Balancing power is key to our democracy
Martin Plaut, co-author with Paul Holden of Who Rules South Africa, described our country this week as "democratish".
We have all the trappings of democracy, except a history or prospect of regular changes of government.
Holden, also speaking at the South African launch of the book in East London on Monday, noted in a different phase of the lively public conversation about their ideas, that we are witnessing in Europe right now the proof that the free market is not, as economists have promised for years, actually self-correcting.
Is our democracy, like the eurozone economy, destined to drown in debt, albeit political, that will have to be repaid by our heirs?
Or dare we hope that it is self-correcting?
Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy appear destined to mortgage their futures to the centralised banks and the more robust economies that have the capital to get them through the current lean times.
They are unable to say no to citizens who have become used to a relative comfort zone and appear willing to gamble the entire future of Europe to help them towards their own short-term horizons.
Which is not unlike the political scenario here in South Africa.
Some astute fiscal management and our physical inability to spend money as fast as some would have had us do, have protected us to a degree from the profligacy that threatens now to ruin Europe.
But there has been no such restraint in the political marketplace.
Plaut and Holden took some flak for failing explicitly to answer the question posed on the cover of their book.
"On the face of it, the answer to the question Who Rules South Africa is self-evident: it is the ANC. The ANC does not rule alone, however, and does not rule untrammelled," they say in the final chapter.
It is those partners in power that the book really is about, ranging from the ANC's alliance partners to the Constitutional Court, empowered black business leaders, criminal syndicates and local gangs, who influence the ruling party at every level, from the local municipality handing out minor service contracts to national departments offering tenders for proposed nuclear power stations.
Mcebisi Ndletyana of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection argued in the same debate that the matrix of power was even more complex than the authors had described, with contesting factions in the party and in society putting a brake on the excesses of political arrogance.
Where Plaut and Holden cited examples of the security establishment being coopted and the watchdog institutions created under chapter nine of the constitution being reined in, Ndletyana pointed to cases where such interventions had been successfully thwarted by civic action or rival factions.
Plaut cited criminal influence on government as seen in the cases of Schabir Shaik, Brett Kebble and Jackie Selebi and threats to the independence of the courts.
Ndletyana countered that the serial appointments and dismissals of senior officials at the SABC was just one example of how factions and society still prevent an unhealthy monopoly on power.
That is the self-correcting democracy we need at work, and there have been signs recently that it is functioning at least to some degree.
But, as I have argued in this space before, and, as Plaut also saw it, the balancing mechanisms of South Africa's democracy are being thwarted by the pre-elective coalition engineered by the ANC to tie in the power of labour and the intellectual weight of the SACP.
The tripartite alliance serves its members in power, but not its members in society.
Because the interests of the office bearers align, they will club together to challenge everything that challenges them - principally the courts, the institutions of oversight from parliament and the public protector to the auditor-general and, of course, the media.
It has been game on for a while now in this conflict and the stakes rise every day that we get closer first to the ANC's policy conference at the end of this month and then to the decisive five-yearly conference at Mangaung in December.
Whichever group wins power in Mangaung will get to write the rules at least for the next five years, and we have seen from recent behaviour within the ANC and the alliance that the ideological imperative that delivered democracy now exists only in rhetoric, to be used at the convenience of the players in pursuit of their personal and very short-term goals.
If our democracy was based on public contest between the major political and social forces - the ANC, Cosatu, the SACP and the Democratic Alliance - we almost certainly would end up with the same coalition in power after the 2014 elections.
But the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP would defend their positions on public platforms before the vote and would then have to negotiate a formal coalition based on compromises captured in a written contract.
The smaller partners would have influence beyond the campaigns where their only voice is now.
The political debts would be between parties rather than within parties, between structures rather than between individuals and possibly more visible to citizens on the streets.
If power was more balanced, we would not eliminate corruption.
Deals for support would still be struck then as they are now, but the relationship between representatives and voters would be closer and the role of political and financial benefactors would be somewhat constrained.
The self-correcting mechanisms of democracy would be able to function more nearly as intended by many, if not all, of those who sat around tables between 1994 and 1996 to write the rules of our freedom.
And, with the prospect of changes in government, we would be democratic and not just democratish.