SA’s 30 years of democracy: Celebrating freedom despite challenges – Ivo Vegter

South Africa marks 30 years since its democratic dawn, a moment of hope and unity as citizens of all races embraced their right to vote. Despite initial optimism under the ANC, the party’s shift towards socialism and corruption has led to widespread disappointment. While acknowledging missteps, regretting the democratic transition itself is unjust. The struggle against apartheid’s oppression remains a moral imperative, underscoring the value of freedom and the ongoing fight for better governance.

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By Ivo Vegter*

Perhaps a certain amount of bitterness is to be expected, but regretting the democratic dispensation is not.

This past weekend, South Africa celebrated 30 years since that momentous day in 1994 when, for the first time in history, all South African adults, of all races, queued for hours to exercise their right to vote for a new government.

Most voted for the African National Congress (ANC), which had established itself, under its leader, Nelson Mandela, as the torchbearer of liberation from the racial oppression of apartheid.

So did I, for the record.

That same ANC, however, has 30 years later brought South Africa to the brink of failure.

It has been hostile, to some degree or another, to every one of the classical liberal principles for which the Institute of Race Relations, which publishes The Daily Friend, advocates: non-racialism, limited government, a market economy, private enterprise, freedom of speech, individual liberty, property rights, and the rule of law.

It instead followed the path of African nationalism, of gradual socialism, of interventionist government, and of corruption. Listing the failures of the ANC government is repetitive and tiresome. We all know what they are. 

Regret

This has caused some people to regret the democratic revolution of the early 1990s. 

Some people – mostly conservative white people – accuse ‘you liberals’ of having allowed an obviously communist-aligned organisation to gain control of what they thought was a well-functioning economy. Some echo the warnings about black governments in Africa, and are now saying we told you so. 

While it is perfectly justifiable to regret how the ANC, and ANC voters, have squandered South Africa’s freedom, regretting the dawn of freedom itself is not justified. 

As someone who voted for the ANC in 1994, I feel the criticism that I should have known it was a socialist organisation, and should have foreseen the disastrous social and economic circumstances we experience today, keenly.

I was only 23 at the time, and while I’ll happily disavow quite a few of the beliefs and opinions I held at that age, I will not disavow that vote. Could I, or should I, have voted for the tiny Democratic Party instead? With hindsight, perhaps, but nobody had the benefit of hindsight at the time.

Read more: The first 30 years of Apartheid as a mirror for ANC rule: Andrew Kenny

Bigger issues

There were bigger issues at play.

First, the racial oppression and disenfranchisement of the apartheid era were objectively evil, and needed to be defeated. Equal rights and a non-racial franchise are moral obligations, no matter how people choose to exercise their freedom. 

At the time, it also wasn’t clear that the ANC would fail so spectacularly. In fact, for the first 15 years of its rule, there were plenty reasons to be optimistic. 

Even to this day, it campaigns on the achievements of those first 15 years: bringing basic services like water, lights, education, housing, healthcare and welfare grants to the large majority of South Africans who were denied these services under the previous regime.

Those were real gains, and merit celebration.

The ANC also wasn’t so overtly wedded to socialism, or hostile to private enterprise. Although it mouthed revolutionary slogans, many observers, including some libertarians and classical liberals, pointed out that in practice it was far less dogmatic about its ideology.

Neo-liberal

Trevor Manuel, in particular, who was finance minister from 1996 to 2009, was widely denounced by the ANC’s left-wing allies as ‘neo-liberal’, and widely commended by the rest of us as ‘pragmatic’.

He oversaw South Africa’s longest period of sustained economic growth, even if it only exceeded 5% for three of those years. This in turn led to a slow but steady decline in the unemployment rate, to below 20%. 

The ANC did a great deal to bring previously-excluded people into the economy, and perhaps the most important economic indicator of all, GDP per capita (measured at purchasing power party in constant 2017 international dollars), duly rose from $9 693 in 1994 to $13 596 in 2008.

Although we can certainly discern the roots of the present disaster with hindsight, it wasn’t at all obvious that everything would fall apart in those early years.

Pocketbooks

It also isn’t surprising why electoral support for the ANC grew during those years. People vote their pocketbooks, and under the ANC, people were becoming better off and the poor received welfare support for the first time.

(People were getting richer far too slowly, from the point of view of a classical liberal who would have liked to see much freer markets and economic growth of 8% or more, but that people were getting richer is undeniable.)

Read more: Ipsos poll: ANC, EFF losing support as Zuma-backed MK party gains ground

That changed with the election of Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC, and then of the country, in 2009. 

Not only was the ANC becoming openly corrupt, but people stopped getting richer. While the rest of the world saw only brief pauses and kept on getting richer over time, South Africa’s GDP per capita never breached $14 000, and in 2022 stood marginally lower than in 2008, at $13 479.

The ANC’s electoral support fell, accordingly, and now looks set to fall below the critical 50% mark for the first time. 

Better government

Despite wishing that South Africa had better – and more liberal – government, not only in the last 15 years, but even in the first 15 years of democracy, we should never look back and wish that the democratic transition had never happened.

That sentiment isn’t very far from arguing that apartheid was better for South Africa, which is both empirically wrong (the economy was pretty poor under apartheid, even for white people – per capita GDP growth was negative for 10 of the 14 years from 1980 to 1993), and morally wrong (equal rights and a non-racial franchise cannot be denied in a just society).

We can advocate better governing policies, and we absolutely should. We can work to convince people to make better choices at the ballot box, and again, we should. 

What we cannot do is wish that people didn’t have the freedom to choose. That would be a gross violation of both classical liberal principles and basic moral law.

The relatively peaceful transition to democracy, with a negotiated settlement and a surprisingly (albeit not perfectly) liberal constitution, are all still worth celebrating. They were major achievements, and represented the victory of justice over iniquity.

How the ANC turned out is very regrettable, but the circumstances of how it came to power in the first place merit a day of celebration.

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker

*This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission