Hope Lies with Strong Citizenship, Not Political Parties

By Saliem Fakir · 11 May 2010

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Picture: SACSIS
Picture: SACSIS

An impoverished conception of democracy has prevailed in our country. One, which Amartya Sen lucidly describes in his book, The Idea of Justice, as taking a narrow view of democracy by "focusing particularly on the procedure of balloting and elections" and not going beyond this.

In this regard, we South Africans have too much faith in our party-based democracy. Unfortunately, our reliance on the party led system of political representation is insufficient for building a strong and lively democratic culture.

Party-political systems are useful, but not the sole preserve of democracy. Political parties can and often are drawn into the vortex of power. Their fine morals can go awry, as the rules of the political game swallow them, so to speak. Witness the current debacle in Britain with a hung parliament and three party-political configurations that indicate an indecisiveness, which surely bodes poorly for the future of the nation. 

In our case, one merely has to look at the political landscape to see that our confidence will not be boosted by the dismal state of South Africa’s political parties. If anything, the current situation exposes political parties, as rather insufficient in countering the abuse of state power, mismanagement and misappropriation of state resources.

Any hopes that were pinned on the rising star, Congress of the People (COPE) and other opposition parties look decisively bleak and are bound to produce disappointment. COPE is in disarray. Increasingly, it would appear that the party is coming apart rather than together.

On the other hand, the idea of the Democratic Alliance (DA) holding a progressive front, given their obsession with market-based solutions, is not to be relied upon either.

Other political parties have such small numbers that their claim to staging any serious opposition must be taken with a pinch of salt. They know this too and the mooted merger between the smaller parties and the DA will likely be smothered by the demands of the larger player with greater financial clout.

The reality on the ground is that certain civic organisations like the trade unions and religious organisations have more presence - in terms of numbers - than these political parties.

The fact that they don't exercise their influence is another matter. But civic organisations can become crucial brokers of votes as well as enhance accountability measures.

This point was oft repeated in the Dinokeng Scenarios. Indeed, the scenarios point to a need for strong civic organisations representing different constituencies, if South Africa is to have a robust democracy.

The problem is that civic organisations are either too far apart from each other, too quiet, or simply in an incestuous relationship with power.

Civic organisations find it hard to be independent and engaging. But, they do have power. It's just a question of them finding ways to use it properly.

In this regard, Pippa Green’s biographical tome on Trevor Manuel is instructive. It seeks to place Manuel, the person, within his historical context and in so doing demonstrates that the social milieu is as much a creator of the person as the person is of him or herself.

Thus, as much as people lead organisations, organisations also produce good leaders. Manuel’s rise as a politician as well as his savvy skills were driven by the vibrant presence of civic organisations in the Western Cape.

Green’s book pans wide into the political history of Cape politics painting a useful overview of the social milieu, as it digs deep into the figure that is the scope of the biography. One is left without a doubt that had it not been for this array of organisations, the opportunity to hone and refine leadership skills would not have been forthcoming for its protagonist.

Back then, civic organisations located individuals in proximity to the churn of ideas, as their activism sought to bring about the unsettling of apartheid. 

Green’s depiction of the era - of the intensity, vigour and vibrancy of the trade unions, housing committees, church groups and organisations like the United Democratic Front (UDF) - reminds us that apartheid was never going to survive the networks of civic institutions fostering resistance. There was just too much pressure from the bottom and it reached a tipping point in the 1980s. The country was in the throes of mass insurrection.

The response to the groundswell of resistance was harsh. We effectively saw the militarization of the entire state apparatus. The generals took over while the politicians provided the public face.

In this regard, the book also reminds us that civic organisations were not richly endowed with resources. What they had is 'will' and a rootedness in communities. They singularly challenged the hegemony of the state, forcing it to abandon any hope of winning the hearts and minds of a growing populace resisting apartheid, and alienated by the militarization process under the Botha regime.

Most importantly the book points out that domestic resistance was key to the unsettling and demise of the apartheid system. Widespread civil disobedience, in various forms, unnerved the calm and sense of security, which falsely assumed that white rule could last forever.

Sadly, the demobilisation of the UDF and many civic structures after liberation has created a vacuum and increased passivity within the populace. This has contributed to the swaggering domination of an African National Congress often out of touch with the views and needs of its people.

We need to rebuild the culture of civic organisation in South Africa. Broader countervailing forces with deep civic roots are critical for activating civic political presence and crucial as a way to hold party-political mechanisms accountable.

Even if not explicit, strong labour unions have demonstrated that they can broker votes. Whilst seemingly apolitical church groups don't only preach God’s word, but also appear to have great sway in how followers vote -- their presence brokers both the earthly and the Godly. Jacob Zuma knew this when he visited the Rhema Bible Church congregation last year in the run up to being elected to the country’s highest post.

John Rawls who wrote the seminal work the Theory of Justice reminds us, like Sen, that the true substance of democracy is not the idea of "public balloting" but the fostering of a healthy and lively "public reasoning."

We, too, must be cautious that a deeper civic participation in our democracy should not only be about brokering votes, but about challenging prevailing orthodoxies and placing alternative ideas on the table.

If we foster widespread public reasoning, many alternatives, some of which exist as practice, but do not have the kind of limelight that orthodox ideas and practices enjoy, will come to the surface.

Perhaps, more importantly, if we focus on rebuilding civic organisations, a new cadre of intelligent, skilled and responsive leaders may emerge. They would make a welcome alternative to the current "young lions" groomed and cocooned by our party political system, and whose leadership qualities remain something to be desired.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Patrick Dowling
12 May

Hope Lies with Strong Citizenship, Not Political Parties

Good article - thanks Saliem - as Wangari Maathai says the democratic space is something that has to be won constantly - transfering broad decison making power to a few very temporary leaders - and participating reluctantly and minimalistically once every 4 years is not good for individual empowerment, national problem solving or long-term sustainability

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Dale McKinley
16 May

Only Half the Picture ...

Saliem - your piece makes it appear as if there has been none (or very little) active 'citizenship' being practiced in SA over these last ten years or so while in fact, there has been a range of critical interventions, collective actions and political engagements with 'democracy' emanating from myriad community organisations and social movements. What are these social/political forces if not mostly 'civics' (in one form or another - even if not in the mould of the pre-1994 civics) and what have they been mostly doing if not critically questioning (and practically engaging) the content and character of our 'democracy' at various levels/forms? Indeed, it has been mostly through the various (and consistent) activities of many of these 'civics' that the debate around the democratic efficacy of political parties, institutionalised democracy and the possibilities of alternatives, has been kept largely alive. While it is true that these post-1994 'civics' have many weaknesses and problems and have not come close to the political reach and social power of the pre-1994 variety, they have been there as a critical voice, a questioning presence, a 'school' for new activists/leaders and a check and balance against the centralisation of power and contempt for democracy, even though many South Africans - particularly mainstream intellectuals and commentators - have chosen to ignore and treat them with thinly disguised disdain. This 'other' part of the picture is missing from your analysis.

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Saliem Fakir
17 May

Dale is More than Half Right

Dale you are correct. I may have created the impression that nothing was happening at grassroots level. A lot of forment is taking place. I suppose I wanted to place emphasis for the need for more and not on the reliance on parties or big government to deliver change. Ironically, Trevor Manuel himself, most recently in an interview, said he thought civic action and responsibility will be far more important in bringing about change and self-reliance than the dependence on government. I think pyschologically it is also important to foster a shift away from the idea that government is always going to be the bringer of fortune.

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