Can our liberal democracy survive the multiple onslaughts of Covid-19, the 4IR, Donald Trump and the rise of China?

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 13 December 2020.

Fifteen years ago, I read a book by Donald Trump in which he talked about the direct relationship between wearing pointed shoes and having power. I had first encountered Trump in the movie Home Alone when I was a teenager, where he in effect acted as an extra (a person who plays no direct role). Little did I know that one day he would be the US president. How the US elected a person with such ideas about the relationship between pointed shoes and power will be a historical controversy for years to come.

It is now common knowledge that Trump has lost the presidency to Joe Biden by a wide margin. Biden won 306 electoral votes against 232 for Trump. Furthermore, Biden won more than 81 million popular votes against 74 million for Trump. But Trump is refusing to accept defeat, and it is not apparent how he will leave the White House.

Recently, I read How to Win an Election, which was written by Quintus Cicero for Marcus Cicero, a Roman statesman. In this book, we learn that elections are not about the people, but are about winning. We also learn that if it is possible to deceive the people to win the election, then “the end justifies the means”. Given what is going on in the US, it is clear that more than 2,000 years after Cicero’s book, the mechanics of elections have not changed and the concept of winning elections at all costs is very much alive.

But more is at stake in this election than is apparent. This election dispute, and Trump’s failure to concede, is challenging the foundation of democracy, not just in the US but around the world. For instance, in support of Trump, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro stated that he has information that the US election had “a lot of fraud”. This duumvirate, or coalition, of the two prominent rulers of the Americas is not about democracy but power for its own sake.

What is democracy? It is characterised by regular elections and the distinct division of power between Parliament, the executive, and the judiciary. At the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it seemed as if democracy had triumphed as the world’s best political system. The attraction of democracy to much of the world was that democracies were predominantly rich Western countries. To many in the developing world, it seemed that adopting democracy would improve their economic fortunes. This did not turn out to be the case.

The economic rise of China, even though it did not adopt democracy, threw this assumption out of the window. Today, China is the second-largest economy globally and publishes more scientific papers – and registers more patents – than any other country in the world. A patent is a right granted to an inventor to commercially exploit his or her invention without the right of any other person or entity to copy this invention, and this is an indicator of a country’s capacity for innovation. China achieved all this without adopting democracy.

What are some of the weaknesses of democracy? First, it tends to favour short-term rather than long-term planning. As officials are elected for a finite period, such as five years in South Africa, democracies operate in plans that span short periods of time.

Second, democracies tend to favour showmanship over reflective personalities. The extrovert Donald Trump is more likely to be elected in the US than the introvert Bill Gates, irrespective of their talents. Therefore, in democracies, the delivery of speeches that can make one more electable is more prized, while in countries such as China, it is scientific thinking.

Third, democracies can also be influenced by money as contesting an election is an expensive undertaking.

As we find ourselves in the throes of uncertainty, as our battle against the coronavirus pandemic rages on and we try to salvage our economy, we are forced to introspect. Can we sustain ourselves on our current path? Is this our best possible iteration of national democracy?

Today, democracies face headwinds due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), Covid-19 and China’s economic rise. The 4IR is introducing technologies that are undermining democracy. For example, deep fakes, which are enabled by the Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), create fake video clips of politicians and undermine the electoral efforts of some while enhancing others. The GAN makes it challenging to differentiate between what is real and what is fake, thus increasing information asymmetry in a democracy. Information asymmetry is when one group of people has more information than another in an election, which harms democracy. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many people in the US to vote remotely. This is the basis of Trump’s challenge of the US election. This, coupled with the fact that voters’ online profiles are now harvested and used to nudge people to vote in a certain way by putting information on the candidate they “should” vote for on their social media platforms, undermines democracy.

Given these waves of political changes that have engulfed the globe, it is integral to interrogate our political system and assess the state of our democracy. In the toppling of the apartheid system, it was envisioned that South Africa’s democracy would be defined by national unity and that we would right the past’s injustices. Reality has undoubtedly seeped in, and we are now presented with a vastly different context, which undermines our democracy.

There was an expectation in 1994 that dismantling apartheid structures would somehow be equal to eradicating the vestiges of apartheid. We now know that our society, which is splintered by class, gender, and race, remains wounded and that our economy has not grown enough to deal with the problems of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. Now, we face a rising population and a shrinking economy. If we do not efficiently handle this problem, our country will increasingly become unstable, resulting in the dismantling of our nation-state’s very notion. South Africa’s predicted demise has spawned enough books to fill a small library. It is now abundantly clear that the odds are becoming stacked against our young republic.

As we find ourselves in the throes of uncertainty, as our battle against the coronavirus pandemic rages on and we try to salvage our economy, we are forced to introspect. Can we sustain ourselves on our current path? Is this our best possible iteration of national democracy?

The measure of democracy’s effectiveness is by how much it can solve the contradictions of unemployment, inequality, and poverty that plague our society. Here, our track record has not been promising. While we grapple with serious issues that go to the core of our community and speak to the sheer magnitude of transformation that is required at every tier of society, we must continue to robustly engage and interrogate critically on whether the road taken gives us the right journey for our people.

The Covid-19 pandemic has humbled us, and once again, as our society teeters on the brink of what seems to be economic collapse, this is the time for us to move beyond politicking and for our government to fulfill its obligation to the people. These are not questions of fitness to govern but are questions that speak to the deep moral purpose underpinning governance. Democracies accord citizens and those who govern with fundamental rights. A democracy that drifts from its moral compass is frightening to see and, if not arrested, it will crash.

As Chief Albert Luthuli once said, “I believe that here in South Africa, with all our diversities of colour and race; we will show the world a new pattern for democracy. There is a challenge for us to set a new example for all. Let us not side step this task.”

Have we failed to live up to this expectation, and will our democracy perish? Ultimately, the calamity of collapse is avoided through self-renewal. Every society needs to be agile and continuously change to survive and live up to new challenges. Therefore, it is up to us to ensure that our democracy survives by working hard and creating a new meritocratic society.

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