#FreedomDay, and 20 years of democracy in South Africa

My first experience of voting was on March 17, 1992, in the referendum that asked

Do you support continuation of the reform process which the State President began on 2 February 1990 and which is aimed at a new Constitution through negotiation?

That reform process, and the desire to be part of it, was one of the reasons that I returned from the USA, where I had been living during 1990 and 1991. I watched Mandela’s release in February 1990 from a small apartment in Rockville, Maryland, and even though sad I couldn’t be there, I was nevertheless optimistic about South Africa’s future, and the prospect of a fully democratic election.

So I voted “yes” in that referendum, along with 68.73% of other white voters. In a most implausible turn of events, that was exactly the result I predicted, to two decimal points. (John, if you’re reading this, back me up in comments!) Only white voters had a say in that referendum.

I’m less optimistic today. Under the moral gnat that is Jacob Zuma, the leadership of ANC has (hopefully, temporarily) been subsumed by competition for patronage and/or the business of paying off debts owed to friends who got you out of trouble.

People queueing to vote in 1994And, the pragmatic demands of competing against such a powerful electoral force has led to opposition parties often either serving narrow interests (race-based, religion-based) or campaigning on platforms that appear to do so (as with the Democratic Alliance, whose insensitivity to the tonality of race and class continues to trip them up, despite what I continue to believe are good intentions).

As I argued in a previous post about whether or not we should spoil our ballots, we can (and to my mind, should) vote tactically in order to send a signal to the ANC (or in the Western Cape, the DA) that you’re happy – or not – with the offering or performance that party represents.

But whomever leads or ends up (after May 7) leading your province or your nation, it’s currently sometimes difficult to reconcile what words like democracy, representation, accountability and the like ought to mean with what they appear to mean.

Yes, our press is free, and does a mostly superb job of keeping us informed and exposing critical issues like Jacob Zuma’s abuse of public resources in the building of his private homestead. Our judiciary is independent, and I’m pleasantly surprised that our Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has – so far – kept his religious beliefs out of his judgements. There are good stories to tell.

There are also bad stories, and sad stories. Marikana is both, in that the horror of a police force in a free, democratic country killing unarmed citizens is something we associate with the Sharpeville massacre, rather than with the “Rainbow Nation” mythology many of our citizens would still like to think carries meaning, and hope.

If words like accountability meant something here, Jacob Zuma would have resigned in shame by now, or been impeached by a Parliament that – despite an ANC majority – knew that this was the right thing to do. If words like representation meant something here, a Breitling-flashing fascist like Julius Malema wouldn’t be able to convince desperately poor people that he has their best interests at heart. If words like political ideology meant something, the DA wouldn’t be curtailing liquor sales on Sundays, or suggesting that we criminalise HIV.

I suspect we’ll get to being the country we hoped we became on 27 April, 1994 – a country where we all have equal opportunity to flourish, and where our leaders represent us, and are accountable to us. For now, though, heads seldom seem to roll, except when they are the heads of innocents like Andries Tatane, or Anene Booysen.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.