Deepening and broadening democracy in South Africa

Arguing for a return to popular agency, popular organisation, popular initiatives and empowerment as a way of broadening and deepening our democracy does not imply that representative democracy – having the right to vote periodically – is of no value.

It is true that historically representative democracy was introduced to limit the role of the popular, and equally true that some writers regard the words “representative democracy” as a contradiction in terms.

This is because the concept of democracy in itself, in its original meaning, refers to the people ruling, not others representing them in order to rule.

That may be the case but history has evolved, and representative democracy has, in some contexts including South Africa, represented an advance compared with what existed before.

While representative democracy may not be ideal compared with some of the experiences of direct democratic initiatives that have been seen in our own country, it is nevertheless better than military or apartheid rule.

In our case apartheid signified the denial of rights to the majority of the population, including disenfranchisement.

Whites, in contrast, enjoyed all the trappings of representative democracy (commonly referred to as liberal democracy, though it is not only liberals who practise it).

They enjoyed this democracy in the face of and on the backs of the oppression of black people who experienced hardships in all aspects of their lives.

For that reason “one man (person) one vote” was a crucial demand and there were songs at the time of the Freedom Charter in the 1950s that conveyed this.[1]

In 1985, the author of this column  interviewed the late Ma Dorothy Nyembe – who spent 18 years in prison and had been mentored by Chief Albert Luthuli – she sat on the grass at Phoenix settlement outside Durban, which was originally established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1904. She told me: “All the demands of the Charter point straight to parliament.”

She then sang:

Chief Luthuli, Dr Naicker (three times)

Yibona ‘bonsimel’ epalamende

These will represent us in parliament.

Dr Dadoo umhol’wethu (three times)

Dr Dadoo is our leader

Uyena ozosihol’ epalamende

Will lead us in parliament

Dr Dadoo umhol’ wethu (three times)

Dr Dadoo our leader

Uyena ozosihol’ sisepalamende

He’s the one to lead us in parliament.[2]

Chief Albert Luthuli was the ANC president from 1952 until his death in 1967, Dr Monty Naicker was the Natal Indian Congress leader from the 1940s and Dr Yusuf Dadoo was head of the Transvaal Indian Congress from the 1940s and later South African Communist Party Chairperson until his death in 1983.

It is significant that this song joins African and Indian leaders, given that it was only a short while after the 1949 African/Indian conflict in then Natal that saw the loss of many lives.

This is a tribute to the work of Luthuli and Naicker, in particular, in building non-racialism in the province.

In the current constitutional order all adults have the right to vote but insofar as we wish this experience to be as democratic as possible and not simply periodic voting, we need to interrogate how it can work in a manner that is as empowering as possible to those who are “represented”.

In the first place, our constitution and the rules of parliament make provision for popular involvement in lawmaking; there is space for objections to laws and other matters to be raised exactly so that the “voice of the people” can be part of the process.

This does not always work effectively; as many who are adversely affected by laws do not have the resources to intervene effectively.

Many do not understand legal technicalities and have no access to the specialists who could help them do so. Or when the specialists do assist them they solve the problem on their behalf, that is, without the popular role, the voice of the people most affected, being part of the process. Instead there is a technical intervention of specialists.

We know, however, that there are some Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and research institutes that work with communities in order to marry the expertise of the specialists to the experience of the communities who experience hardship.

That way of working is one of the ways in which the voice of the masses is heard in democratic lawmaking (or the prevention of those that are anti-popular).

And for that to be meaningful it needs to be deepened and broadened through transmission of skills to communities and their organisations.

That way they understand very well how they are affected by laws that are presented as being in their interest but in fact are aimed at denying what they need or undermining what they value.

When Dorothy Nyembe and others sang of being represented by their revered leaders they saw these leaders as embodying a close relationship with the communities they were from.

They saw them as embodying the aspirations of the oppressed.   They understood there to be a connection between themselves and those who went to parliament, a bond that would not be broken once these people entered the lawmaking chambers to represent them. They trusted them and had no reason to doubt that the trust would be respected.

The notion of representation, John Hoffman and Paul Graham argue, “involves empathy – the capacity to put yourself in the position of another – and while it is impossible to actually be another person, it is necessary to imagine what it is like to be another”.

This notion of representation accords with that of connectedness and solidarity, acting with compassion and passion in relation to those who need one’s assistance or whom one has the capacity to assist.

Furthermore, they stress that in this relationship of representation, accountability is central and they also link it to parliament itself being representative of the various components of the population:

“Accountability is ‘the other side’ of representation: one without the other descends into either impracticality or elitism.

The notion of empathy points to the need for a link between representatives and constituents. Unless representatives are in some sense a reflection of the population at large, it is difficult to see how empathy can take place.

Women who have experienced oppression by men (or partners) at first hand, are more likely to have insight into the problems women face than men who – however sympathetic they may be – may have never been the recipients of that particular form of discrimination. The same is true of ethnic and sexual minorities, etc…..”

For those who argue for direct democracy, as I do, Hoffman and Graham caution that participation need not mean that it can only happen through direct involvement in political processes.

“Direct involvement needs to be linked to representation, and it is worth noting that in the ancient Greek polis – often held up as an example of direct democracy – the assembly elected an executive council.”[3]

It has been repeatedly noted that trust in the current leaders who represent voters in parliament has been abused; they have failed to act according to their oath of office and to hold people, including the president, accountable, as well as acting irregularly in a range of other ways.

It is important in this context that as citizens we do not lapse into despair but clarify precisely what it is that is needed and assert the ways in which we can play a role in redirecting what has currently gone in a direction so different from that which many had hoped.

Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former ANC underground operative and served over 11 years as a political prisoner and under house arrest. He has recently published Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana Media, 2015).

On Twitter @raymondsuttner

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za

[1] The Freedom Charter was adopted by the Congress of the People in 1955 after a campaign lasting over a year, where demands of ordinary people, from all over South Africa, were included. The document was adopted before a multi-racial crowd of 3000 people

[2] In Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, 30 Years of the Freedom Charter. Ravan Press, pp. 252-3. (I do not use the later edition, 50 years of the Freedom Charter, Unisa Press: 2006, because it contains errors in the isiZulu).

[3] Introduction to Political Theory. 2 ed. Pearson Longman: London. 2009, p. 110