Commemorating South Africa’s 18th year as a democracy this past week calls for a patriotic blog post, as does the e-toll interdict which delivered a sweet respite and an appropriate present for May 1 to the labour movement for exerting their right to protest.

Owing to apartheid, I have never been much of a conventional patriot and have an almost Pavlovian repulse for nationalism including rooting for sports teams or players based on whichever country has bought them a passport.

I never saluted the flag nor sang Die Stem (which is tricky to pull off when you’re Head Boy of your school). As a 20-year-old backpacking in Europe, I wore a keffiyeh and hoped nobody would ask my nationality, even while I could spot other South Aricans by the bright red laces of their Cape Union Mart boots.

All that changed a little in 1994. Nkosi Sikelele is a beautiful hymn. The new flag, abstract.

In a peak of national fervour I allowed my dual citizenship to lapse – after all South Africa had just been welcomed back into the UN, OAU, the Commonwealth; every club on earth wanted us.

For all the international rhetoric in the dark days, it was remarkably easy for white South Africans to travel in the West.

Until apartheid collapsed; Europe and North America panicked. South Africa – a democracy? Black people will get passports. And up went the barriers once the apartheid regime was no longer screening out the Africans.

Visas have progressively become more onerous ever since (for a variety of reasons though).

Here we are 18 years on and South Africa’s democracy is still intact. We even survived the intrusion of Fifa. And despite the damage done by the arms deal, we have kept up pressure on the government for 13 years and we show no sign of flagging.

The people of South Africa have numerous times demonstrated their power to overrule government when it goes astray. Our state of the art Independent Electoral Commission is the envy of many.

Our democratic institutions are arguably in far better shape than other countries that were part of the so-called Third Wave of democratisation – Eastern Europe (1990s), Thailand (1992), Nepal (failed in 1991) and Iran (borderline since 1997).

We are streets ahead of nearly every African country on a continent that has seen too many reversions to autocracy, military rule and civil war. We share borders with the royal kleptocracy of Swaziland, an electorally dysfunctional Zimbabwe, and the partially democratic Mozambique. Botswana and Namibia are comparable to us, but their citizenry do not enjoy to the same extent the constitutional protection South Africans do.

Democracy might not yet be fully understood; clearly not everyone in power gets it, but this is not the same as having the kinds of fundamental obstacles to democracy that many countries face. Anyone who travels widely knows that the problems we face can be found in every country even Scandinavia. Much of what is good in South Africa is uniquely ours, and what is ugly is commonplace elsewhere in the world.

We have gangsters and corruption, but our government and judiciary are not run by mafia (unlike Russia).

It is true we fought for freedom and all we got was democracy, but the one can only follow from the other.

I concede we’re not exactly Denmark. Watching the Danish political television series Borgen makes one slightly envious. A prime minister that lives in a modest home and cycles to Parliament; a government that falls because the PM bought a dress for his wife on a state credit card even though he paid it back before it was debited; and the new PM’s husband can’t accept a position as CEO at a sub-subcontracted firm because of a state tender (and this is after it has been awarded). Sure, there is horsetrading, backstabbing and lying in their politics, but these shenanigans seem almost quaint compared to our spy scandals, hoax emails and low-level assassinations.

Meanwhile the self-styled gold standards of Western democracy, countries that for years have preached the gospel of democracy to the rest of the world, are rolling back the rights and freedom of their citizens at an alarming rate. The disenfranchisement of millions of Americans which has been going on since the Bush years is breathtaking.

I’m not sure who was the bigger disappointment – Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma or Barrack Obama – but right now I’m inclined to say Obama. As Obama claimed in 2007, “I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president [Bush] I actually respect the Constitution.” But on almost all civil liberty fronts he has been steadily abrogating the rights of Americans. The list is very long, but here are a few: there is now indefinite detention without trial; execution without judicial process (together with the suspect’s families, the postman and anyone else who happens to be in their proximity when the drone strikes) extended to American citizens; Americans can be tried by military tribunal and no longer have the inalienable right to civil courts, something that was stopped in 1866 after the miscarriage of justice following the assassination of Lincoln. Even whistleblowers on state corruption are being targeted in a way and on a scale unprecedented in American history, even when  they uncover massive corruption and theft from the state.

The current legal threats to South Africa’s democracy about which I am most concerned – the Protection of State Information Bill and the Intelligence Laws General Amendment Act – seem modest next to the laws Obama has signed. But because it is Obama and a Democrat president, who looks politically vulnerable, civil rights groups have been pathetically muted in their response. Had Bush signed the laws Obama has there would have been a frenzied outcry.

If you’re ever feeling depressed about South Africa, just listen to Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez’s US weekday programme Democracy Now. I guarantee you’ll feel better.

Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. We must always remember they are both wrong.

Democracy, as we know, is the hardest form of government to maintain. By taking pride in the freedoms we enjoy and celebrating those things that do work in our country, we will be best positioned to defend and even deepen our democratic rights – crucially the freedom of information, protection for whistleblowers and keeping the security forces (intelligence, police, military) in check.

We should be able to patriotically tell our government (be they the ANC nationally or the DA provincially) when they come up with unconstitutional ideas and try to water down our rights: “You can’t do that. Where do you think you are? This is not America. This is South Africa!”

Follow Brent on Twitter.


  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit


Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

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