On Democracy

By Richard Pithouse · 24 May 2011

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Picture: Darryn van der Walt
Picture: Darryn van der Walt

Elections can be of critical importance but they’re not always all that they’re cracked up to be. No one who has lived under a dictatorship or entrenched corruption would ever dismiss the right to vote in a free and fair election as trivial. Elections like, for instance, the one that brought Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1932, can be decisive political events.

But while Emma Goldman’s famous observation that “If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal” looks more than a little silly in the midst of those elections in which there are real stakes for society, there are many elections in which it has more than a grain of truth. There is often a degree to which elections function as a public ritual that serves to legitimate the power of elites more than to offer any realistic prospect for ordinary people to challenge them. 

The ‘established democracies’, which are supposed to be the horizon of our democratic aspirations, are often two party systems in which the electoral system, along with civil society and the media, are so distorted by the influence of money that voters are usually only able to choose between competing factions of the elite. There are many countries where no party can be a serious player without massive financial backing.

And many of the ‘established democracies’ are also imperial states that have no compunction about denying people in subordinate countries the right to freely elect their representatives. From Chile in 1973 to contemporary Haiti, the right to vote for the party of your choice has not extended to the right to vote for a party not approved of by the USA and its allies. But coups are not the only response to processes of popular and often highly democratic forms of political empowerment that threaten elite interests. It’s not unusual for the narrow version of democracy that takes the form of class rule mediated and legitimated via elections, civil society and courts without any real openings for direct popular participation to be deployed, precisely, as a reaction to popular mobilisation.

Every time South Africans go to the polls we’re subject to an incredible degree of mystification that presents the secular act of voting as a sacred ritual and invests it with all kinds of magical powers that it manifestly lacks. We’re told that if you don’t vote you can’t complain which is patently not true. Some of the most organised and effective complainers are organisations that boycott elections. We’re told that voting is a way of conveying our particular concerns upwards when in fact, unlike other forms of political activity, there’s no clear way to read the intention behind an individual vote. One person may vote for the ANC out of enthusiastic support for its steady degeneration into an increasingly demagogic and self-serving authoritarianism. The person behind her in the queue may cast the same vote but with a heavy heart and the real sense that this is the last time that she will give her support to the party if its degeneration continues. One person may vote for the DA out of racism and another in the hope of more efficient service delivery in a shack settlement. 

We’re told that voting is all about making our own choice when in fact it is, in most cases, a very limited choice between two competing factions of the elite that are equally invested in scaling back people’s legitimate aspirations for a just society into an insanely unequal society contained with state violence, new forms of spatial segregation and ‘service delivery’. At its best ‘service delivery’ may be considerably better than nothing but surviving with a child support grant, a toilet and a prepaid water meter in a tiny RDP house that’s falling apart in the middle of nowhere is not exactly concrete confirmation that South Africa really belongs to all who live in it. It would be entirely perverse to present this as the realisation of the social justice envisaged in some of the strands of the struggles against apartheid.

We’re told that voting is the central act of good citizenship when in fact patient labour on a school governing body, or a direct challenge to racism, homophobia or the renascent xenophobia of the Greater Gauteng Business Forum, is likely to be a far more effective contribution. We’re told, relentlessly if implicitly, that the form of electoral democracy that we have is democracy when in fact it is a very limited form of democracy and one which is systemically weighted towards elite interests. We’re told that so many people struggled with so much courage for so many years for this democracy when, plainly, there are significant ways in which this democracy is a betrayal of those struggles.

Examples of the ways in which voting is spun into an act with all kinds of significance that it clearly doesn’t hold can be multiplied with ease. But in a country that was founded on racialised conquest, dispossession and exploitation, and which remains profoundly structured in inequality, the ritual of voting is an attractive one in that, in that moment, every person’s inscription on their ballot paper counts as one. The fact that neither of the two parties in our emerging two party system has any commitment, at all, to building a society in which each person counts as one in day to day life doesn’t mean that, as with a carnival, there is not something attractive and valuable about the moment of exception. And, of course, it’s true that when a ruling party is willing to accept defeat at the polls the prospect of losing power can and does discipline some of its more obviously anti-social tendencies from below. It’s equally clear that without the prospect of losing support at the ballot box the excesses of both the ANC and the DA would be more extreme. Neither party is likely to build more open toilets.

But these facts should not lead us to uncritically conclude that with each passing election democracy is, as the cliché goes, consolidating in South Africa. Both the ANC and the DA are committed to a top down and authoritarian mode of development planned by experts rather than attempts to democratise governance and enable the meaningful participation of ordinary people in decision-making. In fact, both parties habitually respond to popular challenges to the service delivery model, a model that requires citizens to become endlessly patient and passive recipients of services delivered from above, with state violence rather than negotiation.

In the days before the election the DA was sending out the police to deal with the land occupation in Tafelsig in Cape Town. Two days after the election the ANC was evicting, illegally, in Cato Manor in Durban. The rapid slide into the language of authoritarian populism in the ANC is entirely anti-democratic. There are some places where the party’s direct or tacit support for outright thuggery against attempts at organising outside of party control have reached the point at which it would be both empirically erroneous and ethically irresponsible to refer to the party as a democratic organisation.

The popular ferment that characterised this election took the form of struggles within the party, boycotts, decisions to run independent candidates and, in some places, a degree of movement from the ANC to the DA. All of these cracks slowly spreading across the hegemony of the ANC are certainly significant. But we need to bring the same attention to the practice of democracy outside of the electoral arena that we bring to elections. For as long as we continue to fetishise elections as democracy rather than understanding that they are just one part of our limited form of democracy our public conversation will be unable to comprehend the full significance of the competing responses to the failures of our democracy to realise the legitimate aspirations of the majority.

One response, typified by people like Julius Malema and Nceba Faku, is a move to a demagogic and authoritarian populism that is clearly and unashamedly anti-democratic. Another, supported by the DA and some strands in the ANC, is to use the courts and state violence to defend the sole right of technocrats allied to political and commercial elites to govern society. This is democratic in that it accepts that elites must accept the results of elections, but it is a mode of democracy that is so elitist that it has no prospects for redeeming the popular hopes that have been invested in our democracy. A third response is made up of various attempts, many of them under siege, to deepen and expand democracy by organising and empowering ordinary people against the elites in the party, state, civil society and business.

Elections are not irrelevant to the contestation between these different responses to the failures of our democracy but they are certainly only one part of the story.

And while there could come a time when an election is a decisive event in our society, it could also well be the case that our future is shaped to a greater degree by the vigorous contestation already under way outside of electoral politics than it is by any election.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Mark Peach
23 May

Some Sense

At last, someone with sense. If only the media would take the time to speak with you, we'd be able to enjoy a decent debate about our democracy and not the drivel handed out to them in press releases and reproduced in daily and weekly editions.

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Jim Powell
23 May

5 Year Dictatorship

Brilliant piece of writing.

Voters are:
1. Employers of the politicians. Voters decide who gets employed by voting.
2. Shareholders in the local council, Province and South Africa. 1 vote = 1 share.
3. Customers paying for services

How did we get it wrong?

Jim Powell

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Everywoman Verified user
23 May

Manufactured Consent

Excellent commentary about the "manufactured consent" (Chomsky) we have in SA that the system of government here is actually a democracy. Sadly, this is a message so few seem willing to hear - and the power elites fight to prevent it from being heard in every way that they can.

Lee Cahill
Joburg Advocacy Group

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