We Need a Properly Democratic Defence of Democracy

By Richard Pithouse · 26 Aug 2010

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Picture: Teamquitter
Picture: Teamquitter

Democracy is...the action that constantly wrests the monopoly of public life from oligarchic government. - Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, 2006.

Now that the African National Congress has issued a clear declaration of its intent to roll back media freedom in the name of the people, civil society is scurrying around like a disturbed ant’s nest.

But as it rallies to the blogs, op-ed pages and debates in the higher reaches of the public sphere to defend its freedoms, we should recall that, with important exceptions, it has shown little interest in the ANC’s routine, systemically unlawful, often violent and occasionally murderous hostility to various attempts to develop an independent politics of the poor.

The same is true, again with important exceptions, of much of the media itself. Since at least 2004, grassroots activists have often been subject to the same sort of crude performance of intimidatory state power as Mzilikazi wa Afrika has recently endured without the bulk of the press or civil society being scandalised.

The fact that liberal democratic principles have been inscribed on our statute books since 1994 and in our constitution since 1996 doesn’t mean that we all magically became democrats at the moment when Nelson Mandela took the oath of office. Mainstream discussion of this reality has tended to assume that the new order is perfectly, even magnificently democratic, and to focus on the anti-democratic habits that various social forces brought into the new arena from their pasts. For instance in the mid 1990s the ANC often pointed to the racism which was certainly rank in some of the press at that time. Liberals have often pointed to the Stalinist and authoritarian nationalist currents within the ANC itself.

But the new order was not a realisation of the highest democratic aspirations of the struggle or an institutionalisation of the best democratic practices developed in the struggle.

From the 1970s, black trade unions had become important sites for experiments in direct democracy and by the mid 1980s the same was true of many of the civics affiliated to the United Democratic Front. But the price of entry into the new order was, as has been typical in post-colonial societies, the demobilisation of the popular struggles that had brought it into being. The people were, in Frantz Fanon’s phrase, sent back to their caves.

Democracy, which had often been envisaged as a daily practice of ordinary people - carried out where they lived, worked and studied - was largely reduced to a spectacle legitimated by the ritual of voting. This is not to say that the right to choose a government by popular ballot is unimportant. But when, for most people, participation in democracy is principally reduced to voting, elite interests will be systemically privileged in the name of the people as a whole.

This is compounded by the gathering complicity between various elite social forces, including much of the academy, the media and NGO based civil society, as well as a consensus that reaches across the political parties, that poses technocratic efficiency as the solution to the failure of our democracy to address the aspirations of the majority. Of course, corruption needs to be opposed and the government does need to work efficiently. But when deeply political questions of social justice are presented as mere questions of efficiency they are taken out of the hands of ordinary people and given over to experts. 

Helen Zille and Jacob Zuma are equally enthusiastic partisans of this rush to remove the discussion of important social questions from the public sphere. When this succeeds, attempts to raise political questions, like what constitutes a living wage or whether violent forced removals to the urban periphery should really be considered as ‘housing delivery’, can easily start to be presented as sabotaging ‘development’, ‘delivery’ or the 'national interest'.

Those who assume that articles in the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times about our return to the dark ages or a chilling assault on our press will raise the international alarm in defence of our democracy are forgetting that Washington and London are quite happy to work with authoritarian regimes that help to full their coffers and protect their interests. And if they do get queasy Beijing and Dubai will not.

The higher courts are an important bulwark against a government aiming to roll back liberal democracy in favour of a more authoritarian crony capitalism, but they are hardly inviolable or as we have seen, immune to slow containment via machinations from above. Moreover, although courts are equally accessible to everyone in principle, access costs money and so, in practice, they are far more accessible to elites than to ordinary people.

One of the great myths of the post-cold war era has been that NGO based civil society is automatically a democratic force that represents the will of the people. NGOs sometimes do important work and they sometimes make important interventions in the public sphere, but, unless they are membership based, they cannot be assumed to be an expression of the popular will that can substitute for attempts by people to represent themselves. NGO based civil society may be able to slow down the slide towards a more authoritarian society, but on its own, it doesn’t have the political power or popular legitimacy to successfully defend liberal democracy over the long haul.

In some quarters it’s assumed that the professional left outside of the ANC carries the true spirit of what was most noble in the struggles against apartheid. There are cases where there is some truth to this. But much of this left is a rival elite, rather than a popular force that draws its limited power from donor as opposed to popular support. It is often technocratic rather than democratic in orientation, and in some cases, it carries a tendency to authoritarianism and paranoia in the face of popular political innovation that rivals that of the ANC.

Democracy will only be successfully defended in South Africa if ordinary people have the same right as anyone else to, in practice as well as in principle, own and shape the public sphere that gives it life. But many of the official custodians of our liberal democracy find the idea of poor people having an equal right to the public sphere threatening, fantastical or comical. A recent article on a debate on media freedom at the University of Johannesburg reported that:

SA National Editors' Forum media freedom committee chairperson Thabo Leshilo said there was overwhelming opposition to the MAT (Media Appeals Tribunal), and more support for free speech in the country. "There were concerns not only from the media, but from as far as Abahlali baseMjondolo (a shack dwellers' organisation) and the homeless supporting the media on this one," Leshilo said, to much laughter.

When participants at a meeting on media freedom assume that the carefully discussed support of an organised poor people’s movement for media freedom is comic, they are defending oligarchy, the rule of the few, and not democracy, the rule of the people.

It is inevitable that a liberal oligarchy talking the language of abstract rights will eventually crumble in the face of a sustained assault from a nationalist oligarchy talking the language of the concrete interests of the people. The only defence of democracy that has any realistic chance of success is one that is genuinely democratic and that means that it must be of, by and for the people as a whole.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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27 Aug


While the advantages of free market and capitalism are trumpeted by the political elite, the economic elite and most of the white
middleclass, it is perhaps prudent to demonstrate how the Apartheid

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Rory Short
28 Aug

Spot On

Richard your political analysis seems absolutely spot on to me as does NS's comparison of the present regime's economic policies with the economic policies, stripped of their racist component, of the Apartheid regime.

I am a practicing Quaker. We have since our inception more than 300 years ago, been a wholly democratic organisation both in theory and in practice. For example a decision does not exist unless there is 100% acceptance of that decision by all members of the community present in the meeting where the decision is taken. We have no hierarchy of officers. Officers of the Society are appointed on an annual basis by 100% acceptance by the members present in the meeting which appoints them. As country we in South Africa have a flawed understanding of democracy in practice.

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30 Aug

Quarkerism Sounds Just Like Abahlalism!

Democracy must be owned by the people and not the politicians. It must moved from the ground up and not the top down. It must be something that you do, not something that you watch from far away.


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