The potential for democratic progress in South Africa has not yet been fully realised, as people of African descent are disproportionately concentrated at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. African communities experience high levels of severe poverty and hopelessness, with an estimated unemployment rate of 40%, making them focal points of widespread destitution. This disparity is starkly evident when compared to the 7.5% unemployment rate among white individuals, underscoring a significant racial inequality.

By Sipho P. Seepe

Democracy is an experiment, and the nature of this experiment depends on the socio-political history of each country, with regular elections being the defining feature of the democratic process.

In South Africa, the promise of democracy was eloquently captured by none other than Nelson Mandela in his Rivonia Trial speech in 1964. Mandela remarked that he “cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

Thirty years into democracy, that promise is yet to be realised. If anything, the African finds himself/herself at the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. Nowhere is the intensity of human destitution more than in African communities. With unemployment estimated at 40%, African communities have become epicentres of grinding poverty and hopelessness. Contrast the unemployment rate amongst whites at 7.5%, the racial disparity is blindingly obvious.

The persistence of apartheid socioeconomic patterns finds expression glaringly in the workplace. Former statistician general Dr Pali Lehohla reportedly pointed out that according to the Labour Force Quarterly Report, the “proportion of whites in the workforce rose from 42% in 1994 to 65% in 2023… For blacks, especially those aged between 25 and 34, the figures have regressed from a share of 17% of the skilled workforce to 14% over the same period. This means that the black youth in this age group have regressed. More generally, blacks are sadly stuck at 15% of the skilled workforce on average. They have never moved in 30 years.”

The above depressing reality persists even though South Africa is purportedly a thriving democracy with a parliament comprising fourteen different political parties. Most disturbing, but not surprising, is that Africans who constitute 80% of the parliamentary chamber, and the post-apartheid government led by Africans have been unable to dislodge apartheid’s spatial and socio-economic patterns.

The ANC government has dismally failed to dislodge the apartheid architecture it has inherited. Suffering from a sense of inadequacy, the ruling party has instead enthusiastically embraced apartheid thinking. The consequence of this is that the African majority will continue to bear the brunt of degrading poverty in the country of their birth. 

South Africa’s failing democracy is thus not due to how many parties are represented in parliament. The failure is to be found in the party’s lack of imagination and the crippling self-doubt that it suffers. Nelson Mandela was spot on. “The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority.”

The ANC’s bankruptcy of thought has inevitably led to the bankruptcy of action. If anything, the ruling party is nothing more than a modern-day security guard for white monopoly capital. The rich and better-educated Africans that have benefited from South Africa’s negotiated settlement have by and large become the buffer zone between the working class and the unemployed with white capital remaining in full control.

The elections have invariably become meaningless routine exercises that keep most of our people busy with low returns, if any. The mushrooming of political parties before elections is not new. A record number of 48 parties had registered candidates for the 2019 national parliamentary election. For the uninitiated, this may give an impression of a maturing and vibrant democracy. But, as they say, all that glitters is not gold.

For a start, only 14 out of 48 garnered sufficient votes to have representation in parliament. In other words, hundreds of thousands of votes were wasted on the remaining 34 registered parties which failed to meet the minimum threshold. This effectively deprived voters of one of the most effective tools available to hold the government accountable. The ANC holds a lion’s share of the vote followed closely by the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Second, with both the Democratic Alliance and the Freedom Front+ having consolidated the white votes, this boiled down to 46 black-led parties having to compete amongst themselves for the African vote.  Interestingly, in what could be a nakedly vulgar ploy to divide the Africans, many of these parties were funded by the same sources. Their egos prevented them from finding cause with each other. The failure of the post-1994 political dispensation to transform apartheid architecture is to be found in this lack of unity amongst the oppressed.

As Malcolm X eloquently puts it. “There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers’ solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves. We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.”

Steve Biko attributes this lack of unity amongst black people to white racism and white supremacy. White racism ensures that black parties are pitted against one another. It is “one force against which all of us are pitted. It works with unnerving totality, featuring both on the offensive and our defence. Its greatest ally to date has been the refusal by us to club together as blacks because we are told to do so would be racialist. So, while we progressively lose ourselves in a world of colourlessness and amorphous common humanity, whites are deriving pleasure and security in entrenching white racism and further exploiting the minds and bodies of the unsuspecting black masses…”

It comes as no surprise that 30 years into democracy, Africans have made little progress in reclaiming their ancestral land. Instead of building on their common experience, they have embarked on meaningless ideological contests. In doing so, they have forgotten the most basic lesson brilliantly captured by Amilcar Cabral.

Cabral advised, “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children…”.

Truth be told, the ANC has failed to use its majority in parliament to advance the interest of African people. It has shot down or diluted almost every progressive submission intended to change the historical patterns inherited from apartheid.

The Democratic Alliance seems to have understood this and has been able to outsmart the ruling party. Its slogan “Where we govern, we do it better” has ensured its electoral success. It is precisely because of this that it has rendered the Western Cape province politically impenetrable.

As we approach the 2024 elections, reports suggest that 200 parties have since indicated their intention to contest. Once more, the African vote is set to be divided even further. As was the case in 2019, hundreds of thousands of votes are likely to be wasted. We seem to be incapable of learning. In the final analysis, the mushrooming of votes would do little to advance the promise of freedom that Nelson Mandela spoke about.

Professor Sipho P. Seepe is a Higher Education & Strategy Consultant

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