Nelson Mandela Foundation

It has been a dramatic few weeks in South Africa. As the country moved fully into election campaign mode, the expected clutch of questions were thrown at me: “Why aren’t you doing more to get people to vote?”; “Are you worried about the election being free and fair?”; “Who do you think we should vote for?”; “What would Madiba do?”; and so on. And now, as we absorb the results and ponder what it all means, I’m hearing a certain very familiar line of enquiry a lot: “What would Madiba say?’ The questions can get tiring. But we cannot avoid a key question: what do we make of the election and where the country is landing in its wake?

There is a view that a significant moment is reached in the journey of a young democracy when the former liberation movement which has been in power for years finally loses an election and hands over the reins. As always with South Africa, our narrative is not as simple as that. But arguably our country has come to an important juncture in its journey with democracy – the moment when, after three decades, the governing party must reckon with the reality that a majority of South African voters would prefer someone else to be in power. A sobering moment for an organisation which used to be the party of Nelson Mandela.

Top of mind for everyone in this moment has to be the question of whether coalition administration can work at the national level. The evidence of track-records is not good. Our political elites have consistently found ways to turn coalition at local government level into something messy, at best, and disgraceful at worst. South Africa deserves better. We need coalition partners, now, who are willing to put the national interest before party political agendas and who are committed to taking South Africa’s journey with democracy to the next level. We need leaders to show leadership. As Madiba used to say during his HIV/AIDS campaigning when he found himself opposing government – “Leaders lead.”

Beyond the results of the election, for me this also feels like a moment to savour those things which we can celebrate in this thirtieth year of democracy. It feels good to live in a country where, despite all the challenges, we can still be confident that our elections are substantively free and fair. In 1994 Madiba’s top priority as he stepped into the role of President was to make democracy stick. And it has. Our democratic processes and instruments have seen two sitting presidents removed from power. We have a vibrant – some would say boisterous – civil society. We have as free a press as anywhere in the world. Our judiciary - again, despite all the challenges - feels like a bulwark. Too often we South Africans give short thrift to good stories and to good reasons for celebration; we slip too quickly into complaint mode. I’m reminded of something else Madiba used to say, in moments where things were going wrong, to those of us who worked for him – “It doesn’t help to whine; what’s the plan?”

There is reason to celebrate some of the things we have got right since 1994. But there is also reason to be concerned about our democracy’s continuing failure to deliver fully on the promise of freedom. The Constitution is still not a lived reality for most of those who call South Africa home. While democracy has stuck, we as a society are in danger of becoming stuck. Could it be that we are confronted not so much by the consequences of state capture, but rather by an even more disturbing phenomenon – the capture of democracy itself? It’s time for us at the very least to reimagine democracy. It’s time to think differently. It’s time for leaders with a plan. It’s time for leaders to lead.