Three things to celebrate about South African democracy

Author: Professor Fiona Anciano

Democracy is an idea brought to life by our daily actions. From voting to everyday acts of trust and lawfulness, South Africans continuously uphold and celebrate democratic principles. Even amid challenges, showcasing hope and unity. Democracy isn’t tangible. You can’t see or touch it. It is just an idea. But when you put this idea into the hands of people, it becomes real. We give meaning to democracy when we, as citizens, conduct democratic acts. We do this every day in small ways. When we pay VAT on our food, when we stop at a red light, and when we listen to someone else’s point of view.

These are democratic acts because they are based on principles such as ‘the rule of law’ and ‘freedom’. Mostly, people take these acts for granted, and do not consider them as part of democratic participation. Every few years, however, we as citizens, consciously watch ourselves make democracy ‘real’ by going together to vote, all on the same day. We stand in a queue, sometimes for hours, with people we don’t know, but who live somewhere near us, to draw an ‘X’ on a piece of paper. 

This is one of the most hopeful acts we can perform as citizens. We turn an imagined idea into something real. In the last week of May 2024, 16.3 million people in South Africa participated in this collective act, showing hope and trust in a shared future. This is our first democratic triumph.

Second, South Africa has robust democratic systems, including mechanisms for conflict resolution such as the Electoral Court. Competition is a fundamental democratic principle, but when people compete, this can have unpleasant consequences, such as fighting and violence. We did not have this in our elections. They were ‘free’ and they were ‘fair’. What does that mean? You and I could stand for hours in a queue and not worry about being intimidated or threatened. When we looked at those pieces of paper, we knew we had the freedom to place our X wherever we wanted. We also know that your X, my X, and the votes of the other hundreds of people standing with you were all counted. Checked, multiple times. By hand, with observers.  

Our third triumph is that a liberation party that has been in power in government for 30 years just peacefully accepted that they have lost the majority in parliament. Being in government brings access to many resources and no party wants to give that up. And the ANC will have to give up some of these benefits, starting with dozens of parliamentary seats, nationally and provincially. They will have to make concessions to other parties they do not want to work with, but they have indicated they will do this. Why? They know they have no choice because South Africans are democrats at heart and would not allow an election to be manipulated or stolen. Not everyone, not all the time, but most people, most of the time. The ANC is currently, rightly, acting maturely. However, they have few other viable options. 

Yes, South Africa faces multiple governance challenges, from poor administration to corruption. But governance is different from democracy – governance is what happens between our democratic acts.  Voter turnout is decreasing, and a new minority political party is not peacefully accepting the election result; these are concerns.  Yet, we should still take a moment to celebrate; for 30 years, South Africans have largely held firm in supporting the ideal and practice of democracy, both in our everyday democratic acts and in the grand act of voting. 

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