Count your blessings, Mzansi


Count your blessings, Mzansi

When we lament the decay around us, it is appropriate to acknowledge that we have not emulated other middle-income democracies by becoming an authoritarian state and forfeiting our freedoms, writes MAX DU PREEZ.


THE concept of “electoral autocracy" is hardly new: Adolf Hitler's Nazi party, for example, won the election in Germany in 1932 and paved his way to power.

Current examples of elected governments ruling autocratically include Russia, Belarus, Venezuela, Cambodia and Zimbabwe. But these are extreme cases. Countries such as Turkey and Hungary are more relevant.

The recipe of the autocrats in all these countries looks similar: populism, nationalism, social conservatism, strongman politics, strawman enemies, and sometimes religion.

After the fall of apartheid in 1994, South Africa was an ideal breeding ground for almost all these strategies.

The liberation movement won the first election by a large margin. About seven out of 10 black voters cast their ballots for the ANC, a party that was officially Marxist and socialist and hardly practised internal democracy during the years in exile. There was widespread black poverty and grotesque inequality along racial lines.

And yet.

A look at events in Turkey, where the recently re-elected Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in power for 20 years, clarifies the basic issues.

Erdoğan was born in 1954 in a strict Muslim household in the poorest neighbourhood of Istanbul and received his education in Muslim schools. Forty years later, he was elected mayor of Istanbul. Three years after that, the dominant military prosecuted him for his criticism of secularism and jailed him for four years.

His status as the first Turkish politician to take a stand against the military made him a national hero and he became prime minister in 2003.

He was the darling of the West: an opponent of Jihadism and al-Qaeda, he fought against corruption, governed effectively and managed the economy well, at least in the early years.

But it wasn't long before Erdoğan abused his power struggle with the military to suppress the secular elite and Islamise the bureaucracy and security forces. He had his critics imprisoned as fascists and ultra-nationalists. As a result of the notorious Ergenekon trials, which began in 2008, hundreds of officers, officials, judges, prosecutors and journalists were sent to prison.

In 2013, Erdoğan unilaterally decided to demolish the popular Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul to make way for a shopping centre. Tens of thousands of people protested but they were violently suppressed by the police. More than 8,000 were injured and at least 23 were killed — he himself ordered the police to shoot, Erdoğan declared, claiming the protesters were part of a foreign conspiracy against his government.

Today, Erdoğan — who made himself president instead of prime minister in 2014 — is an authoritarian leader who dominates the media and allows no freedom of the press or criticism. And yet he was re-elected last month, albeit with only 52% of the vote. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who represented a coalition of opposition parties, received 48%.

Erdoğan's good friend, Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, was re-elected with a large majority in 2022, winning 68% of the seats in parliament. He did so well, as he did in three previous elections, because he increased pensions, cut taxes, froze prices during the election campaign, and because he and his party completely dominate the media.

Orbán, like Erdoğan a staunch homophobe, refers to his style of governance as “illiberal democracy", and it increasingly ignores the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state.

From these two examples, and other elected autocracies, it is clear that the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the clear separation of the three branches of government, and freedom of speech and the press are the basic fault lines.

In South Africa, none of these conditions for a full democracy is  significantly endangered. This is thanks to our 1996 constitution, which remains intact.

First and foremost, South Africa is a constitutional rather than a parliamentary democracy, which means the constitution, as interpreted by the courts, is the highest authority, and no one may make decisions or take actions that conflict with the constitution.


The division of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches is enshrined in the constitution, as is the principle of equality before the law and the personal freedoms of citizens, such as freedom of speech, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation and association.

Jacob Zuma, particularly in the final years of his nine-year presidency, briefly succeeded in blurring the line between the state and the ANC and between the three branches of government, but he was rebuked by the courts and civil society and ended up in prison.

He also turned to cheap populism and ethnic nationalism, but ultimately the ANC itself rejected him.

Zuma and his loyalists, and at times even ANC leaders such as Gwede Mantashe and Lindiwe Sisulu, challenged the authority of the judiciary on occasion, but their efforts caused little more than a ripple.

The then-premier of KwaZulu-Natal and now a member of the cabinet, Sihle Zikalala, declared last year that we should move away from a constitutional democracy so that parliament becomes the supreme authority, but his intervention sparked hardly any debate and the ANC rebuked him.

Anyway, article 74 of the constitution stipulates that chapter 1 — the founding provisions that establish the supremacy of the constitution —  can be amended only by a majority of 75% in the National Assembly and at least six provinces in the National Council of Provinces.

Of course, none of this makes the state anywhere near flawless, but the fault lies more with poor governance, a lack of leadership, an inept civil service and corruption, rather than being structural.

This means these problems are easier to correct. The personnel and political culture need to change, not the institutions or laws.

The electorate can achieve this in the next general election, which will take place in August next year.

In the meantime, we must protect the independence of the judiciary and freedom of speech with all our energy.

♦ VWB ♦

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