The Shorthand of Electoral Democracy: Democracy for Some

By Ibrahim Steyn · 15 May 2008

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Picture credit: NOReilly
Picture credit: NOReilly

Democracy is often presented as an unproblematic concept ubiquitously associated with political competition between rival parties or candidates. Simply put, it’s about people’s ability to elect a political regime or leaders of their choice.

Such a neutral definition of democracy obscures issues of power and vested interests. Africa’s political elite, for example, have been perpetuating a client-patron model of politics inherited from their colonial predecessors. This has resulted in widespread corruption, opaque policy-making processes and unaccountable governance on the continent. Democracy has simply become a vehicle for the maintenance of elite dominance enabling easy access to the citadels of power for those with wealth and political connections.

In South Africa, the pre-1994 transitional process was embodied by a so-called democratic pact between the government in waiting and the white government at the time. Whilst this process ended with a political result, many analysts tend to discard the class compromises or economic concessions that were linked to the political negotiations. The details of the negotiations remain opaque.

Christi van der Westhuizen cogently makes the point in her seminal writing White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party that the pre-1994 negotiations was not only about creating the parameters for a Government of National Unity, but that it was also, at least from the side of the National Party (NP), to embed white economic power for the foreseeable future. She points out that F.W. De Klerk emphasised the role of the NP in contributing to the formulation of GEAR and supported its final approval because it reflected NP economic thinking.

The outcome has been a liberal democratic constitution with an economic policy vision laced with a programme of economic liberalisation, which disproportionately entrenches the mutual class interests of both the white and emerging black elite. The outcome of this scenario is that it has led to a form of democracy that has little relevance for  the majority of South Africa’s citizens.

The democratic game tends to be reduced by the power of entrenched elites and what is acceptable to these elites frequently provides the boundaries of democratic politics. It's unsurprising that the current electricity crisis is ubiquitously referred to as a "national emergency", while many of the country's poor have been without electricity since the advent of democracy and well before.

It's not too difficult to comprehend the depraved justice meted out to Mr. Phineas Johnson and his wife, Mrs. Maria Mnisi, by safety and security officials of the Soshanguve police station, as reported by the City Press on 23 March 2008. They were charged together with Mr. Fanie Hyman, who evicted them from his farm after the couple suffered multiple abuses for exhuming their baby’s body. Hyman got released on R1000 bail and Johnson and Mnisi remained in custody because they couldn’t afford their bail of R200 each.  Their ordeal is indicative of a democratic system of justice that capitulates to those with money and power, while being callous to the poor.

Democracy is inherently about power and interest. While electoral democracy may create a platform for poor people to demand rights, realising them is inconceivable in an environment of economic inequality and asymmetries of power.

The main fault line of procedural approaches to democracy is that it obscures the influences of power and interest on meanings of democracy. While concerned with equal legal and formal rights, the extent to which these rights can be realised is underplayed.

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