Solid Research, Clumsy Structure

Cape Times (South Africa), May 28, 2010 | Go to article overview

Solid Research, Clumsy Structure


MEMORIES of long, snake-like queues twisting their way to voting stations in April 1994 are often fondly recalled as the most vivid and poignant illustration of democracy in action in South Africa.

But, of course, making a mark on a ballot paper at regular five-year intervals is just one small part of being a democracy. Its real meaning and substance lies much deeper.

Testing Democracy, edited by Neeta Misra-Dexter and Judith February of Idasa's Political Information and Monitoring Service, is alive to this fundamental distinction.

In their introduction to the book, they refer to "the difference between the procedural forms of democracy and what really occurs in terms of citizens realising their socioeconomic and political rights".

The book examines the extent to which the form and substance of democracy come together in South Africa. It does this in two ways: firstly, by providing an overview of the key challenges facing our democracy, and, secondly, through a detailed assessment based on Idasa's Democracy Index.

Those who sketch the overview include some of the country's most authoritative policy analysts and academics, including Aubrey Matshiqi, Steven Friedman, Pierre de Vos, Haroon Bhorat and Raenette Taljaard.

Matshiqi starts off by providing a broader context, with the aim of drawing lessons from elsewhere in Africa.

While he rightly dismisses the glib and unfounded equation between South Africa and Africa's post-independence one-party states, his prognosis is nevertheless quite grim.

"Single-party dominance or a dominant party system may have the same corrosive effect on democracy as one-party rule," he states.

For instance, he asks whether the ANC would have resolved its leadership battles in quite the same way - recalling the then president Thabo Mbeki, and fielding a presidential candidate facing criminal charges - if it faced a real threat of defeat at the polls.

"There is no doubt that single-party dominance in South Africa informs the political choices of the ruling party and the quality of citizens' democratic experience," he says.

Bhorat and Carlene van der Westhuizen point to a more insidious, but no less serious, threat to South Africa's democracy: the high levels of poverty and growing economic inequality.

They point to the obvious social conflict this can provoke. In the long term, they suggest, this can even threaten the survival of democracy (they point to a study which found that citizens are unwilling to support democracy when there is economic inequality).

The notion of a developmental state is often put forward as the most effective way of addressing poverty and inequality in South Africa. However, Sam Ashman, Ben Fine and Susan Newman provide a sobering reminder of the history and evolution of this debate.

They argue convincingly: "South Africa is so far from being a developmental state that it is farcical for it to claim such status." Instead, they believe, the status quo - a neoliberal capitalist economy - will essentially be retained under President Jacob Zuma, the only difference being new beneficiaries.

What is needed instead, they assert, is a far more radical shift in economic policy, in which state intervention and ownership feature prominently. They do not regard the ANC as capable of making this shift, and dismiss those in its ranks who wave the "developmental state" banner as opportunistic.

Instead, they look to what they describe as popular oppositional movements to take on this battle. …

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