I FELT relatively safe, even indifferent and not directly concerned when, soon after ascending to the US presidency, Barack Obama delivered his powerful “Africa needs strong institutions of democracy; not strong men” speech in front of the Ghanaian parliament in July 2009.
I felt that way because when I compared South Africa with the static and, in some cases, worsening status quo in much of Africa – where too many countries are still led by political and cultural dinosaurs – the country looked very different: far more enlightened and democratic, and determined to be the shining light in Africa.
At the time, our country was being led by its third president when one includes Kgalema Motlanthe, the acting president in between two elected presidents since the dawn of our post-apartheid democracy in 1994. The fact that all post-apartheid presidents come from the same political party did not matter.
The Africa we’d rather not be
Compared to countries such as Zimbabwe, Uganda, Angola, the Central African Republic, Guinea, Sudan, Algeria, Egypt and several others, we had everything to be proud of and, indeed, to boast about. Hundreds of thousands of African brothers and sisters from some of these countries were already flooding into South Africa in search of democracy and a better-run country to call home.
In private conversations, many warned us to make sure our leaders did not emulate the dinosaurs leading their countries. Many of them were the first to see the nascent signs of democratic decay in South Africa because they knew what they looked like, having witnessed them in the countries they came from. But they had been too helpless to stop the cancer from metastasizing throughout the body politic of their own countries.
In many of these countries archaic, paternalistic African norms still reign supreme. Women have their place in society and homosexuals are considered a non-African curse. The leader shall neither be criticised in public nor challenged. Those who dare to do so either end up dying sudden, mysterious deaths or disappearing without a trace.
There are no strong, independent institutions of democracy standing as buffers between the people and their vigorously kleptomaniac leaders. In many instances, such institutions were never created in the first place, as their ‘leaders for life’ deemed them unnecessary. To make them feel better, the cultural and political despots who still run many African countries consider such institutions Western tools with no place in Africa.
Living in denial
To assure ourselves that all was still good, many of us proudly cited our courts, the constitution of South Africa, the South African Revenue Service (Sars), the office of the public protector, and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) – institutions which were still standing but whose strength was dwindling right before our eyes – as remaining proof that we were still fine, different and perched on the moral high ground above the rest on the continent.
Like battered spouses, we continued to live in denial, always hoping against hope that we’d never be like the others; that we were too good to be like them, even though we would never say so out loud.
The image of former president Nelson Mandela still loomed large and our political leaders still unashamedly claimed they were inspired to continue his legacy. Despite the growing evidence of cracks all around us, many of us preferred to keep our heads comfortably buried in the sand, hoping for the best.
The crumbling sandcastle
It took opening our eyes a bit more and looking into our collective mirror with honesty to realise that our South African sandcastle had begun to crumble several years earlier. The once-respected Scorpions had been dismantled, not because they were ineffective but because they were too fearless in their pursuit of criminals and defence of the rule of law.
With their undoing and replacement by the Hawks – who would be forced to fall under the direct control of the police minister – the fissures in our presumably unassailable political and democratic moral high ground began to grow.
With the Scorpions gone, the steadfastness of other institutions began to give in to the overwhelming weight of political impunity.
Under a series of pliant national directors of public prosecutions, criminal charges against the powerful and connected were dropped; they continue to be dropped. The credibility of the once-unassailable Sars was tainted by reported accusations of wrongdoing in its name by politically connected senior officials.
The office of the public protector was undermined and the incumbent insulted and treated like a child in public, her recommendations ignored and resources curtailed.
The IEC – our last bastion
This noble institution and our courts – especially the Constitutional Court – are arguably, the last buffers between where we stand as a democracy and hell. Together, their raison d’être is to safeguard our democracy through the hosting of free and fair elections on the one hand and, on the other, the assurance that all remain equal before our courts.
If these last standing buffers are allowed to fall, the hyenas will take over and a truly democratic South Africa will remain a dream deferred.
Accusations of malfeasance against former IEC chair Pansy Tlakula, who held on for dear life and refused to let go until all the odds were stacked against her, and recent revelations that the IEC has not been as meticulous as we have all assumed it to be, are very worrisome.
Our country is traversing a valley replete with monstrous political shadows. The stakes are high. Those tasked with managing our elections should appreciate the historic responsibility they carry on behalf of all of us, and ensure that this democracy we so love does not crumble on their watch.
As for the rest of us, nothing can be taken for granted any more. More than ever before, we need to be vigilant.