The late Kader Asmal addresses a march of the Right 2 Know campaign in October 2010.When South Africans finally secured a democracy in 1994, it was only natural, after three hundred years of bitter struggles against apartheid and colonialism, for people to think: ‘At last. We have secured our rights. We can relax now.’

Unfortunately, the nature of human beings, of societies, and of power, is that the moment we start to take our rights for granted, they start to disappear. Sadly, the very nature of wealth and power is that it corrupts, makes people less empathetic and more callous.

In South Africa, we are fortunate to have a strong Constitution and many strong democratic institutions. We have an excellent foundation for a strong society. But it’s just a foundation – not a completed building. We are nowhere close to having institutions that are as responsive as those in societies like Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

We don’t have citizens that are as engaged and empowered as those in the United States.

Our political parties’ internal democracy could be much improved.

Women continue to struggle to be respected.

The media is consistently biased against trades unions and they struggle to get a proper hearing while corporate economists are treated as neutral and objective experts.

We may have political democracy, but we have very little economic democracy. That is to say, all too many people do not enjoy safe and dignified living and working conditions where their rights are respected, their voices heard and their work is proportionately and fairly remunerated. Our elites perpetuate the notion that their rent-seeking activities are a meaningful contribution to the economy, while business people who are interested not just in the bottom line but in creating social value struggle to get a footing.

We continue to be one of the most unequal societies in the world, where, broadly speaking, those who held economic privilege and power under apartheid continue to hold it, to the exclusion of others. They do this often without calculation, thought or consideration, but by default because privilege is just very easy to take for granted.

We’re living in a time when all this is happening not just in South Africa, but around the world. Social democracy is in retreat, and a selfish and ruthless flavour of capitalism is advancing, threatening the very future existence of human civilisation through the unthinking imposition of environmental destruction and climate change. In a catastrophic failure of collective imagination, and despite having hosted last year’s UN climate summit, our government still pays only lip service to that reality as its decision to license shale gas fracking demonstrates.

Our Constitution gives rights to future generations, but our heedless present consumption and over-exploitation of natural resources amounts to stealing from those generations.

In short, there’s a great deal of work still to be done in building a truly democratic and sustainable society, in which equality has real meaning, and the rights and needs of future generations are honoured.

Let’s start here and now

We can start by no longer thinking that the fading, aggressive democracies of the US and UK which are destroying the civil rights of their citizens and waging a largely blind and exaggerated ‘war on terror’ are a good example for us. They aren’t. Run by vicious and selfish elites, they’re appalling examples of democracy.

Instead, we can be inspired by Finland, where transparency is so comprehensive that everyone’s tax returns are in the public domain.

We can be inspired by Germany and New Zealand, advanced and respected countries that have already implemented the mixed member proportional electoral system that My Vote Counts is advocating for.

We can be inspired by Sweden and other Scandinavian countries where women lead safe and healthy lives and careers as largely equal citizens in both rhetoric and reality.

We can be inspired by Costa Rica, the world’s happiest country – which did away with its army 50 years ago, spent all the money on education and now aims to completely end its contributions to climate change, as are Norway and New Zealand.

We can be inspired by Ecuador, which is trying to find ways to leave its oil resources under ground and so avoid the destruction of its magnificent forests and avoid adding to climate change.

We can be inspired by Switzerland, which has one of the world’s most responsive and participatory democracies.

We can be inspired by Japan, the world’s most equal country, where corporate managers often choose to take pay cuts rather than fire workers.

We can be inspired by Brazil, which was one of the world’s most unequal countries, like us, but has now started to change that.

Let’s talk about it – do you think this assessment is too radical, too conservative – or spot on?

This post does not represent a formal position of the My Vote Counts campaign, just the opinion of one of its members.