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By Sabeehah Motala

In 1994, South Africans universally experienced the first promise of freedom – the right to vote. For the first time, all participated in democracy by selecting their preferred party to govern. Now, 23 years later, we see a situation where our leaders seem to be able to loot state coffers without fear and it’s difficult to avoid asking – is our democracy really working for us?

The word ‘democracy’ comes from the Greek ‘dēmoskrátos’, and means “the rule of the people.” It refers to a system of governance where the people of a nation govern themselves, either directly or through delegating the task to elected representatives. Generally, democracy includes certain key elements: a system where all people have the right to vote on the government of their choice, protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms, participation in political decision-making, and the rule of law. In particular, democratic participation and rule of law are potential tools for curbing corruption.

In Ancient Europe, where nations were actually small city-states, democracy was much more direct than it is today. Citizens would all gather in an assembly to discuss affairs of the state. Each person’s opinion was worth just as much as everyone else’s. While these assemblies excluded women and slaves, the system is exemplary of the most direct form of democracy. Each citizen participated in decision-making, and decisions were only taken by consensus. The assembly was also able to appoint representatives and directly hold them accountable.

In contrast, modern democracy entails the delegation of political responsibility to representatives whom we choose by vote. Ideally, our representatives, having been entrusted with the day-to-day running of our society, would carry out their work with integrity, honesty, and efficiency. In addition, delegating such fundamental duties requires safeguards – there needs to be a mechanism by which citizens can hold their representatives accountable.

Representatives of the people

The French political thinker Benjamin Constant pointed out that direct democracy was suitable for states that were small in size, and where the culture was relatively homogenous. It was easier to come to a consensus on issues in such a context. In comparison, where states are larger, voices tend to disappear among the masses. Culture is so diverse it would be difficult to make one decision that suits all. And in modern times wealth has become an alternative source of power. So it makes more sense to delegate power to representatives who are mandated with running the affairs of the state, safeguarded by accountability mechanisms.

This is what happens in South Africa. Once every five years we cast our vote at ballot stations across the country. Then, for the most part, we promptly return to our daily lives entrusting in our leaders to make the right decisions. But have we become too complacent, and is that why corruption runs riot in government? Or perhaps our systems for accountability are not functioning well-enough? Maybe it’s our democracy itself that isn’t structured to allow meaningful participation?

Complacency is a way of life

When it comes to corruption, in my humble opinion, I find that many of the people around me are complacent about it – until our leaders and taxpayer money are implicated. Paying bribes to get out of speeding fines or to get that elusive driver’s license are acceptable acts. We are relaxed; we’ve accepted corruption as part of our daily lives. I’ve even heard people say, shrugging their shoulders, that it’s impossible to get some tasks done without giving in to corruption. We give the cop a coke and go on our way.

However, we have enshrined in our Constitution safeguards for us to hold our leaders accountable. Our Chapter 9 institutions are almost like our artillery against a government that attempts to abuse its power. Notably, we have the Human Rights Commission, Public Protector and Auditor-General, each of which has a specific mandate to keep an eye on government.

In particular, the former public protector, Advocate Thuli Mandonsela, demonstrated the potential power of these institutions in the publication of the State of Capture report, where she exposed her damning findings against the president’s abuse of power, calling for a commission of inquiry. Probably most importantly, our Constitutional Court has many times defended public interests against injustice, for example by upholding that remedial action by the Public Protector is legally binding, forcing the president and Parliament to take further steps to resolve the controversy.

In addition, we have a relatively free and strong media presence in South Africa. Independent news sources rarely shy away from exposing corruption wherever they can. One of the greatest and most recent examples is the #GuptaLeaks, where a partnership between News24, amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism and Daily Maverick is exposing extensive abuse of state resources and allegedly tying together the twisted tale of Zuma and the Guptas.

Public outrage does not necessarily result in change

All this action shows how many avenues there are for exposing corruption. But does the system allow for action? Or does politics get in the way? Ultimately, we still have to rely on leaders to act upon on these revelations. Perhaps this is the failure of the system – unlike in ancient democracy, citizens in South Africa do not have direct access to our representatives.

Lawrence Hamilton writes, in his book Are South Africans Free?, that the structure of our political system enables South Africans to have a voice through freedom of expression, but it cannot directly hold government accountable. An ideal example of this is the #ZumaMustFall campaign from earlier this year, where civil society organisations, political parties and ordinary citizens took to the streets across the country in their thousands, to demand a change in leadership. It did not result in Zuma’s resignation.

Our political system seems too far removed from the will of the ordinary citizen to effect change at a macro level. We have no choice but to direct our frustrations at corruption through our leadership. When our leaders abuse their power or act outside of their mandates our recourse to Chapter 9 institutions is still arguably held back by the prerogative of leaders who are charged with implementing findings. It would seem that we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Yet we are not helpless. The first step is to build integrity in ourselves and our communities. Saying no to corruption on our doorsteps shows those in power that we will not tolerate any form of dishonesty. Secondly, reporting corruption helps provide evidence and statistics with which civil society and leaders can bolster their opposition to corrupt leaders. And finally, cliché as it may seem, we must remain steadfast and resolute in voicing our dissatisfaction with leaders who are corrupt, in the hopes that someday our shouting will drown out the indifference.