Devalued democracy

2013-03-25 00:00

“A DEEP sense of fear of the repercussions of open engagement”: surprisingly this is one of the national characteristics identified by Mamphela Ramphele in her challenging book, Conversations with My Sons and Daughters, published last year. It seems an extraordinary claim to make in a country that struggled so hard and valiantly to achieve the freedoms entrenched in our Bill of Rights. But Ramphele is correct: there is a reluctance to speak out and a stifling deference to government, politicians and employers that devalues our democratic rights and the obligations that accompany them.

She goes on to contrast this with the transcendence of fear achieved by many of her own generation in the most desperate of circumstances under apartheid. Its bureaucracy was everywhere and its brutality ultimately exercised with impunity as the recent death of Dirk Coetzee, founder of the Vlakplaas death squads, reminds us. Lives were lost, many more ruined. But there was a never-ending supply of recruits ready to defy authoritarianism and its police state even under States of Emergency. Youth and civic organisations sprang up in the townships; young white men defied conscription into the security forces; students marched and held placard demonstrations; professional people established alternative structures; non-governmental organisations and civil rights lawyers found every possible exploitable loophole and inconsistency in the law; and workers fought fiercely for the right to be represented by trade unions. The struggle is aptly named.

What happened to all this initiative and energy? Why is it not, on the whole, contributing to a nation whose democratic institutions are nearly 20 years old? There are two major contributory factors and they both made a decisive impact at a crucial moment at the dawn of democracy in the early nineties. First, economic globalisation cemented its hold on the labour market; and second, the ANC moved swiftly to dismantle the free-wheeling, sometimes anarchic, but generally democratic internal anti-apartheid movement. The ironic consequence is that South Africa’s born-frees have grown up in a society less encouraging of imaginative dissidence than their parents’ generation.

Global capital has relentlessly undermined the labour force by widening the wage gap between workers and well-paid managers whose role has shifted from dialogue and development to various types of discipline. Shareholder power has increased proportionately. At the same time, careerists in some trade unions find singing and dancing at endless conferences and the intriguing possibilities of factional politics far more congenial than the banal problems of the workplace. And the outcome is a largely deferential and compliant workforce too concerned about job security to voice opinions.

This is not just a feature of the private sector. Even in the better higher-education institutions academics are so encumbered by mindless, legalistic bureaucracy that most no longer make a significant contribution to national dialogue. In the worst, they have been persecuted into silence. None of this is as paradoxical as might appear. The modern economy does not want thinkers, unless, of course, their ideas increase profit and please the markets. It wants consumers, hopefully as uncritical as possible, in its never-ending quest for growth.

In spite of its struggle rhetoric, the ANC bought into this scenario from a very early stage. It has been conveniently forgotten that the flourishing civil society of the late eighties was very quickly rolled up by the returning exiles with their own brand of authoritarianism derived from ideology and covert activity. Orders were literally given from headquarters, while many leading activists were co-opted into official structures that required compliance. Transformation, black economic empowerment and other flagship projects of the post-apartheid state all contained their own need for uncritical conformism and the thought police to enforce it.

A controlling and frequently brutal apartheid state had been strangely ramshackle and often ambivalent about its international image. The result was a surprising number of carefully preserved spaces where outspokenness and unorthodoxy flourished in an intensely creative way: universities, religious bodies, civil rights and alternative professional organisations, and unions. Globalisation and the hegemony of the so-called ruling party have narrowed those spaces drastically and consumerism has provided a suitably potent distraction.

While respect for non-violent dissent has declined, the level of violent protest has spiralled. On university campuses, for example, demands often follow assaults on people and property and the disruption of academic activity appearing simply as an afterthought. There is evidence to show that South Africa is an inherently violent society based on a patriarchal culture in every community. But to add to that the cynical exploitation of labour by the corporate world and copycat behaviour in the public sector, plus the assumption by many ANC members that they are entitled to a monopoly of public discourse, have together created a toxic brew that helps to devalue freedom of speech and undermine our democracy.

We have turned into a compliant and stifled society

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