How fat cats hijacked our democracy

2012-08-11 12:50

We need people in Parliament who actually represent the needs of the voters

Ever since the first bearded mariner squinted at Cape Point through his brass-bound telescope or Portuguese explorers got lost in False Bay (shouting Bara Falsa! Bara Falsa! – they were looking for Table Bay), a whole sociopolitical-academic industry has developed in South Africa to blame anything wrong in the country on other people: “the colonials”, “the oppressors”, “engineers of apartheid” and specifically “the whites”.

One (white) university teacher has even declared that all whites, whatever they think, whatever they do, should feel “shame” for being alive in this country now, because of the past.

In turn, many whites moan about “the blacks”. To listen to all this you would think the country was on the brink of disaster; indeed, some think it could be.

But the fact is that things could be worse.

The crucial thing is that we have overcome the one seemingly absolutely insuperable obstacle to creating a peaceful future for South Africa: it is now accepted – at least in law – that all of us, all races, all colours, all religions, men and women, should have a hand in running the place. We all have the vote.

We are all in this together. We sink or swim together. Fifty years ago such a concept simply boggled the mind.

But the astonishing thing happened. Everybody is in awe of Nelson Mandela but not enough praise goes to FW de Klerk.

He had a key. He turned it. He opened the prison gates. Given his Afrikaner-nationalist background it must have taken great courage.

Not surprisingly, the country has not yet come to terms properly with the changed circumstances; we are not yet clear how to manage the new situation, nor how to behave and take responsibility, as South Africans, for all other South Africans.

We fall back into thinking and behaving as members of racially defined partisan mobs – and snobs.

And our government, anxious to placate radical noisy racist supporters, seems unclear about its responsibility as the national leader of us all.

At its heart, rival competitors scrap – like cats – for top jobs. There is no effective leadership and there are very few competent administrators.

Fraudsters go to luxury wards in fancy hospitals instead of a prison cell, top cops turn out to be crooks. It’s not a pretty picture.

Put many of our Cabinet ministers in a meeting with their counterparts from other nations and they are so feeble we cringe.

We do not need a revolution to start to fix the problem; we can start by examining a simple definition at the root of our situation.

We boast about our “democracy” because we can all vote. But what does that mean?

A vote in itself does not make a democracy. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for example, everybody had the vote. In fact, everybody was obliged to vote. It was the law.

But Iraq was not a democracy because the only person the citizens were allowed to vote for was Saddam Hussein, who was later, sensibly, hanged.

A vote is only worth something if it can be used to express an opinion about various options and have a meaningful effect.

And a vote in a parliamentary election should also be a vote for a particular person who will go to Parliament to represent directly the interests of a particular community.

Ideally, the elected person should be resident in that community, or at least be well acquainted with what is going on there.

It doesn’t mean that everybody in the community will agree with the elected person on every topic, but everybody will have a chance to know the person elected, through public meetings for example.

They will be able to argue with him or her, or his or her supporters, directly about what the community needs most and work, if necessary, for change – or vote for somebody better next time.

That way each community has a direct voice in Parliament through a directly elected representative.

At present, the people who sit in Parliament are not elected by the voters; they are chosen mainly behind closed doors by a cabal of the leaders of each party.

The result is that the members of Parliament must seek to please not the voters but their party bosses.

Their loyalty is not to the voters but to the party leaders who choose them.

Consequently, Parliament is not directly representative of the people.

The country is not a democracy in a way that counts; it favours manipulators and fatcats.

This is unfortunate for the voters and dangerous for the government.

It means that the government and Parliament are not directly in touch with what is going on in the country.

There are no representatives of local communities speaking up in Parliament as local community representatives.

Instead, Parliament has to make do with hearing about what is happening in the country beyond Cape Town by watching TV or reading newspapers.

This government has shown from time to time that it realises this and sends groups of parliamentarians – as outsiders – to various areas occasionally, to put on a show of interest in local affairs.

When things turn sour, the government sends in cops with buckshot and rifles and chases people around with tear gas.

Parliament is not forewarned of pending trouble by people from local communities who know what’s going on and who represent directly the people concerned.

Several years ago the government showed unease about this and set up a commission of inquiry headed by Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert to investigate the possibility of introducing a system that would combine the advantages of reintroducing representatives of local areas into Parliament (through a system of wards or constituencies) with the attractions of proportional representation.

Its report didn’t suit the government and it was shelved immediately.

But if this government, or a combative would-be successor that understands the advantages of a working democracy, had any sense it would dust off the commission’s findings and get people who actually represent the voters back into Parliament.

It would be the start of real democracy and indicate the formal beginning of a grassroots South African democratic ethos – not just an often racially based fierce competition for power and money.

»Tyler is the author of Life in the Time of Sharpeville. He was the only reporter in the crowd when the police opened fire in 1960, killing 69 people and wounding 178

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