More power to the people

2010-05-12 00:00

AN impoverished conception of democracy has prevailed in our country. One, which Amartya Sen lucidly describes in his book, The Idea of Justice, which takes 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 that 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 and the 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 and 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 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, such as 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 who 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 such as 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 eighties. The country was in the throes of mass insurrection.

The response to the groundswell of resistance was harsh. We effectively saw the militarisation 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 was “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 militarisation process under the P. W. 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 a 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. While 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 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, whose leadership qualities remain something to be desired.

• Saliem Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town. This article was first published by The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.