In Search of a Bulwark against the Steady Drift from Democracy

By Richard Pithouse · 9 Feb 2012

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Jacob Zuma has often been presented as an avuncular man who needs to stop dithering and get on with the business of governing. But the trajectory of the ANC under Zuma is actually very clear. From the fascination with the authoritarian capitalism of China to the return to brutal methods of policing, the nature of the attacks on the media, the judiciary and civil society, the escalation of the powers and role of the intelligence agencies and the increasingly brazen repression of grassroots activists and organisations the drift towards a more authoritarian order is clear. This drift is being accompanied by an increasingly strident critique of the liberal democratic arrangements on which the post-apartheid order was founded.

If the ANC's critique of liberal democracy was accompanied by attempts to deepen democracy by, for instance, decommodifiying electoral politics and access to the courts, enabling participatory budgeting, supporting independent community media and encouraging independent popular organisation, its position would be credible. But given that its critique of liberal democracy is being accompanied by a shift in power to securocrats rather than popular forces, and repression rather than opening, its opposition to liberal democracy can only be understood as anti-democratic.

Since the inauguration of the Constitutional Court, commentators have tended to assume that it was the primary guarantor of the democratic gains won at the end of apartheid. But the recent actions of the ANC have made it clear that the independence and power of the Court is not constituted on its own foundations and is ultimately contingent on the indulgence of the ruling party. The ANC's claim that what some of its leaders have, for years, been calling a 'judicial dictatorship' is exercised in defence of privilege and against a progressive government is straightforwardly Orwellian spin. It’s true that people and organisations with more money have privileged access to the courts. But while neither the Constitutional Court nor its judgments are uniformly progressive its attempts to infuse some grace and elegance into the business of governing has plainly taken the dignity of ordinary South Africans, and especially poor South Africans, more seriously than the ANC.

The Democratic Alliance likes to present itself as the liberal alternative that will hold fast to the constitutional order. There are two problems with this. The first is that the DA are not genuine liberals. They, just like the ANC, are perfectly willing to act violently and unlawfully to contain the urban poor spatially and politically and to respond to critique on this score with self-serving spin rather than reasoned debate grounded in empirical reality. From the attack on the Macassar Village land occupation in 2009 to the evictions in Hangberg in September 2010, to the astonishingly authoritarian response to the recent attempt to stage a symbolic occupation of the Rondebosch Common, the underside of the DA's fake liberalism involves armoured vehicles, tear gas and men with guns.

The second problem with the DA is that the liberalism that they espouse but don't practice is unable to effectively confront the challenges that we face. In a society as grossly unequal as ours it is simply fantastical to, as liberalism does, assume that people in Blikkiesdorp and Rondebosch, let alone people in Blikkiesdorp and property developers, have the same access to the state or to the elite public sphere which is the primary theatre for sanctioned contestation. For a start, when forms of representative democracy are commodified via party funding and the apex of their power is exercised at a considerable distance from ordinary people, they tend to come down to the opportunity for people to choose between contesting elites rather than to govern themselves.

Moreover while poor people are often the objects of the frequently hostile and sometimes paranoid attention of the media, the lower courts, the academy and the elites in the political parties they are only able to win sustained and independent access to these institutions via mobilisation. But in a society in which large numbers of people just can't survive within the limits of a law that tends to assume that its subjects can afford to act and to survive within the logic of a commodified society, accessible forms of protest, like the road blockade, and survival, like land occupations and self-organised connections to water and electricity, often place popular mobilisation in an ambiguous relationship to the law.

Civil society, which is often taken to mean NGOs and think tanks, is increasingly presented, both by itself and the media, as the last bulwark against the slide into authoritarianism. Some people even speak as if democracy is fundamentally about the freedoms and respect accorded to civil society, largely imagined as NGOs, and to the press, rather than to the people as a whole. Despite the obvious ethical and political diversity within civil society it's not unusual for people to speak as if civil society is an inherently virtuous actor, as if a particular form of organisation is inherently ethical. And while it is often assumed that NGO based civil society is inherently democratic it is a rare NGO in which the director or the board are elected or which is run on democratic lines. Civil society is overwhelming the domain of the professional expert while democracy is its opposite – the domain of anyone at all.

It's also often assumed that civil society automatically fulfils a representative function. But in the majority of cases, NGOs are a creation of donors and civil society professionals rather than organisations that have emerged out of some sort of popular process. We need to be clear that, unlike membership based organisations, most professional civil society organisations have no automatic claim to be able to represent anyone but themselves and perhaps their funders.  Across the political spectrum, NGOs are often entirely alienated from popular organisations.  We also need to take full measure of the reality that there have been a number of cases where NGOs have responded to popular membership based organisations that threaten their assumption of a right to assume a representative function with a degree of paranoia and ruthlessness that is not dissimilar to that found in the state and political parties.

Of course there are NGOs that can credibly claim some degree of a right to represent a constituency, but this is rare and is something that has to be earned rather than merely assumed. There are also cases where NGOs take a principled position to refuse claims to representivity. And there are NGOs that offer invaluable and non-dominating support to popular organisations or which advocate for genuinely more democratic forms of democracy. But none of this changes the fact that it is fundamentally undemocratic to reduce, in principle or, as is more common, in practice, the defence of democracy to either the defence of NGOs or the work of NGOs. Moreover, because it is donor funded, elite NGO based civil society will always be vulnerable to claims, which are already starting to be made, that it is a Trojan horse to advance elite interests, South African or foreign, against an elected government.

Despite the fact that NGOs are often not representative, both the DA and the ANC are often explicit about their preference for engaging certain NGOs rather than popular organisations. NGOs and other officially sanctioned 'stakeholders' are often treated, by both parties, as legitimate participants in discussions while popular organisations are, especially if they reserve their right to appear as political actors rather than as passive beneficiary of service delivery, increasingly criminalised. The fact that the ANC works closely with international NGOs like, for instance, the World Bank supported Shack Dwellers' International, when it suits its agenda of depoliticizing poverty while simultaneously repressing democratic popular organisations that politicize poverty makes it very clear that the developing hostility to civil society within the ANC and the SACP is an opportunistic manipulation of an often legitimate critique of NGO claims to representativity in order shore up an authoritarian agenda.

Jeremy Cronin is quite right to argue that while the left has mounted a sustained critique of neo-liberal economics it has often been entirely uncritical of neo-liberal models of politics. In South Africa it’s not unusual for the left outside of the ANC to orientate itself towards NGO based civil society with far more vigour and seriousness than its attempts to engage popular organisations, some of which are not just vastly more representative than NGOs but also vastly more democratic. But the problem is that Cronin endorses a project of “building democratic popular power within and beyond the state” from within a party and government that hardly runs a bottom up system within the ruling party and actively dismisses or represses popular democratic power organised outside of the party. In the early days of our democracy Cronin argued, in a poem, that 'Art is the struggle to stay awake' and that, therefore, the aesthetic is the opposite of the anaesthetic. But his more recent mobilisation of the language of the democratic left in service of a state that is rapidly becoming more authoritarian, and in which even a developmental project as urgent and basic as housing has often been captured by a predatory elite, is nothing but a soporific for comrades with a democratic conscience.

The only way to mount a credible and effective defence of democracy is for society, understood as the people as a whole, and not civil society, understood as a class of professional activists, to, in all its fractious diversity, subordinate the state to democratic forms of social control. And a state with pressures from below to counter those from above will be much more able to subordinate capital to society. Democracy needs to be built, deepened and defended from below. It will be won or lost in the same places where it first developed mass support as a principle and everyday practice in the 1980s – in community organisations, trade unions, universities, churches and social movements.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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