Democracy under threat

31 March 2008

Not too long ago, in 2006, South Africa was riding the crest of a post-apartheid high - the economy was thriving, the delivery of houses, infrastructure and services was at a high, President Thabo Mbeki was at his most popular and the future looked rosy to all.

But cracks - think unchecked AIDS and unemployment, growing inequality (especially among black South Africans) - were beginning to show. And now, just two years later, democracy itself is showing signs of "hollowing out," said political scientist Professor Robert Mattes in his inaugural lecture, ambivalently titled W(h)ither Democracy in South Africa, on 19 March.

Mattes illustrated the extent of the slump with a procession of charts and graphs, generated through his work with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, the Afrobarometer project and the Democracy in Africa Research Unit at UCT. In everything from declining voter turnout and low levels of popular commitment to democracy, to voters shirking their responsibilities and a rise in public protest, South Africa was trailing well behind other African countries, the studies showed.

These are "problems or symptoms of South Africa's democratic malady, that all, in some way, reflect a lack of citizen agency and leadership accountability", said Mattes.

The causes are many: South Africa's stuttering political economy, its one-party dominance, a "feckless" opposition, and a well-intentioned Constitution that, nonetheless, supports the ANC's upper hand.

The solution, Mattes concluded, would be to pay "far greater attention than we presently do to our democratic deficits".

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