06 May, 2013

South Africa's Withering Democracy

by Hussein Solomon

In April 1994, I joined millions of other South Africans to cast my ballot for the very first time in the country’s first democratic elections following the end of apartheid. The fervent hope of all South Africans that day was to not only turn our backs on our repressive and divisive past but to also provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the continent’s struggling democracies. This was not to be realized.

Nineteen years on and prospects for democratic consolidation in South Africa has never looked more bleak. This past week has witnessed the ruling African National Congress (ANC) pushing for ever greater control internally and externally. Internally this is manifested in it urging its parliamentarians not to pose tough questions to cabinet ministers. At the same time the urge to stifle dissent within the party has been heightened as the country go into electoral mode for the national elections in 2014.

The external controls are manifested in the imminent passing of the Protection of Information Bill which, whatever its supporters claim, will restrict media freedom and ultimately disempower citizens from holding the executive to account. The fact that this truly Orwellian-named Bill is to be passed at the time when President Zuma has repeatedly made known of his displeasure with the media for so aggressively pointing out government failures and especially corruption is particularly ominous. Moreover the passage of the Bill is also taking place at a time when the gulf between government and civil society has never been wider.

On the African continent, meanwhile, the ANC government betrays its own proud history of standing up to the repressive apartheid regime by allying itself with some of Africa’s worst tyrants. Consider here former President Mbeki’s dalliance with Equatorial Guinea’s Nguema and President Zuma’s support for President Bozize’s tyranny over citizens of the Central African Republic.

At the same time Zuma is given to conspiracy theories – claiming that some dark outside forces are seeking to undermine the continent. This is dangerous rhetoric and feeds into the narratives emanating from African governments seeking to criminalize dissent and de-legitimate the political opposition.

Far from serving as a beacon for hope, South Africa is leading the continent backwards. This is not what we had hoped for in 1994. It is not what one billion Africans had hope for.

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