Book Review: Testing Democracy

Solid research, clumsy structure

Testing Democracy: Which way is South Africa going? by Neeta Misra-Dexter and Judith February (editors)

Review: Tyrone August

This review first appeared in the Cape Times.

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.

Testing Democracy is available at Lobby Boks for R200

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

Testing Democracy, edited by Neeta Misra-Dexter and Judith February of Idasa’s Political Information and monitoring Services, is alive to this fundamental disfunction.

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 realizing their socio-economic and political rights”

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

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

Mashiqi 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 African 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-re-calling 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 citizen’s 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 growing economics 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 the development 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 capitalists 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. And this battle, it seems, is already well under way: Kate Lefko-Everette refers to statistics that South Africa “probably has more than anywhere in the world.”

In his introduction, De Vos discusses the role of four institutions specifically set up by the constitution to advance democracy: Parliament, the judiciary, The National Prosecuting Authority and the Chapter 9 institutions. He acknowledges their many strengths, but arrives at a conclusion similar to Mashiqi: “Given the governing party’s overwhelming electoral support, it is perhaps inevitable that the checks and balances operate in a less robust fashion that intended by the drafters of the constitution.” But, despite a weak and fragmented opposition, all is not lost. Friedman believes civil society can play an important role in holding government to account and influencing decision-making.

“The more citizens are able, through organizations that are independent of government, to voice their needs and beliefs to other citizens and public decision-makers,” he says, “the more public decisions are likely to become a consequence of a process in which the various voices of the people compete for influence and the outcome reflects the voice of the majority that flows from that contest.”  The second section of Testing Democracy is the meat of the book: it outlines Idasa’s Democracy Index in detail. This index was initially developed by Robert Mattes and Richard Calland, and is essentially an assessment of South Africa’s democracy based on 100 questions. These cover five areas: participation, elections, accountability, political rights and human dignity.

It is the third time Idasa has embarked on this exercise. The result is a rich source of empirical data: these provide a number of measurable indications of the state of our democracy. In the process, in quite a systematic and rigorous way, it identifies the many challenges South Africa still faces. This is where its real value lies: in enabling so-called ordinary people to speak up for themselves.

More’s the pity, then, that Testing Democracy will be inaccessible to many of them. Some of the language is rather dense, and at times even some of the most up-to-date policy junkies will be left floundering in its wake.

The structure of the book is also a little awkward. Placing the Democracy Index in the first section followed by the views of the analysts, would perhaps have provided a more logical flow, (the biographical information in between the introduction and the main body seems particularly odd)

But no matter, Testing Democracy Index is a solid work of research, contextualized and interpreted by some of the country’s most knowledgeable analysts. It certainly achieves its goal of providing a clear snapshot of the state of our democracy. Its conclusion makes for uncomfortable reading. “South African democracy is developing slowly, stagnating in many areas and actually regressing in others,’ the editors state. “The overall picture is one of clogged wheels and significant barriers.” The challenge therefore remains urgent to provide substance to our formal democracy. Testing Democracy provides important markers on the road ahead. Government will miss these at their, and our, peril.

August is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Cape Times.

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