A vote for democracy

Print edition : May 21, 2004

In the 10 years after apartheid, the South African government led by the African National Congress has consolidated democracy and taken the reconciliation process to success and this is reflected in the party's resounding victory in the April 14 elections.

SOUTH AFRICANS have genuine reasons to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their liberation from apartheid, having participated in the third multi-party elections since the dismantling of the racist government. The smooth holding of the three elections has shown to the world that the country continues to be a vibrant democracy. However, many South Africans described as boring the campaign for the elections, which were held in the third week of April, mainly because the ruling African National Congress (ANC) had no serious challenger. In the event, the ANC, under the leadership of President Thabo Mbeki, won more than 70 per cent of the votes, recording its best performance so far. In the first free elections held in 1994, the ANC won 62 per cent of the votes. In 1999, it improved its tally by four percentage points. The ANC's nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance (D.A.) finished way behind, securing around 12.7 per cent of the votes. The voter turnout was more than 70 per cent, a low figure by South African standards. In the 1994 elections, more than 90 per cent of the electorate had turned up to vote.

President Thabo Mbeki at the Independent Electorate Commission's results centre in Pretoria on April 16. The board in the background shows his party, the ANC, as having won the largest number of votes among the 21 parties that contested.-OBED ZILWA/ AP

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which had an alliance with the D.A., got around 6.3 per cent of the votes. Its base is confined mainly to the Zulu ethnic group living in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal.

Despite its virtual monopoly on power, the ANC has tried to be inclusive by giving Cabinet posts to leading personalities from the Opposition. The government seeks the views of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) on all important issues.

Tony Leon, the D.A. leader, told the media after the elections that the country was heading for "de facto one-party rule". The ANC has won a two-thirds majority, which is required to change the Constitution. However, Mbeki has assured the nation that the party would not meddle with the Constitution. (Mbeki is constitutionally debarred from running again for President, as he has served two terms.) Leon's views are not taken very seriously in South Africa. The D.A., for all practical purposes, remains the representative of the white minority. Many members of the white minority are still not reconciled to majority rule. In the run-up to the elections, Leon accused Mbeki of being soft on "dictators" such as Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein. Mbeki dismissed Leon's observations as "silly". The Opposition leader is an unabashed admirer of Israel. South Africa has been following an independent foreign policy and has been critical of American unilateralism. South African peace keepers are playing an active role in many parts of the African continent.

The South African Constitution has in-built safeguards against the majority appropriating dictatorial powers. There is a Constitutional Court, which has often issued rulings against the government. There is also freedom of the media. The Vice-President, Jacob Zuma, is under investigation for alleged corruption, as a result of relentless media scrutiny. South Africa today is one of the most tranquil and politically stable countries. It did not look that way 10 years ago, when mobs owing allegiance to the IFP clashed regularly with ANC supporters in the major cities. Thousands of people were killed in the run-up to the first multi-party elections.

Since 1994, gross domestic product (GDP) has grown by an average of 2.8 per cent, ahead of the annual population growth of 2 per cent. The ANC is slowly but surely giving up its ideological pretensions of being a party of the Left. South Africa has followed the International Monetary Fund/World Bank prescriptions but has been careful not to walk into a debt trap, unlike many other developing countries. Inflation, interest rates and the budget deficit are at their lowest in many years. International investment ratings, productivity, exports and tax revenues are going up. The government has made significant progress in the distribution of electricity and water to the black populace. Another success story has been the housing sector. Though the government still has a long way to go, a significant start has been made in providing housing for the poor. However, there are protests against the efforts to privatise the supply of water and the slow pace of land reforms. The ANC had at one time promised the people "free basic services".

South Africa has emerged as a key business and strategic partner of countries such as India and Brazil. Unemployment, hovering around 40 per cent, is, however, a problem. Many South Africans depend on handouts from the state. South Africa can claim to be one of the most generous welfare states in the world. The state provides aid for the disabled and those afflicted with acute AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). It is said that the voter turnout was low this time because the government had underestimated the number of persons who had perished because of the disease. Between 11 and 20 per cent of the population is said to be affected by the virus. The average life expectancy fell from 64 years in 1996 to 50.7 in 2002, mainly as a result of the disease. Mbeki has been accused of underestimating the seriousness of the AIDS pandemic. "Personally I don't know of anybody who died of AIDS," he was quoted as saying in the South African media last September. That statement returned to haunt him during the election campaign. There are indications that the government has now got the upper hand in its fight against the disease. New statistics have shown that although the death rate is rising, cases of new infection have come down.

Another problem is a rising crime rate. The crime rate went up by 33 per cent between 1994 and 2003, which is among the highest increases in the world. Government officials say that petty crimes like cell phone thefts have inflated the crime statistics. They claim that the situation is under control.

The challenges ahead for the ANC are daunting. The ruling party made many promises to the electorate during the campaign. If they are not implemented before the next elections, the electorate will be less than forgiving. The ANC's platform included pledges to eliminate poverty, create jobs and speed up economic empowerment of the blacks. Under apartheid, the black majority was denied education and economic opportunities. Because of racial segregation, the vast majority of blacks live in poverty 10 years after liberation. Blacks are still deprived of their land. Fifty per cent of the land was to have been transferred to black ownership after the collapse of apartheid. So far, less than 3 per cent has been transferred. According to government figures, 1.8 million hectares of land has been distributed to 1,34,478 black households since 1994. It was the "land issue" that triggered the political turmoil in neighbouring Zimbabwe. A group called the Landless People's Movement had called for a boycott of the recent elections to highlight the need to rectify the racial imbalance in the ownership of land in South Africa.

ANC members celebrate in Johannesburg the party's victory.-ALEXANDER JOE/ AFP

Although blacks now fill more than 70 per cent of the government jobs, their stake in the private sector is still very limited. The black majority only holds 4 to 6 per cent equity on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Jeff Radebe, the Minister for Public Enterprise, has spoken about the urgent need to "de-racialise the economy". The government has announced that it will spend the equivalent of $2.3 billion to promote "black empowerment". Most of those who are unemployed are blacks. The white minority has already started raising the bogey of "reverse discrimination". South Africa's last President under apartheid, F. W. de Klerk, is among the critics. "The black empowerment legislation has caused growing concern among minorities and raised fears of reverse discrimination," Klerk told the South African media recently.

Two other laws that have been enacted by the South African government as part of its empowerment policies are the Mining Charter and the Financial Services Charter. The aim is to give blacks control of about 25 per cent of these two sectors within the next decade.

The major achievement of the past 10 years has been the consolidation of democracy and the success of the reconciliation process. "Post-apartheid South Africa has taught all of us that even those who are made into the worst enemies, creating a situation in which some are brutalised and dehumanised, can overcome the trauma of such a tragedy and the compulsion towards vengeance through a genuine process of reconciliation," said Salim Ahmad Salim, former Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Unity and a senior African statesman. He told the media in Pretoria that the South African example had "empowered and inspired the African people".

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