We might romanticise the state of our democracy, but it is far too fragile and we are always just one notch above authoritarian rule.
New democracies such as South Africa are not protected from authoritarianism and inequality because of the power imbalance between the economies they supposedly govern and the social and legislative framework within which they operate.
Throughout the world, there are few examples of a perfect marriage between capitalist economies and constitutional democracy. In my view, this is primarily because centralised and mismanaged power underpins both. In fact, any political party can be voted into power and this fundamental power dynamic will remain.
One example has been seen in SA’s mining sector, where foreign capital interests reign supreme because of the infallible and unique model of cheap labour and unjustifiably limited government regulation and interference.
For a few months, SA was on its way to embrace a new mining charter that sought to undo some of the damage caused by the antipoor policies and business models of the likes of Anglo American, benefitting from legislation that asked very little of the industry in exchange for shockingly disproportionate profits.
That this particular industry is one of the backbones of SA’s economy cannot only be attributed to its general profitability. It supports other industries such as manufacturing and its links to the country’s currency. Because of its limited reliance on government, this industry benefitting foreigners has South Africa by the proverbial balls. SA’s economy relies too much on foreign investment and this limits the powers of civil society and even government in enacting laws and practices that put South Africans, and not South African money, first.
Society can rise up against a social ill and call for more just and protective legislation – but the counter argument will always be the protection of an underregulated economic framework and its main contributors. If you increase the salaries of miners, we are told, foreign investors will pull out (as if all that stands between their prosperity and the collapse of the industry is whether or not its labour force remains poor).
But it is not just the private sector that leverages its control over the impoverished masses. Politicians, many of whom have their hands in lucrative private interests, are moved only by the prospect of more money and more power.
It is only when a political elite stands to benefit through more power that it dares to defy the unwritten laws of this marriage of convenience.
That some policies and laws are now being adopted in favour of a broader, disenfranchised part of society has nothing to do with any individual’s desire to improve the state of democracy. It has everything to do with voters, trade-offs and negotiated agreements.
Everything changes at an extremely fast pace in this world – from technology and science to geopolitics – and yet one thing remains the same: democracy is largely an idea that is seldom put into practice and the illusion of its existence protects very few.
In fact, people seem to be living far better in countries with governments largely thought to be explicitly authoritarian, such as China and Russia.