“Intervening in what the ruling party does should begin at the ballot box,” Richards said.
“I don’t have a sense that civil society is active.”
Richards, a former deputy director-general of the now disbanded Scorpions, was speaking at a “State of Democracy debate” at the Constitutional Hill in Braamfontein alongside human rights lawyer and former Unisa vice chancellor Barney Pityana.
He criticised many political leaders for not being “decisive leaders”.
“I am not sure we can step away from the need for a decisive leadership. There is no will in the part of many people in that space… because of ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’,” he said.
Earlier, Richards said the country had a few “brave and courageous” leaders such as Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.
“We have sufficient [institutions for] checks and balances but they require brave leaders.
“We just don’t have the courage in the institutions.”
He said people who had been appointed through connections were wary of biting the hand that fed them.
Pityana said government was not doing enough to curb the gap of inequality in the country.
“Where we are today is that we have a gulf of inequality between rich and poor. Not enough has been done to bridge that gap in the last 20 years.”
He said those that had been elected into Parliament not only represented those who had voted them in, but all South Africans in general.
“If our democracy is to have any credibility it is going to require that bigness,” he said.
The problem with the current state of democracy in South Africa was the quality of human capital which had become “contaminated”. This was what needed to change, he said.
“We have not thought sufficiently about the culture of thinking beyond the 20 years.
“We getting to the point where we are getting to the culture of thinking there are untouchables.”
He said Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Mexico were examples of places where governments were abusing their political power.
There would come a point when people sought an alternative form of governance, and would turn to right-wing ethnic politics, he said.
“[South Africa] will be in real danger.”
He described the African National Congress as “the most right-wing party we have…
“Until we can get to a point where resources are used for the poor and not for enrichment.”
He said another danger was of South Africa turning into a security state.
The death of Andries Tatane, who died during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg was an example, Pityana said.
Seven police officers accused of his murder and assault were acquitted in the Ficksburg Regional Court in March last year.
Other examples included the Marikana, where a wildcat strike turned violent and left 44 people (including 40 miners, two policemen and two security guards) dead in the North West mining town in August 2012.
The Lonmin miners were demanding a basic monthly salary of R12,500.
Thirty-four of the miners were killed on August 16, 2012 when police fired at them, apparently in an attempt to disperse and disarm them.
On Wednesday Eastern Cape police shot dead two people and wounded 11 who “violently” tried to steal food from a truck in Bizana. This was another example Pityana used.
“We are getting quite used to the fact that police are there to shoot and kill. So we need to pay attention to the security apparatus of the state,” Pityana said.
He said the answer to that danger was for South Africans to recover their sense of democracy.
“We need to move away from the culture of enrichment. The thinking that ‘if many people join the club, it will be alright’ saddens me,” he said.