Is democracy failing us in ensuring good governance?
There are a few critical questions one could ask after any election:
· Is it an accurate public assessment of the behaviour and performance of leadership?
· Does it reflect or facilitate greater social cohesion?
· What effect will it have on popular expectations?
It would be interesting to read your comments, because the answers are highly subjective. For my part, and coming from one whose past election experiences outnumber those in future, I was left somewhat disillusioned that our democratic process itself, as laudable as it is even by international standards, can really make a difference in ensuring good governance and nimbly changing the course of our destiny. If democracy does not achieve this, it clearly fails in one of its most important goals. My view may be warped by the impatience of a geriatric who more often than not face their final years with an overwhelming sense of “unfinished” business both in their personal accounts and their view of the world.
Of course, one must acknowledge that much of ANC support rests on the improvement of the lives of many in the past twenty years. But rational thinkers could also be forgiven for having expected a much greater shift in the political landscape than what the 2014 national and provincial elections delivered. The appalling irony and hypocrisy of Nkandla, overt ostentation, levels of corruption and the clear self-gain motives of many leaders both in and on the outskirts of power have made hardly a dent on that landscape.
The fact that these serious blights have a limited impact in an important process that calls behaviour to account only once in five years is alarming. This has often been explained by allegiances to romantic notions of the past, a persistent hangover of imbalances and of course the ever present ethnic biases. Of greater significance is the distinction much of the electorate seem to have made between the ruling party and government itself, leading to a two tier democratic process - one at the polls and one in the streets. We’ve even had some viewing costly, disruptive and sometimes violent public protests as proof of a vibrant democracy.
This is mystifying. Surely the latter is an indication of a failure of the former? At the very least, the elections do not give comfort that these protests will abate. Indeed, we have often seen political parties themselves becoming openly involved in these activities as part of ungovernability campaigns and gaining support. The new unruly kid on the block, the EFF found much sustenance in these protests and were often seen actively taking part in them. It’s a moot point, perhaps even a very doubtful one, whether their new found ability to voice dissent in parliament will lead to a more subdued approach in the streets. Of greater concern is the party’s active involvement in already highly politicised labour disputes and its potential to worsen the labour crisis. Their donning of overalls and worker garb is a clear sign of intent to woo this largely aggrieved constituency which holds the key to our economic destiny.
While some individual parties may celebrate or lament their performance in the elections, there is little evidence to show a strong link between leadership behaviour, performance and support at the polls, and to confirm the power of elections in ensuring good governance.
The second question regarding evidence of greater social cohesion is more ambivalent and perhaps more complex. The DA has made much of the fact that about 70% of its gain of more than one million votes came from the black electorate. On the surface this may appear to be a softening of strong ethnic allegiances to political parties, but one can’t help wondering whether celebrating this fact alone is not a confirmation that it remains a critically counter-productive feature of voter loyalties.
In any event, that is examining only a few threads of the overall tapestry of social cohesion. If one steps back to see the fuller picture, then it shows a deepening of the fractures rather than an erosion of them. Those fractures are essentially economic, and play a far greater role in polarising society than cultural or race alliances do. But when they are linked, the fractures become much deeper and wider. They also encourage counterproductive labelling such as left, right, centrist, socialist, liberal, neo-liberal, communist, and capitalist, in turn creating immovable adherences to out-dated rhetoric and barriers to innovative thinking.
These categorisations are not useful in assessing the economic consequences of the elections. We all know by now that fuelled in part by the desire of some to hang on to or revive “struggle” credentials, most of the discord and discourses are about economics – so-called “economic freedom”. That must impact on things such as the government’s role in the economy, the social wage, fiscal and monetary policies, taxes, foreign capital inflows and quite a few more. I would not go near attempting to quantify these.
It will take some time to play out but one cannot completely ignore the large promise the ruling party made in electioneering or even the nuisance value of a strongly interventionist EFF – albeit a small player at this stage. We may take some solace from the firm commitment to an on balance business friendly National Development plan, but then President Zuma also undertook to ensure a broadening of Black ownership in the economy – whatever that means. The economic nonsense of some aspects of BEE, BBBEE, affirmative action and land reform, will no doubt continue to divert attention away from real issues such as our global competitiveness, labour unrest, and the global nature of wealth disparities.
It’s the third question, rampant expectations, that is of greatest concern. It is the most invidious, unrecognised and unquantifiable. Money, media and large promise are permanent flaws in modern democracies, tolerable only where you have a reasonably informed, rational thinking electorate. All political parties, perhaps inevitably, are guilty of this behaviour, especially in election times. They ramp up expectations way beyond what reality can deliver, and while the ruling party clearly has the bigger impact, opposing parties aggravate the ferment by implying that the impossible is indeed possible.
I always cringe when I hear politicians promise to create millions of jobs, in the full knowledge that all they can really do is to create an environment for sustainable job opportunities and encourage job creation by others; and inspire a willingness to work, self-help, and individual aspirations which are the key drivers behind employment, innovation, competitiveness and national prosperity.
Aspirations are about those things that people are willing to do for themselves. Expectations are about having others do things for you. The gap between expectations and reality can be directly linked to many socio-economic ills, the most dangerous of which is fuelling individual and national discord. The past elections have again widened that gap.
Credit rating agency Moody’s has put a positive spin on the election results (see article here) but has not been prompted to change its negative rating. The outcome of the election itself does not give much hope that for the next 5 years at least, there will be significant changes.
It will most likely simply be more of the same. And that same is becoming less tenable.