Deepening Democracy Demands Making Difficult Choices

By Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen · 4 Apr 2009

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Picture: jungeldrumsonline
Picture: jungeldrumsonline

The anti-colonial writer, Rabindranath Tagore reminds us, "The only real gift is the gift of strength, all other offerings are vain." To illustrate this he tells the story of the lamb and the Lord. The lamb constantly besieged by beasts, which are more powerful, turns to the Lord and asks, "Lord, how is it that all creatures seek to devour me?" The Lord replied "What can I do, my child? When I look at you, I myself am so tempted."

Tagore, a nationalist and a religious person, uses this thought provoking fable to teach the lesson that strength is the central virtue. During the 2009 election campaign, the South African public must be feeling like the proverbial lamb, beset by politicians running in a system in which not one is directly elected.

As political parties dance, sing, poster (or is that posture) and advertise their virtue, many of us only see their vice. The South African mood today, is less optimistic about its collective future. According to a report by The Presidency, ratings of government satisfaction have fallen. In this context, there is an important movement calling for a protest 'no vote'. These groupings are not apathetic, but have taken the decision not to vote due to political, ideological, moral and/or personal reasons. However, in doing so, are they giving up the central virtue of power being in the hands of the people?

Across class, gender and racial lines, the arguments for a protest 'non-vote' tell a profound story of dislocation and disempowerment. The slogan of the activist group NOPE summarises this mood. It reads, "Nope! Our dreams don't fit your ballot paper." Whilst Nope is not necessarily calling for a protest 'no vote' and advocates active citizenship, it is representative of the mood in the left wing, outside the Tripartite Alliance.

The critique is not only substantive, but resonates, in practice, in the struggles of social movements fighting evictions, protesting against lack of delivery and dismal lack of accountability.

The substance of the critique is that today, democracy in South Africa is a representative one, with the promise of a participatory democracy unfulfilled. The erosion of popular (not populist) participation in this view is attributed to economic choices by government. Tight fiscal control coupled with a system that benefits the few, requires insularity from popular pressures. The problems facing communities, indeed the aspirations for a just society, are attributed to a coercive system of power that leaves the poor excluded.

In popular parlance, the government has forgotten the poorest of the poor and the opportunities arising from democracy have been captured by a few. This is not just a theoretical exposition, as it means that opportunities to have a 'sustainable livelihood' or even an opportunity to 'exit poverty' are outside the grasp of ordinary citizens.

In turn, the mobilisation represents an important vision of our future, in the positive sense, of poor communities organising and mobilising themselves. In the negative sense, South Africa could be witnessing a significant breakdown in its social cohesion. Yet, organised and militant protest, is much more positive than the ghastly outbreaks of violence against foreigners during 2008 that South Africa witnessed.

The social movements thus potentially represent an important, significant and positive development in deepening democracy and shifting power relations in our society.

Higher up the class ladder, the emerging and established middle classes express a similar theme of disempowerment and dissatisfaction. The themes here relate more to the breakdown of government in a multitude of ways. Crime, corruption, lack of accountability and failing public services are amongst the issues that are raised. Less organised, and often without a voice in politics, it is unsurprising that the Democratic Alliance and Congress of the People (COPE) are targeting this voting block. However, disgruntlement with the ANC will not necessarily result in tactical voting to stop a two-thirds majority, or even shift government. There is likely to be a retreat into the politics of further isolation and marginalisation as frustration with perceived exclusion entrenches itself with a protest 'no vote'.

Across this class divide, there are important differences in the politics, identities and motivations for a protest 'no vote'. It tells the story of political choice at the ballot being limited and also of the failure of political parties to inspire. Carefully listening to the disgruntled voices however reveals an important sense of needing to belong, needing to be listened to and valued. Even though we will probably have around a 70% poll at the elections, our democracy can only be truly deepened if we listen to the voices of the other 30%.

In respecting and understanding the decisions for a protest 'no vote', this decision should be viewed from a different lens. The pivotal moment in our recent politics happened during the Polokwane conference of the African National Congress (ANC). The outcome is still playing itself out, but few would argue that it is both complex and contradictory. Contradictory, because it brought together the organised left within the Alliance, with the often ideologically incoherent provincial lobbies of the ANC.

There is, however, certainty that policy has been tilted to be more universal and inclusive, with commitments to a National Health Insurance scheme, agrarian reform and a significant expansion in the National Youth Service. Embedded within this is a more ambitious programme to tackle the daunting and defining challenge of inequality.

But, ambiguities abound. For instance, Polokwane is largely silent about economic policy and in particular, fiscal policy. However, despite this deliberate fudge, the current budget continues the stance of a moderately expansionary fiscal stance, despite a global slowdown. This might not be attributable to Polokwane alone, but what is of importance is that despite the global financial crises, government has not willy-nilly retreated back to excessive fiscal restraint. 

The more profound shift that Polokwane unleashed was to shift the entire political landscape leftwards, or at least open up the prospects for a leftward shift. Political analysts speak of a "policy consensus" around the instruments to enhance inclusion and create jobs. This consensus however has earlier beginnings than Polokwane and should be understood as the outcome of national and local campaigns that have been undertaken by civil society over the last decade. Granted, it is an intensely contested outcome that still reflects a minimal programme even from a social democratic perspective.

Despite the incompleteness and inadequacies inherent in the shift, campaigners in social movements should be appropriating this broader shift in the political landscape -- in that there is a reason to vote, even if one views manifestos as being created by the same cookie cutter. The question, is whether protest and evidence based policies emanating from the left in civil society have been the ones to mould that cookie cutter?

The current situation evokes the serviceable quotation of Antonio Gramsci, who writes: "The old is dying, and the new is not yet born, in this interregnum a great variety of morbid systems appear."

The shifting landscape on policy has come with its own morbid signs. In the youth leaders indicating that they will 'crush' political opponents, divisive politics and the perception that state institutions can be used to settle or solve political problems, there are valid, and as yet, unaddressed concerns. However, the very fact that these morbid signs have emerged is in itself a reason to vote. If one is angry about the state of democracy, or just a little too 'ill-disciplined' to listen to political bosses from any party, then one should be able to demonstrate that feeling at the ballot box. Granted, there is not as wide a choice at the ballot box as one would wish to have, however democracy implies making difficult choices. The most difficult of these, is making choices when an optimal choice only exists in our future.

In important senses, the case for voting is about the importance of placing the will, over the intellect. But, equally the act of voting, tells us that we all belong. For those arguing for a protest non-vote, a reappraisal of that position is not a call for a sheepish adherence to any political line. Rather, it is recognition that in our contested space, hope remains alive for our hard-won democracy to be deepened.

Voting today comes with more morally and politically ambiguous decisions than there were at the dawn of democracy, but the responsibility to make these decisions, are even more urgent now. Protest 'non-voting' by active citizens is a legitimate political action, but it comes with its own set of ethical dilemmas.

For instance, do the institutions of democracy remain the best hope for long run change? In another instance, after protestors win services, will they be able to find inclusion in the economy without a developmental state? Can the development of movements antagonistic to participation in elections, disappointed in non-delivery, instead agitate for a quickening of revolutionary outcome?

Can the elites be made to be structurally uncertain in their political positions by protest, when they have built support bases outside the sphere of influence of social movements?  In answering this question it is worth drawing the lesson from Tagore’s parable that strength is central to changing the context. The vote remains an important tool especially for the disaffected and those dislocated from our democracy to make difficult decisions. It could represent the start of a system that puts that power in the hands of people, not only at election time, but everyday. Then we may rejoice in politicians arguing that "My constituency seeks to destroy me, if I do not work with them to deliver."

Hassen is the founder of Zapreneur and Proposal Desk, both websites aimed at answering the question, "Can the Internet help South African small business?"

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