A few weeks ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the 31st  SONA by a democratically elected President. He centred his speech around a fallacious reflection of what he referred to as “30 years of freedom”. To assert his analysis of the state of our democracy, Ramaphosa introduced a fictional character he called Tintswalo. The name is from Xitsonga, loosely meaning, ‘the feeling of grace and mercy you have for receiving a gift’.

We know the President’s cabinet has a penchant for confusing extended metaphors, so this is probably a window into how the government, that Ramaphosa is part of, views democracy.

In his reflection, the President celebrates this government’s “gifts” to Tintswalo and the rest of us. The ANC government has gifted us housing, healthcare, social grants, and many other blessings.

Of course, some have pointed out that the Tintswalo narrative is not an accurate reflection of the material conditions of most people living in South Africa. But more importantly, the President’s reflection lays bare his government’s disdain for democracy.

He celebrates his government’s gift of a meaningful anti-retroviral programme, but his predecessor Thabo Mbeki denied treatment to millions of people amid the AIDS pandemic. The successful programme was guaranteed by the people’s movement that mobilised more than 16,000 activists under the banner of the Treatment Action Campaign, demanding their constitutional right to healthcare.

He commended the state for intensifying its commitment to end the scourge of gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF), but government was mute on the crisis until women led a nationwide protest in August 2018 demanding concrete action to end GBVF.

He says his government has “invested in the future” by gifting 9 million unemployed people with social relief and distress grants but disregards the united front of civil society, unemployed people and organised workers who demanded social relief after he announced the shutting down of the economy amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

He marvels at how land reform policies have transformed the economy, but the most successful land reform programmes since 1994 have been through occupations of unused land by landless people and mass movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo.

Ramaphosa refuses to recognise that socio-economic progress since 1994 has happened because people have a say. Not because of the benevolence of his government.

Of course, this approach to democracy is not new. ANC leaders have repeatedly bemoaned the black middle class for rejecting the party in the polls. The governing party insists that it is solely responsible for upward shifts in the economic status of former oppressed people, and therefore deserve their gratitude and mercy.

This approach is especially irresponsible when South Africans have little trust in democratic institutions and most would prefer a dictator in exchange for food, housing and jobs.

Democracy is not the ability of the state to deliver services to its citizens. It is the ability of every person to equally influence all spheres of their lives – political, social, and economic.

A true reflection on 30 years of democracy understands the extent to which our society meets this objective.

In moving beyond 30 years, we must better use the tools that democracy provides us to shape a more viable society. We must force a people-centred politics and we must work towards the ability of everyone to equally influence all spheres of social life.

Importantly, this year we may see an opening up of our politics, making it more fluid. This moment presents opportunities to deepen people’s power.

What is My Vote Counts’ role in this?

My Vote Counts will use this moment to further our vision of a democracy from below. Over the next year, we will do this through three work streams:

Money in politics:  

This year we will be in the Western Cape High Court, challenging the constitutionality of aspects of the Political Party Funding Act. The Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation since 1994 but does not sufficiently protect our political rights.

The fluidity in our politics also presents opportunities for private capital to expand its influence over the state. We will, therefore, deepen our understanding of the relationship between money, politics and influence.

We will conduct research to develop a political funding framework that will ensure greater accountability.

Political systems:

We will monitor and respond to the Parliamentary processes to amend laws that are affected by the Electoral Amendment Act (2023).

As Parliament sets up another electoral reform panel, we will convene a civil society panel on electoral reform with the mandate of developing an electoral model that is likely to ensure greater accountability and a democracy from below.

As coalitions emerge at the centre of our politics, we will campaign to ensure all coalition agreements around the 2024 elections are transparent, and we will develop frameworks for more accountable coalition governments.

Democracy from below:

We will work with social movements and labour to develop strategies to use the fluidity of the 2024 General Elections to centre people’s demands.

30 Years of Democracy: 

We will host a 3-day gathering of civil society, social movements and academics reflecting on the past three decades and paving the way towards a democracy from below.

Share your thoughts with us on social media! Options below…