Democracy, Civil Society and the Right to Dissent

By Richard Pithouse · 11 Nov 2010

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Picture: theipinionsjournal
Picture: theipinionsjournal

Gwede Mantashe, the Secretary General of the African National Congress and Chairperson of the South African Communist Party, is not a democrat. He’s hardly the only influential public figure in South Africa who is not a democrat. Julius Malema, with his hysterical attempts to symbolically annihilate the humanity of his opponents, is certainly not a democrat.

And Helen Zille’s attempt to justify her illegal, violent and, in strict legal terms, criminal evictions in Hout Bay by dismissing the people that resisted eviction as drug dealers, speaks for itself as loudly as similar actions by the ANC around the country.

Mantashe’s now rather notorious statement on the recent civil society conference convened by COSATU and the Treatment Action Campaign declared that “leading the charge for the formation and for the mobilization of a mass civic movement outside of the Alliance partners and the ANC” could be seen as the “initial steps for regime change in South Africa.” Given the extremes to which the key delegates to the conference went to affirm their loyalty to the ANC, Mantashe was certainly being paranoid. But while paranoia is never a democratic disposition, it is Mantashe’s implication that the ANC, like Zanu-PF and SWAPO, is a liberation movement to which any opposition is necessarily illegitimate and consequent to imperialist machinations that puts him firmly outside of the democratic camp.

An elected government that does not accept that people have a right to form new parties and to contest its hold on power may be a ‘democratically elected’ government, but it is not a democratic government. In a democracy, everyone has the right to form parties and to contest for state power at the polls and any limitation on that right is a limitation on democracy.

This is not to say that we should accept the post-cold war dogma that civil society is necessarily an authentic expression of the will of the people. On the contrary, civil society is a diverse and contested space. It includes democratic membership based organisations that, like COSATU and TAC, have a genuine mandate to speak for specific constituencies within society. It also includes NGOs that, like the Freedom of Expression of Institute, have a record of consistently making interventions in support of democratic values and practices. But civil society also includes many organisations that only exist because of donor support, have no popular mandate and are, usually implicitly rather than explicitly, hostile to popular political empowerment and mass participation in decision making.

There is a tendency in some parts of civil society, as in some parts of the media, to assume that imperialism is always a fantasy conjured out of the ether by tyrants looking to shore up their own power by rallying their people against imagined foreign enemies.  There are plenty of tyrants who do try to paint any popular dissent as imperialism. This is not a habit that is confined to out and out dictatorships like those run by Mugabe or Mswati. The relatively enlightened government in Ecuador has recently succumbed to the same temptation to misrepresent genuinely popular opposition as an imperialist conspiracy.

But it is a fact that, around the world, mainstream donor supported civil society has often sought to capture popular movements with a view to directing them along certain trajectories that usually include a move away from openly and popular political contestation and towards more technical and expert led forms of engagement. 

There are also cases where donor backed civil society has been used to try and legitimate attempts to undermine and even to overthrow elected governments. The United States Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, also in the United States, have long been notorious in this regard. But independent and left leaning organisations, have, like Action Aid in Haiti, also offered civil society cover for violent foreign-backed opposition to elected governments.

But this does not mean that international connections on the part of popular or civil society organisations necessarily implies conspiracy on the part of, as the ANC often claims, “sinister forces.” When churches in Europe have used some of the contributions from their parishioners to support social justice campaigns in South Africa, these are acts of solidarity and progressive internationalism and not imperialism.

Everyone in our society has the same right to forge relations of solidarity with people and groups around the world. The ANC and the SACP both have all sorts of international connections and it would be outrageous and entirely anti-democratic to deny the same right to trade unions or poor people’s movements.

Moreover, if the leaders of the ANC really believe that they are leading a national liberation movement that poses some sort of threat to imperialism then they have lost touch with reality and we are entering the realm of out and out political farce. Whatever claims it may make to the contrary, the fact is that the ANC, like the Partido dos Trabalhadores in Brazil, is not threatened by any imperialist interests for the simple reason that it is the best guarantor of those interests.

COSATU and TAC have every right to call for civil society mobilisation within the broad embrace of the ANC and their right to organise and to mobilise needs to be vigorously defended.

But popular organisations that are struggling outside of the ANC also need to be defended with equal vigour against the entirely undemocratic assumption that their autonomy from the ANC somehow renders them illegitimate. When COSATU and TAC, perhaps to protect their place and influence within the ANC, are, by acts of omission or commission, deliberately or inadvertently complicit with the ongoing attempts by influential currents within the ANC to present autonomous popular organisations as illegitimate they also need to be challenged in this regard.

Around the world the most promising political experiments in recent years have taken the form of dispersing power beyond the usual triad of state, capital and professional donor directed civil society organisations. Experiments in the creation of popular power with a degree of autonomy from states and ruling parties have resulted, as in Haiti or Venezuela, in both organised popular support for elected governments against elite interests and, as is now happening in countries like Bolivia and Venezuela, democratic and popular challenges to elected governments.

But the currents in the ANC that remain committed to a now widely discredited and inevitably authoritarian conception of a top down process of social change led by a vanguard are a world away from these experiments.

For as long as Stalinism and authoritarian nationalism continue to animate key currents in the ANC, democracy cannot be taken for granted in South Africa and will have to clearly and directly be asserted and defended in and outside of the ANC.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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10 Nov

This is Fighting Talk

But its quite correct. Popular mobilisation within and outside of the ANC are both entirely legitimate, and in fact desperately necessary, and both need to be defended with equal commitment.

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Barry Saayman
15 Nov

Link between Communist NDR and Civil Society

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