The Threat to Democracy Can Also Come from Other Quarters

By Leonard Gentle · 14 Dec 2011

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Picture: World Economic Forum/Flickr
Picture: World Economic Forum/Flickr

First they came for Papandreou - and I didn't speak out because I thought the Greeks are just lazy tax-dodgers.
Then they came for Berlusconi - and I didn't speak out because I thought he was just a racist and sexist old roué.
Then they came for Zuma - and I didn't speak out because he can’t apply his mind, and he’s still running the show.
Then they took away my vote - and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Some may feel that it may be a stretching it a bit to compare Pastor Martin Niemöller’s heartfelt reminder of the insidious way we can become complicit with fascism with the growing way we are invited to disdain democracy under the cover of exposing venal politicians, but recent events in the European Union (EU) tell us otherwise. And these threats also have resonance here in South Africa.

The court ruling that President Jacob Zuma “could not have applied his mind” in his appointment of Menzi Simelane as head of Public Prosecutions has strengthened perceptions that democracy is under threat. His appointment of Willem Heath to replace Willie Hofmeyer is further evidence of Zuma surrounding himself with toadies whilst his securocrats champion a new veil of secrecy under the banner of the Protection of Information Bill, otherwise known as the “Secrecy Bill”. 

And so when Zuma and ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, raise the question of the courts becoming the new opposition to the ruling party, then the hysteria level amongst certain sections of the public goes up, as the picture of a growing threat to democracy becomes clearer.

Two things need to be said about this however: One is that democracy should not be viewed a la Fukuyama’s End of History or the World Bank’s approach as a set of prescriptions, which simply code what a democracy is, “finish and klaar”. Instead it is a matter of constant contestation in which ordinary people either actively engage in and expand its terrain - or their power and choices become more and more constrained by powerful and vested elites (whatever the institutions and constitutions, which apparently codify their rights).

But, secondly, whilst Zuma’s coterie of sycophants and the Secrecy Bill are threats to democracy, there are also threats coming from an entirely different quarter – one which we are all being uncritically invited to be part of. This is the notion that elected politicians are simply not fit to govern and that technical experts and bewigged judges are better.

Elsewhere in the world, we are seeing an attack on democracy of historic proportions and yet it goes on insidiously – like Niemöller’s reflections on Nazism - under the rubric of something apparently so rational: “doing what is necessary to satisfy the markets”.

There is a business media war on “politicians”, which echoes that of the ratings agencies and economists’ attacks on venal politicians. Suddenly politicians are the ones responsible for the crisis!

Of course everyone hates politicians, but what does this mean for democracy?

There are two possible trajectories here. One is to seek ways to expand public power and accountability over politicians, and the other is to dispense with politicians and any semblance of democracy at all, and merely hand over all decision-making to the bankers and let Goldman Sachs, technocrats and economists run the show.

This latter trajectory is the story today of the EU and the rise of the “technocrats” into power in Greece and Italy where unelected people, ex-bankers, carry out the wishes of banks and fund managers against whatever electorates may have voted for.

French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel have just succeeded in getting 26 members of the EU to agree to revise the Lisbon treaty. Britain’s Prime Minister, Cameron, opted out because British politics is all about protecting its bankers and speculators who occupy the financial square mile in London known as The City.

In terms of their plans, the European Commission will be empowered to impose austerity measures on Eurozone members that are being bailed out, usurping the functions of government in countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Bailed out countries can also be stripped of their voting rights in the EU, under the proposals.

The European Central Bank (ECB) will now be able to act in Europe like the IMF used to act in Africa – effectively become the force of governance, whilst leaving local politicians with being little more than rentiers and ceremonial figureheads. The ECB is effectively an arm of German and French interests, which is why Cameron could not countenance subjecting The City to its regulation.

No one knows, or cares what the French, German, Italian, Greek or British people think about this.

When a new EU constitution was first mooted, countries like France, Ireland and Holland had the boldness to say that they would submit the draft to referenda in their countries, to actually ask the people what they wanted. When the vote was overwhelmingly a rejection, the whole enterprise was threatened.

So this time there is no talk of consulting the masses. It’s an exercise that, of course, would never “satisfy the markets”. This is what outgoing Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, discovered when he spoke about having a referendum to find out whether the Greek public actually agreed with the idea that they must privatise utilities, cut hospitals and schools so that the bankers can get a return on their gambling in the bond market. That was the end of his political career.

Today Greece is a vassal state of Germany and the ECB, acting on behalf of the speculators who bought Greek bonds, but who are now deemed to be “too big to fail".

Meanwhile Mario Monti, the new, unelected, Prime Minister of Italy and former ECB technocrat - in the same year that a referendum in Italy gave an overwhelming no vote when the disgraced Berlusconi conducted a referendum on these matters - has just announced a new raft of measures under which people will work longer, pay more VAT and public services are cut and privatised.

The thrust of the responses to the global crisis of capitalism so far is not only more of the same – the consolidation of the banks and the rating agencies and their tame right wing economists that got us into the mess in the first place - but also a war on whatever imperfect forms of democracy have existed up to now.

Instead of the crisis providing a basis for seeking alternatives to capitalism and expanding the terrain of democracy we are seeking the opposite, not because there is a lack of ideas globally to do anything different but because there is as yet no social force, which can compel the elites to do anything different.

Of course such a social force is being re-born. The Latin American social movement tide of the noughties has jumped continents and we now see the ongoing Arab Spring of Tunisia and Egypt and its power to challenge long-entrenched elites. Elsewhere the indignant of Spain and Greece and the Occupy Wall Street movements are part of the same tide of public engagement.

But this is a movement still far from directly challenging the citadels of power. This is a movement rising up out of the ashes of decades of defeat since the 1980s, a period of mass disaffection with politics and neo-liberal triumphalism masquerading as common sense.

Even in Egypt that movement is finding that the enemy is hydra-like, with the toppling of Mubarak yielding the equally violent military and the first elections throwing up religious zealots. And so while the movement is growing, its transformative possibilities are still the music of the future.

Meanwhile the global economic crisis is leading not so much to new forms of public power and popular accountability, but to rule by technocrats, with a compliant business media happy to serve as cheer leaders.

This has its South African echoes. Already we are one of the few countries in the world with a privatised independent Reserve Bank making decisions on public wellbeing. Already whilst there are ongoing public criticisms of Zuma’s democratic credentials, Pravin Gordhan’s decisions are unquestioned. While there was a justifiable outcry against the Information Bill not having a public interest clause there was no clamour for such a public interest provision when the Competition Commission gave its go-ahead for Wal-Mart to muscle into South Africa. The media were aghast that politicians should interfere in a business deal.

Back to Zuma who “could not have applied his mind” in the appointment of Simelane and the statements by Mantashe about the courts becoming the new opposition. This has resulted in much rallying behind the courts and the perception that Mantashe’s comments are entirely threatening to democracy.

In this scenario, the Constitution and courts are seen to be inviolate, experts in the field, the final moral arbiter. But this is factually incorrect. The courts only arbitrate against the law as the yardstick and the Constitutional Court only pronounces in respect of the Constitution, while the Constitution derives its authority from a particular balance of forces in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Back then, lest we forget, we had a mass movement that had the moral legitimacy without the capacity to overthrow apartheid, whilst the apartheid regime had lost moral authority but continued to have the violent power of repression. Out of that configuration flowed the best of the Constitution and the pre-eminence of the Constitutional Court as the final arbiter. But out of the same configuration flowed the checks and balances on democracy and redistribution that the old order wanted – heightened provincial powers, the obligation to honour apartheid debt, corporations as juristic persons etc. Much of the acting out of that balance was to be the subject of actual judicial decisions – which meant that the staffing of the judiciary, particularly in the Constitutional Court was going to be critical. Which is why we had a mix of human rights and struggle-aligned lawyers - fortunately the one’s appointed into the Constitutional Court - within a pool of apartheid jurors and Bantustan prosecutors in other courts.

Now, we are witnessing the end of that phase of human rights lawyers. People like Edwin Cameron and Arthur Chaskalson have made way for the emergence of those who have no human rights backgrounds but who earned their spurs in the institutions of apartheid, such as Llewellyn Landers and Mogoeng Mogoeng. Will these be the new arbiters of morality in the land?

With all these caveats it is an important democratic victory that we have the forms of protection against state abuse of citizens that the courts can offer. But the democracy of a truly engaged people should be the highest form of protection, as well as the possibilities of popular power.

If the choice is between flawed and venal elected politicians and sophisticated technocrats satisfying the markets, I’m for the politicians any day.

In this sense, Mantashe is right. In the absence of an effective political opposition to the ANC - not an opposition which positions itself even more on the side of technocrats and satisfying the markets (which, given that these are also the ANC government’s pre-occupations) is no opposition at all - there is a growing middle class tide of celebrating the courts as the bastion of defence of democracy. This hides the real cause of the problem.

This vacuum is a challenge to all of us. Instead of seeking technocratic and judicial saviours, we need to accept responsibility for the current unchallenged status of the ANC and for the compliant nature of its alliance partners, and build a new movement of expanded democracy.

There was an old struggle slogan that used to be shouted at the funerals of activists killed by the apartheid forces: Don’t mourn…mobilise!

That has never been more apt now.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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13 Dec

Excellent Piece

An acute analysis.

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14 Dec


We fool ourselves that we have a democracy at the moment. I think we need to start by exposing the intrinsic imperfections first. Once the illusion of democracy is shattered, the populace may see the urgent need for action (mobilisation). The press hails the court victories as proof that we have a democracy. Similarly they highlight the opposition to the info bill as protecting our democracy, again giving credence to this illusion. In the USA a multi trillion dollar relief package for business is passed using tax payers money while simultaneously announcing cut backs in social services. Yet no public outcry! All these "comonly accepted drivel" such as the need for foreign investment for growth as the only way to relieve joblessness, we have the vote therefore we have democracy, the bankers have the right to profits .... need to be exposed!!

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12935 Verified user
14 Dec

Corrupt and Incompetent Government

Politicians can see no further than the next election and when they have conned (at huge cost) the gullible masses into voting them into power, they spend too much of their time and our resources hanging on to that power at all costs. Big Business can see no further than the next dividend, huge bonuses for themselves and maximum profits for the shareholders. This when we are desperate for leaders who can see far over the horizon.

Both the politicians and captains of industry are focused on selfish and short term gains for themselves at the expense of long term stability and prosperity for all. And so we will continue to stagger from one crisis to the next, applying piece-meal expedients which merely buy time until the next crises. Is it any wonder that we are now suffering a major economic crisis after decades of mismanagement? This is probably what Marx meant when he said

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Sefu Sekgala
17 Dec


Opposition politicians must find other ways that would shift the electoral power in South Africa.

They must seek to attain the majority in Parliament.

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11 Jan

Freedom of Expression

To all those media free speechers, can I read this comment in tomorrow's daily newspapers please!!

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