, then let’s see how we can ensure our people vote with their conscience and not their feed or empty stomaches. Our people deserve to know that no old or new apartheid can emerge as we have not neccessarily moved from the apartheid regime. SA is simply in a neo-apartheid regime disguising as a democracy, when it is a presidential representative democracy soon to be a parliamentary democracy. If we trully are saying ‘amandla ngawethu’, then it’s time we reclaim our power and not leave it to few individuals with their own interests at heart instead of the people they are supposed to be serving