Political Achievements

Our democratic process and our Constitution

The achievement of a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa and the adoption of an inclusive constitution, borne out of historic compromises and a negotiated political settlement, were remarkable. Between 1988 and 1996, negotiated settlements brought six conflicts to an end in El Salvador, Mozambique, Namibia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and South Africa. What set these settlements apart from prior efforts in conflict resolution was their common reliance upon the establishment of democratic forms of governance as the central means of resolving conflict. They were not simply peace settlements, but founding agreements to establish democracy in the aftermath of conflict.

Central to the South African negotiation process, and the stability following the early phases of our democracy, was the personal and leadership qualities of former President Mandela.

The South African Constitution is exceptional in the extent to which it enshrines basic rights and freedoms and expands on them extensively in the Bill of Rights. It is one of the few constitutions in the world that extensively enshrines second-generation socio-economic rights, including the pledge to improve the quality of life of all citizens through access to housing, healthcare, food, water, social security, and education.4 Our Constitution is further - more notable, based as it is on the principle of separation of powers. Its provisions are backed and implemented by a powerful, non-partisan Constitutional Court, “fearless, courageous and independent”, as one Scenario Team member described it. This observation is borne out by some examples of the Constitutional Court’s actions:

There have been few countries where sitting Presidents and Deputy Presidents have appeared before the Constitutional Court, or where one arm of the administration (the National Prosecuting Authority) has gone to court against another arm (the South African Police Service) – an indication that the system of checks and balances is working.

The Constitutional Court has handed down a series of judgments that have had a profound impact on the law in South Africa.Key examples include:

  • “High Principle”: The Death Penalty – the Constitution was not definitive on this issue, and the Constitutional Court took a lead, guided by the Bill of Rights and high principle, in ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional.
  • “Powers of the Elected Executive”: The Constitutional Court ruled that President Mandela exceeded his constitutional powers in making certain direct appointments in
    the government of national unity. The President accepted the ruling.
  • “Withstanding Severe Political Pressure”: The Nevirapine/Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) case – when confronted with a resolute policy position held by the top executive of government, the Constitutional Court ruled that Nevirapine be made available to pre-natal mothers and newborn children.

The relations between state and society, government and citizens, and the public and private spheres are fundamentally shaped by the Constitution. Yet our fledgling democracy is only emerging from its infancy and early childhood into its teenage years. “Like a shy pimply teenager, it stands awkwardly in the face of adulthood”.

The media

Our media is mostly vigilant in holding those in power accountable to the public. It has remained fearless even in cases where there were signs of intimidation from politicians. An independent, investigative media that scrutinises public policy and public representatives remains a critical component of a healthy democracy.

No visible signs of racial or ethnic cleansing

Despite a long history of conflict, South Africa is not on the brink of ethnic or racial cleansing. It is worth noting that, despite the country’s racial and ethnic cleavages, common concerns across racial barriers are beginning to emerge, including shared concerns about crime, the lack of leadership accountability and poor service delivery.

Civilian control over the army

South Africa continues to benefit from a military culture of strict civilian control of the army, established under apartheid and continuing through to the present. The South African military as an institution continues to operate within the rule of law. This is a rare feature on the African continent, given the direct or indirect military role in political succession over the past fifty years. Thus, in South Africa, a military coup is a very unlikely scenario.

Historically active and engaged civil society

Complementing a positive military culture is a history of active civil society engagement. Ordinary South Africans participated energetically in the struggle for their liberation. The strategy of making apartheid society ‘ungovernable’ depended entirely on the participation and commitment of ordinary citizens. In addition, strong trade unions, a relatively welldeveloped business sector, engaged religious communities and active community organisations are features that have shaped the character of the South African democracy. The vibrancy of civil society has however become muted since 1994, in particular as many civic, NGO and trade union leaders have been drawn into public office.

Developments within the ruling party

There were two significant developments in 2007 and 2008 with long-term impact on the political outlook. The first was the “Polokwane Congress” of the ruling ANC, where the battle lines involving succession issues were defined. In what looked like a popular revolt, delegates applied the two-term limitation in the Constitution to the role of party president. The ANC was exposed to far less deferential conduct from its membership than that to which it had become accustomed. Subsequent to this, the ANC signalled its displeasure with its leader and recalled him from the Presidency.

Even more dramatic than Polokwane was the breakaway from the ANC by COPE members. What is significant is not the breakaway as such, as an ANC split seemed ultimately inevitable. It was more the fact that the migration from the ANC to COPE came much sooner than even the keenest observers had anticipated.

The implication of all of this is that, unlike in many African countries, the ANC will increasingly have to rely more on its record of service delivery, rather than the perceived “sanctity of a liberation movement”.



Perspectives from members of the Dinokeng Scenario Team.

Our Constitution was heralded as one of the greatest in the world because it guarantees socioeconomic rights.

We need to remind South Africans that we are a constitutional democracy. We also need to be clear on the levels and separation of powers. We must not allow these to be blurred.

Our institutions – the judiciary, the media, civil society – are still strong, but are being undermined by a discourse of intolerance and divisiveness.

An asset is that we have an army under civilian control. We are unlikely to go the Zimbabwean route.

The best guardian of our democracy is a robust and alive citizenry.

Not everyone might have liked what they saw at Polokwane. There was a chant of “three terms over our dead bodies”. We might not like the language, but we see that people from squatter camps sent a clear message. This is democracy in action. That was the victory of Polokwane.