A renewed round of loadshedding was implemented amidst heavy rains during the week of the 11th of April. During March, government also decided to formalise “temporary” lockdown restrictions into permanent regulations issued by the labour and health departments. These will be in operation indefinitely if adopted. What can this tell us about the state of South African democracy?
Loadshedding and lockdown have a few important characteristics in common. The most important is that no other policy or policies in recent memory has proven as economically and socially destructive to South Africans. Another is that both policies are regarded as strictly necessary by the political class. Neither policy, additionally, was endorsed by the electorate. And finally, both policies significantly expand government power.
Loadshedding and lockdown teach us a very important lesson about South African democracy: that as it is practised now, it is entirely superficial. The much lauded “will of the majority,” ostensibly central to the way we are governed, is in fact completely irrelevant where the rubber meets the road.
The government never went to the electorate to approve rolling blackouts. It was a unilateral decision never submitted for democratic approval. If the African National Congress put continued loadshedding in its electoral manifesto – as it should, based on its behaviour – it would have been out of government long ago.
The same is true for lockdown. The newest health measures announced in March represent the first time in over two years that the public’s input has been sought on how government responds to a public health crisis. But do not for a second think that “no more restrictions” is an answer the government will accept from South Africans. The current public participation process is an exercise in window-dressing.
One might argue that government simply had “no choice” but to implement rolling blackouts and lockdowns, lest the electrical grid collapse or a virus ravage the population. Laborious democratic processes, like parliamentary debates and public participation initiatives, cannot stand in the way of the “decisive leadership” that would steer South Africa away from the crises that would result from not locking-down or subjecting the population to rolling blackouts. Or so we are told.
But when it comes to equally important, arguably equally urgent matters, the government hides behind the rhetoric of “democratic mandates.” Take unemployment and unsustainable public spending as examples.
With over 12 million South Africans unemployed – largely due to the high price of labour resulting from labour legislation and regulations – we are sitting on a ticking time-bomb. No idle population can remain peaceful for long. Unemployment is a concrete threat to national security.
Yet, when one puts it to the government that it must “decisively” end the unemployment crisis by doing away with the regulatory barriers to employment, one is told that government has no democratic mandate to do so. “It’s not what the people want.”
The same is true when it comes to the necessity of privatisation. Entities like Eskom, the Post Office, and South African Airways, have no business being owned and operated by the State. They cost the taxpayer billions in bailouts and provide atrocious quality of service. These enterprises can only be saved by being privatised. At worst, they must be liquidated and replaced with private-sector competitors. But when this is put to government, the answer one receives is that there is no democratic mandate for the State to do so. Instead, government regards its mandate as precisely the opposite: to hold on tightly to these apartheid-era dinosaurs.
It is easy to argue that government has “no choice” but to deregulate the labour market, lest South Africa erupt into civil strife the likes of which we experienced in July 2021. Or that Eskom, SAA, and the Post Office must be privatised before we succumb to a debt crisis. This is not happening, however.
How can one explain this phenomenon?
When the political elite wants to do something that benefits it, it cares naught for the democratic will. It will find a reason to do that thing, usually appealing to the need to be decisive in the face of some or other crisis. But when it does not want to do something – even when it ought – it will quickly point out that the electorate has not approved.
Democracy, clearly, is an indeterminate device that simply gets wheeled out and paraded about when it suits the political elite. The depth of South African democracy, in other words, does not really extend far past our five-yearly elections that exclusively decides the identity, not policy, of government.
The only reason the political elite draws a distinction between the implementation of loadshedding (to protect the grid from collapse) and lockdown (to protect public health) on the one hand; and the implementation of labour deregulation (to protect national security) and privatisation (to protect the treasury) on the other, is because the former benefit the government by bestowing more power upon it, and the latter take government power away.
When government sees an opportunity to increase its own power, it will not necessarily seek the approval of the majority. But when there is an insistence that government must give up some of its power, it will hide behind the fact that it has no democratic mandate to do so.
South Africans have to realise that they are not being taken seriously by the powers that be. Appeals to democracy and majoritarian will are empty of substance. The reality is that the political elite does whatever it wants, guided only by its own interests, not those of the public at large. This problem cannot be addressed before we recognise precisely what is going on.
Only once this realisation has dawned on us can we do the work of ensuring accountable and responsive government as required by the founding values of the Constitution.
The views expressed in the article are the author's and not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.