Are we democratic citizens?

South Africa’s democratic consolidation is threatened by rising levels of intolerance and an inadequate response from independent institutions, writes AYANDA NYOKA.

In South Africa, violence was systematically used as a tool to enforce civil and political repression by the apartheid government and its security forces. It was also used by resistance movements, such as the armed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) wing of the African National Congress (ANC), as confidence in the effectiveness of nonviolent struggle dwindled among some South Africans.

Seventeen years into democracy, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that a legacy of violent mobilisation, particularly against those perceived to be ‘political enemies’, has not yet been completely eradicated. Evidence of this often comes to light around election time, and sporadic outbursts observed by the Election Monitoring Network (EMN) in May confirm this reality. The EMN highlighted intra-party conflict surrounding local government elections earlier this year, and voiced concerns over possible tensions and violence in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and parts of eThekwini. Conflict, the network noted, could also be fuelled by factors such as ‘inflammatory and inappropriate messages from parties’, media sensationalising, ‘potentially unrealistic promises being made by politicians’, and possible attempts to ‘impede the voting process’.

In 2010, the South African Reconciliation Barometer found low, but marginally increasing approval for violent, extra-legal action in cases in which citizens felt their human rights were being violated. Further, the potential consequences of rising approval for violent action may be compounded by low levels of trust in some spheres of government and public institutions. According to the report, ‘only 43% of South Africans report confidence in local government, which remains the key point of interaction between citizens and the democratic state’.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) (2006) has argued that the dichotomisation between criminal and political violence that occurred through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process may in fact have contributed to conflict we are seeing in South Africa today. (more…) One of the commission’s unintended consequences, the CSVR maintains, may have been the legitimising of political violence through both the granting of amnesty to participating perpetrators, as well as perceptions of impunity on the part of some prominent leaders on all sides of the conflict.

Today, this is perhaps even further inculcated by the ways which national liberation discourse continues to be used, for example through the singing of historic struggle anthem Dubulu iBhunu, as explored by Cecyl Esau elsewhere in this newsletter edition. Should it then come as any surprise that communities are easily rallied to mob justice, and that this is viewed as an acceptable way to deal with perceived criminals in townships?

The challenge of breaking away from past practices, and those posed by a resilient belief in the legitimacy and expediency of violent approaches to problem-solving, is indeed complex. First, it is important that as South Africans, we continue to take up the task of constructing and upholding a national democratic identity. There is a danger in assuming that this will be assumed by public institutions alone, particularly when some of these very institutions are so far removed from communities.

Further, this identity needs to be constructed around greater tolerance and emphatic respect for human rights. This challenge is not unique to South Africa alone; it is shared by many other African countries transitioning from decades of authoritarianism and patriarchy, and in which gains in human rights need to be carefully protected. The 2008 xenophobic attacks were a stark example of profound intolerance, in contrast with the values enshrined in the Constitution.

Intolerance of this kind, given expression through violence, affords little regard for the rights of the perceived ‘enemy’. The boundaries and limits to individual and citizen action have further been blurred, for example, by police commissioner Bheki Cele’s call to ‘shoot to kill’ alleged criminals, without due process of the law. This of course backfired when innocent citizens fell victim to this policing strategy.

Tolerance does not mean that citizens must universally accept values or behaviours with which they disagree, but it does demand the acceptance of plurality and respect for the rights of every individual in the country, in accordance with the Constitution. Reports in May of a recent resurgence of xenophobic attacks on Somali nationals in Port Elizabeth should serve as a warning that we have not done enough to engender a strong democratic culture.

Greater tolerance also does not thrive in a top-down governance environment. Limited opportunities for citizen participation create an antagonism towards government, and have contributed to a climate in which distaste and disrespect for the rights of others are almost fashionable. In this context, opportunities for upholding a shared vision are diminishing.

One approach to turning the tide of intolerance in South Africa would be to adopt civic education models like those used in Kenya, which empower citizens to have agency and participate in local government affairs. Though many South Africans may understand human rights ‘on paper’, they appear to be taking matters into their own hands when political leadership appears unresponsive, and the voices of ordinary citizens are not taken into account.

Greater responsibility also needs to be taken by political leaders, and in internal party processes. Campaign onslaughts should not be left unchallenged, including recent comments to the ANC Youth League by IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi: ‘Trespassers will be dealt with. This is a first and last warning.’ (more…) Such rhetoric has the potential to reinvigorate a history of political conflict between the two parties, from the 1980s up until 2000.

Despite the appearance of relative political stability, South Africa remains volatile in many respects. In 1994, we could not have predicted that we would witness a massacre of black foreign nationals in 2008. We need to remain vigilant, and we cannot afford to downplay articulations of intolerance or further normalising of violence. The time is right to work to transform deep-seated and pervasive undemocratic attitudes. Strong institutions that hold political leaders accountable, a critical civil society and an engaged and participatory citizenship are key for a shift in our political culture.

Ayanda Nyoka is an intern in the IJR’s Political Analysis programme.

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