Premier's Perspective: Be vigilant to protect democracy

Twenty-three years after South Africa moved from a racist dictatorship to a multiracial democracy, can anyone honestly say democracy is not working satisfactorily?

It depends on one’s expectation of our democratic process.

The essence of democracy can be found in the statement of the late father of the nation, Nelson Mandela, when in a speech upon his inauguration as president in Pretoria on May 10, 1994, said: “We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign.”

As we celebrate 23 years of being a democratic nation, as a form of government that embraces diversity and plurality in the society, guaranteeing equality of the citizens and their involvement in how they are governed, our democracy remains the best political system for guaranteeing human rights, achieving lasting social and economic development, and for fostering long-term security.

But what is democracy and what do we expect from it?

Classically, historians tell us democracy is derived from two Greek words “demo” and “kratia” meaning people and rule respectively.

Perhaps it explains why Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address defined democracy government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.

That is why democracy covers such things as free and fair elections, three independent branches of government, civilian supremacy, freedom of thought, expression, and worship, and the governing principle of public office as a public trust.

Therefore democratic life is both the right to differ as well as the acceptance of such a difference by all. Democracy implies respect for a plurality of views and virtues of dialogue as a means of resolving conflict.

Of course it is true that the idea of a democracy that works satisfactorily is generally its presumed capacity to improve the lives of the majority. Of course, there is no political system devoid of problems or shortcomings. I agree that while democracy presumes equality before the law, social and economic inequalities often belie that.

But does that justify the belief that democracy is not working satisfactorily? No. After all, like an egg, democracy is well-designed and sturdy, but fragile and easily broken if not handled with care. Therefore democracy is a powerful idea that requires constant work to give it substance.

Indeed, our democracy has many political benefits. It is thriving in a country with economic disparities most of the rest of the world can barely imagine. There is political tolerance and acceptance and respect of the basic rights and civil liberties of persons and groups whose viewpoints differ from one’s own.

Of course, no form of government comes without challenges, but our democracy has the best of prospects to deal with our country ravaged by three fierce enemies – poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Our democracy has its own challenges, but our society must not relent at tackling them. Here, the famous saying that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” becomes highly appropriate. The entrenchment and sustenance of democracy is thus an imperative for all of us.

The ongoing debate now is how to make sure that democracy delivers, that all South Africans benefit from the freedom, the opportunity and the access that democracy affords.

This is a tremendous challenge, perhaps a never-ending one. But ultimately it is the quintessential challenge for any system of government, and democracy must step up to it.

Twenty three years on what we need is action and the political will to move forward in ways we can all see and measure, through the difficult economic, political and social circumstances that we all face – and to create democratic institutions that work, that have credibility and that promote sustainable growth.

Democracy needs civic engagement, inclusive, transparent and effective mechanisms and institutions, mutual trust, a sense of collective responsibility and courage to work for the common good. Democracy requires daily vigilance and constant action. Happy 23rd anniversary South Africa.

Phumulo Masualle is premier of the Eastern Cape. Follow him on @EC_Premier