Democracy and the fruits of our future

Today we celebrate the International Day of Democracy.

Democracy is as much a process as a goal and this year, South Africa celebrates 22 years of democracy. In 1996, two years after our country’s first democratic elections and after much debate and public consultation, our Constitution was promulgated.

Our Constitution lays the foundation for an open society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights. The values of freedom, respect for human rights and human dignity, equality and the right to have and participate in free and fair elections, form the key components, the cornerstone, of our democracy, as contained in the Bill of Rights.

However, the increase in violent protests of the past few years, together with the high unemployment rate, inequality and racial nationalism, currently pose a threat to this democracy and are putting our democratic institutions to the test.

What does democracy mean for South Africa? How is our country run and protected? Is our democracy at risk?

Our Constitution

How is our democratic country run?

One of our Constitution’s most important democratic principles is that of the doctrine of separation of powers. All of these powers work interdependently to form and instil a democratic society. The State’s power is therefore divided in three different branches, namely the executive (Cabinet), the legislature (Parliament) and the judiciary (Courts of law).

The executive (Sections 85 and 125)

The President, together with other members of the Cabinet (the Deputy President and Ministers), jointly exercise executive authority. The executive authority administers and enforces rules of law.

The legislature (Parliament) (Sections 42 – 44)

The national legislature / Parliament consists of two Houses – the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. These two houses each have specific functions as contained in the Constitution. The legislature is responsible for the composition, amendment and revocation of legislation.

The judiciary (Section 165)

The judiciary is made up of the courts, namely the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal, High Courts, Magistrates’ Courts and other courts established or recognised through an Act of Parliament. The judiciary has the power to establish how law is applied when disputes arise, and can also hold the other two branches accountable.

Public Protector

The mandate of the Public Protector is to strengthen our constitutional democracy. This is done by:

  • investigating and rectifying improper and harmful conduct, maladministration and abuse of power in state affairs;
  • resolving administrative disputes or correcting any act or omission in administrative conduct through mediation, conciliation or negotiation;
  • advising on proper remedies or utilizing any other effective means;
  • reporting and making recommendations;
  • advising on and investigating violations of the Executive Members Ethics Act of 1994;
  • resolving disputes relating to the operation of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, and discharging other responsibilities as mandated in other legislation, such as the Constitution and the Electoral Commission Act.

Placing this democracy at risk

In an article written by Nicola de Jager, a senior lecturer in Political Science at Stellenbosch University, she points out that the uprising of radicalism is resulting in a change in our country’s course, for the worse.

Radicals/exclusivist nationals pursue a form of nationalism that seeks to differentiate, a desire to elevate itself at the expense of others; much like the school of thought during the Apartheid regime. On the other hand, moderates have come to the realisation that no-one has exclusive control on truth or virtue in politics. They “realise that inherent in democracy is a core tension requiring significant maturity – that of balancing conflict and consensus”. Moderates also realise that in order to move forward, it is crucial that certain key factors be necessary:

  • moderation, which accepts and indulges those with different political beliefs;
  • pragmatism, as opposed to a resolute, ideological approach;
  • willingness to compromise; and
  • civility –  a respect for the views of others.


South Africa’s democracy is currently being tested and is characterised by uncertainty, despite the promising start. Radicalism and violence are used in protests to voice discontent.  Racial nationalism and aggression amongst leading parties are becoming the norm. We cannot allow history to repeat itself.

We must promote moderation, respect and compromise. Our choices today will influence our path of tomorrow. As Nelson Mandela said “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears”.


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