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Euphoria that engulfed South Africa has died

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Picture: REUTERS/Jorge Silva – South African wave the national flags. The pride and discipline that the country once had seems to be dead, writes Professor Mngomezulu.

By Professor Bheki Mngomezulu

This year marks 29 years since the dawn of democracy in 1994. The euphoria and excitement which engulfed South Africa in 1993 as the country readied itself for the much-anticipated first democratic election has since subsided. This should not come as a surprise.

The general trend across Africa is that after the excitement about freedom calms down, the reality sinks in and many people get disappointed. South Africa cannot be insulated from that reality.

But before painting a pessimistic picture about the country – which is not unfounded – it is important to briefly reflect on the road South Africa has travelled since the advent of democracy in 1994.

First, unlike in many parts of Africa, South Africa’s liberation did not come through the barrel of the gun. It was a negotiated settlement which was premised on reconciliation. This meant that the country evaded a potential bloodbath.

Secondly, the country’s Interim Constitution of 1993 and the subsequent Constitution of 1996 set the country on a new trajectory. Human rights protection took centre-stage in a 1993 document which was crafted by Nelson Mandela. The Constitution amplified that document by having Chapter 2 which focuses on the Bill of Rights. Consequently, our Constitution is widely accepted as one of the best in the world. Whether it really benefits all South Africans remains a moot point which is the subject for constant debate.

Thirdly, the creation of Chapter 9 institutions known as “state institutions supporting constitutional democracy” was a leap step forward in ensuring that democratic consolidation became a reality. Institutions such as the Public Protector, South African Human Rights Commission, Commission on Gender Equality, Auditor-General, and the Electoral Commission of South Africa, among others, assisted greatly in steering the country in the right direction.

Fourthly, starting with the Government of National Unity (GNU), followed by the ANC-led government, attempts have been made to provide basic services such as running water, housing and electricity.

Fifth and lastly, South Africa’s international relations have improved significantly since 1994. More embassies have been established in various countries across the globe. In the same vein, other countries have opened their embassies in South Africa.

The discussion above paints an optimistic and a glossy picture about post-apartheid South Africa, and justifiably so. But what is the state of South Africa as the country prepares for the 30th anniversary of democracy?

Put differently, are we as a country where we are supposed to be given the many years of democracy?

Answers to these questions will give us pointers to the areas that need improvement as the country goes forward.

To answer the second question; the answer is simple, we are not where we are supposed to be. There are many reasons for that, which I will discuss later.

First, I need to highlight some of the challenges that the country is faced with in the run-up to the 2024 general election.

The electricity crisis has reached an intolerable state. Instead of the situation improving, it is getting worse. This is a cause for concern because everything else is dependent on constant electricity supply.

Currently, the country’s economy is weak. The country has been greylisted by rating agencies.

The unemployment rate is high.

Crime statistics are alarming.

The infrastructure in many cities is in a deplorable state. Basic hygiene in cities such as Johannesburg and eThekwini leave a lot to be desired. Rural areas have been neglected – this includes even areas like Ingwavuma and other areas in the Eastern Cape, North-West and Mpumalanga where many liberation fighters who are now in government operated. They sought sanctuary and used residents to provide them with intelligence information and food supplies in order to sustain the liberation struggle. Once freedom was obtained, these areas were totally forgotten!

I have only touched on a few areas which describe the situation in the country currently. But these are enough to indicate where the country is or how things look like as the date for South Africa’s 30th anniversary approaches in 2024.

Why is this the case? How did we get ourselves into this mess? Surely, there is no single answer to these questions. I will highlight a few.

The first reason is the interpretation of the Constitution. The country’s political leadership and the general public is guilty of misinterpreting the Constitution. Some do this out of ignorance while others do so deliberately for political expediency. For example, the Bill of Rights is sometimes abused. People tend to claim rights but ignore the responsibilities that go with them. In the process, wrong decisions are made and most of the people suffer the consequences of such negligence.

To expound the point above, known criminals are called “suspects” even when there is hard evidence and eye witnesses. What used to be “prisons” are now referred to as “correctional facilities.” While it is true that this change assisted some to change their lives, the other side of the coin is that with tough life out there, some individuals prefer to be in jail than to be outside. They are released on parole only to be back within a short space of time after failing to cope with the harsh conditions outside the correctional facilities. This explains the constantly increasing crime statistics in the country. Culprits commit heinous crimes but get a slap on the face and move on with their lives. This leaves the victims in a deplorable state.

The second reason for South Africa’s current state is the calibre of leaders that we have. It is not an exaggeration to state that there is leadership deficit. Moreover, there is trust deficit between leaders and the general public. Unfulfilled promises by politicians make the electorate lose hope. It is for this reason that voter apathy has been on the increase as evidenced in the 2021 Local Government Elections. Some voters have become despondent and disillusioned. It remains unclear if such people will vote in 2024. Some argue that they have been voting since 1994 but their lives have deteriorated instead of improving.

The third reason for South Africa’s current state is corruption. This pandemic transcends all boundaries. Both the public and private sectors are susceptible to this scourge. Monies that could have been used to better the lives of the people end in the pockets of certain individuals and their associates. The money that could have addressed crime, provided running water, built people descent houses, or improved the road infrastructure (among others) is looted through corruption.

Another negative impact of corruption is that criminals go scorch free when dockets, evidence, and witnesses disappear through corrupt activities. On this point, the entire justice system is implicated. Constitutionally, the judiciary is an independent arm of government after the Executive and the Legislature. However, some in the justice system abandon this independence and act in a partisan manner. Such activities tarnish the image of the judiciary and the entire justice system in general. This is the view that some South Africans hold about the country’s justice system.

The fourth reason is lack of political education. This applies to politicians and their followers. Some politicians fail to see the bigger picture and only think about the here and now. This is evidenced in the way they vote in the three spheres of government on very pertinent issues. Sometimes politicians vote in a particular way to save an individual. Others do so in order to save the party at the expense of the country. Voters make the same mistake by voting into power incompetent people who are not going to offer anything to the country.

The last reason is fear for one’s life. Both in government and in public, there are politicians who instil fear among their potential critics. Those who provide constructive criticism are frowned upon at best and placed on the hit list at worst. Once people become aware that they are being monitored, they pull back and watch things going wrong in the country.

There are many examples which attest to this claim. For example, in northern KwaZulu- Natal, cars are being stolen and taken to Mozambique. Those who try to stop this practice, which government is doing nothing about, get killed. Juda Mthethwa and Sandile Tembe of Manguzi area are some of the well-known recent cases.

South Africa has gone a long way towards improving the lives of her people since 1994. There is enough evidence to prove that giant strides have been made to undo the wrongs of Apartheid in different spheres of life.

Similarly, it is apparent that the country is not where it is supposed to be. The scapegoats include the Covid-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of the Ukraine. But, as seen above, the reasons for the country’s current state have nothing to do with both factors. The problems are man-made. As Freedom Day looms, self-introspection is of great importance.

Prof. Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at the Nelson Mandela University.