Sithembile Ntombela1 May 2024 | 7:40

SITHEMBILE NTOMBELA: 30-year-old South Africa’s finest asset is the ballot box

While the attainment of three decades of democratic existence is a significant milestone worthy of exuberant celebration, it is still relatively young in the global family of nations. But our problems are not insurmountable, writes Sithembile Ntombela.

SITHEMBILE NTOMBELA: 30-year-old South Africa’s finest asset is the ballot box

FILE: An IEC ballot box. Picture: Cindy Archillies/Eyewitness News

On the occasion marking her 30th birthday, born, as democratic South Africa was, under conditions that so defied the odds, many in her (global) village have unflinchingly and rightfully described her birth as a "miracle". 

In the life of a person, the 30th birthday typically cements and consolidates one’s attainment of adulthood; typically with growing responsibilities and perhaps with some niggling existential questions about the extent to which one has achieved the fulfilment of their life’s goals. 


In the life of a nation-state, the attainment of 30 years since its founding or its moment of fundamental reset to a new governance consensus is no less a significant milestone. However, the assumption of perpetual continuation embedded in the modern nation-state means that while the attainment of three decades of existence is a significant milestone worthy of exuberant celebration, it is still relatively young in the global family of nations. 

This much is clear when one considers the average age of the world’s oldest, continuous democracies today. The global village “elders” include the world’s oldest continuous democracy, the United States of America, which has been at it for more than 220 years, the second-oldest, Switzerland with over 170 years of democratic rule, and third-ranked New Zealand at more than 160 years of democracy. On our continent, Ghana is a 68-year-old democracy. But few would quibble with the assertion that young as she is, 30-year-old democratic South Africa’s impact on the affairs of the global village has been profound. 

But like any 30-year-old, the celebratory occasion has rightly given us as a country, pause for reflection on the journey of the first three decades. One way of framing the central existential question we are asking ourselves may be: “Has democracy delivered on its promise, three decades on?”

This central question is likely to frame many reflections as the country marked 30 years of freedom last month. And coinciding with the country’s seventh democratic national and provincial elections, pencilled in for 29 May this year, reflections on the extent to which South Africa has realised the democracy dividend will also rightly ask hard questions of one of our democracy’s key rituals - regular elections. 

In such a pivotal year for our democracy, it is only right to reflect on these questions, especially when the high premium our Constitution places on regular, free and fair elections is juxtaposed against the worrying trend of declining voter turnout in our recent elections - as low as 45% in the 2021 local government elections.
Reflective questions about voting as an anchoring ritual of our democratic governance can arguably be framed along the same lines as suggested above. “Does/has voting changed (d) anything?” These are profound questions, deserving of deep, sober and intellectually honest reflection. 

Asked of communities and segments of society with high levels of disillusionment, the answers to these questions will likely yield a stinging critique of the entire democratic and political enterprise, with likely complaints about voting not yielding any perceivable change in the matrices of poor service delivery, corruption, and record-high unemployment, among others. 
But it’s in positing the counterfactual to a democratic South Africa with regular elections as the ultimate form of citizen participation and accountability that the true dividend the country has reaped from staying the course over the past 30 years is highlighted. Warts and all, democratic South Africa founded on among others, citizen power in the form of regular, free and fair elections, has largely delivered on the promise of a peaceful, stable, rules-based, rights-and-dignity-centric political consensus that forms the shared minimum launchpad for our pursuit of socio-economic redress, prosperity, and equality.
Our Constitution’s underwriting of personal and political liberties, as well as its systematic exacting of the realisation, albeit progressively, of socio-economic rights have gone a significant distance towards vindicating our belief in democratic governance as our society’s foundational, shared consensus. 
Intriguingly, these days it’s not uncommon to hear some South Africans, in their disillusionment with our country’s contemporary challenges, even pining for alternative governance paths such as an outright or benevolent dictatorship, on the basis of a perception that these systems have yielded enviable socio-economic returns in other countries. However, the majority of liberty-loving South Africans know from lived experience the truism in Winston Churchill’s observation that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. 

Our experience of the past 30 years embodies the empirical evidence of what we can achieve when we harness the democratic dividend for socio-economic development. In this regard, 30-year-old and growing South Africa would be well served by keenly observing lessons from trailblazing democracies such as 74-year-old “village elder” Costa Rica, hailed for its ability to reap the democratic dividend of progressive socio-economic, developmental, and environmental policies, to build a stable, thriving country with a strong middle-class, a state with strong institutions, and little political violence. 

That this is both possible and doable is buttressed by our own body of empirical evidence referred to above, which has, for us as a country, included a record streak of economic growth that spanned all but three of the 74 quarters, between 1994 and 2012’s quarter four. 

During this period, the country’s economy registered an average annual economic growth rate of 2.9% between 1994 and 2000, and 4.3% between 2001 and 2007. Further exhibits in this body of evidence include the creation of one of the world’s most expansive social security nets, which has seen the provision of free housing, healthcare, basic education, nutrition, income support, insurance and compensation to vast proportions of the population, in a manner hailed by the World Bank in recent years for “significantly reduc[ing] poverty across a broad range of poverty lines”. 
The evidence also includes investment in world-class economic and socio-economic infrastructure, such as roads, dams, rail, sporting facilities, and energy plants, and a sophisticated, globally-linked financial and banking system. The stability that comes with a rules-based economic and financial system, anchored on sound fiscal and monetary policies and independent institutions such as the JSE, SA Reserve Bank and SARS, has in turn instilled among the domestic and international business community, a fervent belief in the investability of our story, which has seen many of them sink their roots deep in the solid ground our democracy has created. 
These and other elements of the democratic dividends have also allowed the country’s people to live out the declaration of our founding president, Nelson Mandela, in his historic inauguration speech on 10 May 1994: "Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfil themselves."

The now beyond-debate global influence of the country’s cultural, artistic, science, innovation and sporting exports attests to that spirit, and is a direct by-product of the democratic dividend of political and governance stability that has kept the country on a steady course over the past 30 years, thus freeing “for each, the body, the mind and the fulfil [and express] themselves”. 

This globally recognised excellence in so many varied fields of human endeavour that has sprouted from our shores is a dividend of our democracy that must not only continue to inspire all of us but must also stand as a challenge for all of us to always insist on excellence, the best effort, commitment and competency, even over loyalty to any of our real or perceived political, ideological, social, racial or creed banners. 
The point of the preceding reflections is that while the journey of democratic South Africa may at the 30-year mark feel arduous, and daunting, and begin to sow seeds of doubt among some about whether the path is worth the travelling, on a preponderance, our democratic project has largely shown itself to be worth fighting for. 

While formidable, our problems are not insurmountable.

This is why safeguarding the lifeblood of our democratic enterprise by ensuring that we all play our part by coming out to vote in the upcoming elections is undoubtedly the best way to vindicate our commitment, captured in Madiba’s rallying cry for us to birth "out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long... a society of which all humanity will be proud". 

After all, in the words of Mark Twain: "That’s the finest asset we’ve got - the ballot box."

Sithembile Ntombela is the acting CEO of Brand South Africa.