Well into its third decade of democracy, South Africa entered 2020 with a limp. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and its shutdowns began making most things worse (Roux, 2020), the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, also known as the Zondo Commission, was investigating large-scale corruption in government and private companies (Southhall, 2019). Lack of popular trust in the Public Protector, whose reports have been frequently contested in court, reached epic proportions as Parliament began steps to have her removed from office (Gerber, 2020). University protests dominated the news (Mahamba, 2020), and parliamentary disruptions and disorder remained a regular feature of the political landscape (Maqhina, 2020).
In March, the country slipped into an economic recession (Stats SA, 2020a), exacerbated by regular power outages thanks to Eskom, the failing national energy provider (Vollgraaff & Naidoo, 2020), and the financial drain of other unprofitable state-owned enterprises such as South African Airways, now under business rescue (Smith, 2020; Schulz-Herzenberg & Southhall, 2019). Unemployment rose to almost 40% (Dawson & Fouksman, 2020).
If South Africans were looking to political leaders for answers, they didn’t demonstrate that on Election Day 2019, which saw the lowest voter turnout (49% of the voting-age population) in any of the country’s six general elections since the end of apartheid in 1994 (Schulz- Herzenberg, 2019).
Are South Africans giving up on their democracy as a way to deliver both political goods (such as good governance and freedoms) and economic goods (such as poverty reduction and employment)1 that were part of post-apartheid expectations? Afrobarometer survey findings from mid-2018 show support for democracy weakening and acceptance of authoritarian alternatives growing. Many citizens see both freedoms and economic prospects as declining, and a solid majority remains willing to forego democratic elections in exchange for security, housing, and jobs. Findings suggest that South Africa was entering a democratic recession well before COVID-19.