Writer Justice Malala’s post on social media captures it: “It is beautiful and right that we celebrate the fact that SA’s multi-party democracy has deepened, survived and consolidated itself for 25 years. In the run up to the ’94 election many said we wouldn’t make it this far. We have proven the skeptics wrong.”
This was followed by a great deal of positive comment.
I am afraid history will show that this is a superficial judgement, and today I will attempt to say why. It is a common error that elections are sufficient evidence of a functional democracy.
This is, of course, not so. The world is full of examples where elections are held but democracy has failed. The essence of constitutional democracy is not winning and exercising power. It is the effectiveness of the institutions and conventions that ensure checks and balances on the abuse of power; and the notion that the State defends the rights and serves the people, not the ruling clique of the ruling party.
A fascinating book called How Democracy Dies by Ziblatt and Levitsky, warns of the electoral route to authoritarianism, and contains the following insight “the tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy, gradually, subtly, and even legally, to kill it”.
I think we can relate to that sentence.
My mandate is to give a South African perspective on the constitutional transformation process, where we are now, and what we need to do to recapture the spirit of reconciliation and mutual co-operation and optimism that characterised the early years of our democracy.
It is also appropriate to pause and consider anew the extraordinary achievement of South Africa’s transition. Its clearest visual symbol was the long queue that snaked around every voting station as people waited to cast their ballot on 27 April 1994.
But the substance lay in the fact that it was also the day the Interim Constitution, agreed to the previous year, came into effect to enable the election to happen.
Another crucial milestone was 18 December 1996 when President Mandela promulgated the final Constitution, which came into effect on 4 February 1997.
This finalised our transition from a Parliamentary democracy to a constitutional democracy — and therein lies the essence of our transformation.