Participating in democracy

2008-05-02 00:00

Recently I found myself behaving in a very typical South African way. I found the supermarket frustrating beyond speech. Many things that I wanted were not available, prices were missing from the shelves and everywhere there were signs that the stocktaking scheduled for the next day had already begun. At the delicatessen, I had to wait while the assistant served, and conducted a conversation with, fellow employees. Now, I think that store workers should not be served ahead of customers. After some time, the assistant sidled in my direction while still engaged in her conversation. When she raised an eyebrow by way of acknowledging my presence I asked for 200 grams of ham. She clearly wasn’t listening, however, for she took two slices to the scale. I repeated: 200 grams.

Obviously still thinking of her participation in her friendly conversation, which had never been broken off, she looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. At this point, I saw red and raised my voice, which brought the supervisor hurrying along. She, unfortunately, had to suffer the barrage of my anger. I was not proud of myself. There is a far more dignified way to handle disappointments of this nature but we are inclined to say nothing at first, when we should be able to express ourselves rationally. Instead, we delay our protest until it emerges as a tantrum and creates an incident of hostile confrontation. Is this because we have the mistaken idea that it is impolite to criticise in a controlled fashion?

In thinking about this, I am reminded of a call I received from a colleague in another town who asked whether I had any information about the establishment of a ratepayers’ association. Now, I happen to think that these are no longer necessary in view of the fact that municipal structures are obliged to include ward committees. (There is provision for alternative, but no less democratic, structures in some municipalities.)

It is true that in our city, owing to internal bickering, ward committees have taken far too long to establish, but one should not condemn the principle because of poor implementation. In any event, it is the right of the public to demand the satisfactory implementation of those mechanisms through which they have been given the chance to express their views.

Many complain that these ward committees do not work; that meetings at which the election of representatives takes place are called without due notice to all voters in a ward; that the “councillor takes no notice”, and so on. But the truth is that we can’t be bothered.

I have never received notice of a ward committee election, and what I should be doing is demanding of my councillor why this is so. He should also tell me who the members of the ward committee are and make the minutes of meetings available. But I, like many, am not accustomed to democracy reaching into communities.

We allow the government to make decisions and then whinge about them later. We are inclined to view these structures of the new democracy as things for “them” and not for “us”. And now we will moan about the fact that the municipality has agreed to give a sitting allowance to ward committee members, quite forgetting, perhaps, that these are not only community representatives in township areas. It is quite reasonable, I think, that people who are properly elected to represent their communities should be eligible for this allowance. It raises the level of accountability. If the procedural issues are not done properly, we should complain and hold the municipality to the letter of the law.

Exactly the same may be said of community police forums. Those that operate well — some, though few, do — prove that these structures are capable of making a big difference in respect of crime and, more importantly, perhaps, in respect of the relationship between the community and the police. These are also structures that are often perceived to have been established for “them” rather than “us” and we are too cynical to believe that their creation was a sincere effort to deepen democracy and give credence to the concept of “community policing”.

The transformation of our country is not just a matter of affirmative action or employment equity, or even the eradication of racism. It is also the acceptance by all of the democratic structures which give meaning to our Constitution to the extent that we will participate in them and not denigrate them by dismissal and apathy.

As long as a sector of the population stands aloof from them, there will never be constructive integration.

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