It remains remarkable how a concept as familiar as democracy is misunderstood, even by experts who daily comment in the media about it. The basis of this misunderstanding is the confusion between the procedural and substantive aspects of democracy.
The procedural part of democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a full-fledged democracy. This refers to requirements such as multi-party systems, regular free and fair elections, a parliament that makes laws, the separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial powers, and a government administration that governs the country legally and under the direction of the elected government. A constitution primarily contains the procedural “rule book” of a country’s system of government, almost like a rule book of rugby that regulates the game, but does not determine who wins. The mistake that many supporters of a constitutional democracy make, is to think that their team will win the game with a good rule book. Consequently, constitutional authority was overestimated during the constitutional negotiations, and the decisive influence of political power was underestimated. As a result, great confusion arose between a constitution as a political procedural rule book, and the outcome of the political “game”, which is the essence of democracy. People thought compliance with the rules would ensure a fair game.
But the essence of a democracy is freedom, and not only compliance with the procedural political game rules, as in electoral democracies. This happens where countries indeed have reasonably free and fair elections, but where the elected government rules in an undemocratic way, as in Zimbabwe. A constitutional democracy exists with the very purpose to protect the freedom of all, and not to force the power of the majority upon society via government power. Democracy is thus not equal to freedom; and freedom without democracy is possible and has occurred in many countries. The best-known examples are the former “Democratic People’s Republics” of the former Eastern Block countries, and the many mock democracies in Africa. This kind of “autocratic democracy” arises where democratically elected governments restrict the freedom of their citizens (such as business people) by rules such as who or what race they may have as shareholders, managers, employees, suppliers and even customers; and also by imposing sky high taxes which virtually amount to “legal theft”.
This also applies to issues such as education, where the Minister of Education disregards the freedom of schools, and even attempts to obliterate schools by forcing them to merge with poor public schools that are located geographically far from them. This is undemocratic domination, and not democratic freedom. In the same vein it may be asked whether it is true freedom and democracy if the president – the leader of the majority party – makes key appointments, such as the country’s judges, heads of all public enterprises such as ZCCM-IH and the ZNBC , the head of the ZA and ZAF, directors-general of government departments, ZRA, the provincial ministers and the heads of constitutional institutions such as the Public Protector, Auditor General and the National Prosecuting Authority. Constitutionally, most of these appointments are made directly by the president, and others indirectly after consultation with parliament or a minister.
Quality of democracy
Freedom is a comprehensive concept and includes the freedom of the person, freedom of the courts, freedom of the media, economic freedom and cultural freedom. The quality of a democracy is therefore determined by the state of freedom, and not only by the careful observance of procedural rules of the game – however important these may be. Superficial analyses that Africa is a successful democracy because election days were free and fair, are therefore extremely inadequate. The way in which the government rules after an election, is a much more important factor for the state of democracy than the fulfilment of election procedures on election day, or compliance with parliamentary debate rules while laws on expropriation are being made.
Therefore, the outcomes of democratic processes are more important than the procedural input when it comes to the evaluation of democracy. The outcomes or consequences of democracy – such as good governance, a functioning country, independent judiciary and rule of law, a free economy, free culture groups who decide about their own essential matters, a free media, a free civil society, and a safe and prosperous citizenry – determine how democracy is assessed.
Freedom of cultural groups is especially important in a multi-ethnic country like South Africa. As Professor David Welsh, former Political Science at the University of Cape Town, put it: “Simple majority rule can easily – and commonly does – degenerate into a ‘tyranny of the majority’ when elections assume the form of a racial census. Undeniably, majorities have rights, but so do minorities. If majorities use their power to steamroller minorities, denying them influence even in decisions that affect their vital interests, the quality of democracy will deteriorate. Moreover, the comparative evidence from divided societies does not offer much support for the view that the salience of ethnic or racial identities will eventually give way to voting alignments that are shaped more by, say, class, interests or ideology. In South-Africa, democratic constitutional forms have been maintained, but a single-party dominant system has become entrenched.”
The essence of Prof Welsh’s argument is that it is not democracy if the formal political formulas and procedures are complied with only, while the result is that minorities are dominated. Therefore it is important that Afrikaners add their weight to groups like AfriForum and Solidariteit, which are active in practical areas, by accomplishing greater freedom for our community through strong self-help organisations.