It is undeniable that South Africa hasn’t been in the best shape under Jacob Zuma’s “leadership”. Energy supply is a hot mess, economic growth has been lacklustre, corruption scandals blow over with no repercussions, and democratic institutions have been undermined and weakened one after the other. As worrisome as this may be, is it not perhaps what South Africa needs to finally stand a chance of having a healthy democracy where opposition parties pose an actual threat to the ruling party? Possibly.
I’ve always been of the notion that democracies get the governments they deserve, post-apartheid South Africa is no different. For as long as elections remain “free and fair” then South Africa deserves to be run by whoever wins those elections. Only the South African people have the power of changing who leads them and for as long as they choose to be led by the men and women who are struggling to further advance the country, then they are endorsing such and thus deserve it. If South Africa felt it deserved better, then it would have sought other alternatives.
Having said that, it is important to understand that the relationship most South Africans have with the ANC is unique. We must not forget that the ANC is a national liberation movement and by virtue of having emancipated the previously disenfranchised masses from legislated inequality, many South Africans of colour have an emotional attachment that is hard to see past, even when the liberating party is underperforming as a government. In other words, the ANC would have to do a whole lot wrong to lose the support of the electoral support of the South African masses. Perhaps Zuma and his underwhelming administration might just be that.
Not so many years ago, social media newsfeeds had little or no actual news. Most ordinary South Africans were apathetic to politics, the state of the economy or even current affairs. This has changed considerably under Zuma’s presidency. “Nkandlagate”, the Marikana massacre, State of the Nation addresses (Sona) and even fake sign language interpreters at Nelson Mandela’s funeral are some examples that have received increased commentary on social media platforms and in public discourse. I can recall a time when many of my contemporaries didn’t know that the office of the public protector even existed and now they watch the Sona. It would appear that ordinary South Africans, including the youth, are more interested in politics than a few years ago. This could be promising, especially if it would deter many voters from the ANC, which enjoys political power that is not conducive for vital core democratic values such as accountability.
After the recent Sona spectacle, many commentators think that our once vibrant democracy is broken. This might be the case. It also might be the case that this is not bad news but rather that our democracy needed to break in order to be reborn and to advance. The threat of electoral defeat is essential for a fit democracy. Politicians are less incentivised to abuse the very power given to them by the people. Dominant party systems like South Africa’s are not good for any democracy because they mean that opposition is weak. The likes of Julius Malema and Helen Zille can howl till they turn blue and green but it will mean nothing if they do not pose a real threat at the polls.
What might be counting in our democracy’s favour is that other political parties are now more likely to be elected into political office. The current dismal state of affairs under Zuma might not be the tragedy it has been made out to be but possibly our only fighting chance at having an actual democracy. Maybe what’s happening is the necessary growing pains for positive change and the maturing of what is a relatively young democracy.