This question belongs to a catalogue of criteria that the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Freedom House, uses to assess “the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world”. The organisation records the degree of civil and political freedom provided in all countries annually. Against the backdrop of South Africa’s history, one might agree with the watchdog that the Rule of Law, a functioning government being accountable to their own people, freedom of expression, association and belief, as well as minority rights, are all integral parts of a healthy democracy. 

The fact that the NGO is based in the United States of America, does not, in this case, mean that South Africa is measured by foreign standards. Section 19 of the Constitution provides for political rights, entailing the right to participate in free, fair and regular elections.  In addition, the Preamble of the Constitution explains that it embraces the whole democratic system: “We, the people of South Africa, … adopt this Constitution …to … lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people.” 

The Constitution, therefore, does not only provide for the right to vote but also that this vote effectively impacts the path South Africa is taking. The realisation of this right requires a chain of accountability. Firstly, people need to have the right to organise in different political parties. Secondly, they need to be able to compete in free and fair elections. Finally, the elected government must have the power to determine the policies of the State. While many election observers tend to forget about the third condition, voters frankly express concern about it. If you believe that the politicians in charge will be bribed by those with enough money and disrespect for South Africans to do so, you will probably stay at home on election day. 

No doubt, this third link in the chain of a democratic election is of vital importance, and according to the Freedom House Freedom in the World 2019 Report, South Africa has made considerable improvements. These lie mainly in the disclosure of and consequent restriction of the influence that the Gupta family had on the Zuma administration. The Report gives credit to the transparent and thus credible investigations conducted by the Zondo Commission and other commissions of inquiry. In addition, the removal of Gupta-linked figures from Boards or management ranks of State-owned enterprises (SOEs) limited the Gupta’s power to determine national policies. 

These are substantial changes that need to be acknowledged. However, the Gupta brothers were not the only force weakening the third link of a functioning and representative democracy. Because they once found willing accomplices in the highest ranks of the ruling party, we can still expect some of the ‘Zuptas’ to reject what they had been elected for and simply turn towards the next ‘highest bidder’. They would, again, let others determine policies in exchange for personal privileges. 

For the African National Congress (ANC), this appears to be a systemic problem. 

Since the system asks you to simply tick one of the boxes on the ballot paper, a vote for the presidential candidate – who initiated various public commissions of inquiry and followed a remarkable transparent process in appointing a new National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) – is the same as a vote for the ‘Zuptas’. Whoever votes for Ramaphosa, votes for the ‘Zuptas’ too; a feature one might easily miss when looking at the ANC’s electoral campaign. 

Ramaphosa cannot make decisions unilaterally. Rather, it is the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) that decides which route to take. This is a body consisting of the Party President, Deputy, the National Chairperson, Secretary-General and his Deputy, the Treasurer General and 80 additional members. They were elected during the 2017 national conference of the ANC at Nasrec for the period until the next national conference in 2022. Right now, the Ramaphosa and Zupta camps appear equally strong, as made visible by the fact that the ANC leaders were unable to react appropriately to the party’s Integrity Commission report about their candidate list. Instead of taking decisive action against those found implicated in corrupt activities, the party failed to react on the commission’s findings at all before the elections. 

If anything, a vote for the ANC should be understood as a vote for the whole NEC. This will be an area where we see either the breaking or the strengthening of the third link in the chain of democratic elections. The most important factor for the future viability of South Africa’s democratic system may not be the percentage of the vote that the ANC receives, but the outcome of the power struggle after the election within the NEC. 

One must look beyond election day to see if a democracy – as provided for in the Constitution – is established. A democracy in which votes translate into a freely-elected government, which does not ‘sell’ power to others, but takes reasonable decisions – in the interests of all and not only a few. 

By Jonas Pauly: Intern, Centre for Constitutional Rights
24 April 2019