Guest Column

Democracy could be doomed

2017-02-26 06:29
Noughts and crosses: A familiar sight in post-apartheid South Africa – election results at the national results operating centre Picture: Deon Raath

Noughts and crosses: A familiar sight in post-apartheid South Africa – election results at the national results operating centre Picture: Deon Raath

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Thuli Madonsela

"Democracy needs to be reviewed or repackaged for it to remain meaningful to all and, accordingly, maintain sustainability.” This view was expressed by one of the South African millennials at Harvard with whom I have been engaging in spontaneous democracy dialogues since our arrival here. His colleagues who participated in the conversation, enthusiastically concurred.

The young leaders advised that they had been giving the issue of democracy – and what they see as its contemporary challenges – some thought for a while. One of their bold statements was that if current democracy trends continued, democracy was doomed. One of them opined that the key threats to democracy today were irrationality and selfishness among those who are public representatives and their administrative support functionaries.

The spontaneous democracy dialogues I have been having with young people have dispelled the myth that young people have no interest in politics or are some lost generation with regard to leadership and national affairs.

My dialogues with young people have convinced me that if young people tend to do nothing about concerns regarding proper use of state power and public resources, it is not that they don’t care or don’t have an opinion. It is principally because they tend to find current democracy avenues rather undemocratic or inaccessible to the average person.


How can democracy be undemocratic? You must be wondering if this is not an oxymoron. I too had similar thoughts when former Spanish presidential candidate Pedro Sanchez commenced his address on democratising democracy at the 2016 conference of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin. As I listened to his talk, though, I found resonance between his thoughts on contemporary democracy gaps and the views I have expressed in various forms regarding the need to reimagine democracy.

Has democracy become undemocratic, you might ask. My answer is yes. You might even argue that many of the things that are done in the name of democracy only share the “-cracy” part with democracy and that the “demos” part – a Greek concept meaning “people” – is missing.

Democracy is meant to connote “the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The Freedom Charter simplified democracy into the phrase: “The people shall govern.” It’s a system in which people govern themselves directly or through their elected representatives who are accountable to them. In the simplest of terms, democracy means power to the people. Worth noting, accordingly, is the centrality of the people in a democracy, both as the mandate givers and the supposed beneficiaries of the exercise of public governance.

The philosophy behind democracy is that the collective decides that unregulated coexistence is anarchic and potentially brutal, with survival of the fittest being the order of the day. The collective surrenders to regulated coexistence with a few chosen to regulate the conduct of the group and collective resources for common good. The chosen few, commonly referred to as political representatives of the electorate, are supposed to be the most selfless and most regulatory competent of them all. The outcome of democracy must be the improved fortunes of all and peaceful coexistence.

Essential elements of true democracy are that the few chosen – based on trust to look after everyone’s interests – govern at the will of the people and are ultimately accountable to the people as mandate givers.

But let’s look at the state of democracy today through the lens of the true meaning of democracy. You will agree with the young leaders’ views that there are serious discrepancies between what is done today in the name of democracy and what democracy is supposed to mean.

For example, public representatives are supposed to be elected by the people, but many are not.

Taking South Africa as an example, the people have no say whatsoever in the appointment of an increasing number of people to Parliament and even Cabinet today. Many of the people holding key political positions were never elected by the people or put on a list that was reviewed by the people when they consciously voted for political parties in April 2014.

Unlike in constituency elections, the public has no say about who does or does not get on the list of the parties they will vote for. Only party members have a say, but even then, within the constraints of power dynamics in each political party.

Government must be at the will of the people. But not so long ago, the executive unilaterally decided, without the involvement of Parliament or the people, to withdraw South Africa’s membership of the International Criminal Cour, despite having no alternative mechanism for the impunity for genocide and related war crimes the court was established for.

Furthermore, all public representatives are supposed to be impartial and selfless, but many are encumbered by conflict of interest with a few flagrantly choosing to favour actions that advance their interests, instead of the public interest.

An example is Cabinet getting involved in the conflict between Oakbay and the banks, despite the president having a conflict of interest arising from his son’s part-ownership of Oakbay.

Reimagine democracy

While improved fortunes of all is an essential outcome of democracy, we must agree that social justice continues to elude many of those “left behind”, while the fortunes of some can only be principally attributed to their political positions or connections.

In another country, a president who came into power on the promise of taking power away from the capital and giving it back to the people has since been making major life-changing regulatory decisions without the legislature’s input or the involvement of the people.

The courts, of course, have helped the people to push back against some of the excesses of the executive and other state functionaries. The high court recently decided that the ICC withdrawal without parliamentary involvement and people’s participation was unconstitutional. The constitutional administrative accountability institutions have also played some role, as seen in investigations such as the state
capture report.

This indeed offers a lot of comfort. Such measures help defend and deepen democracy. The media and civil society also play a part.

The mechanisms for defending and deepening democracy are all thanks to the visionary architects of the constitutional democracy. Such architecture incorporates independent judicial and administrative scrutiny of acts of state functionaries to ensure constitutional, legal and policy compliance, among other factors.

But are these enough to plug the gaps regarding undemocratic tendencies brazenly executed in the name of democracy?

Are current measures aimed at deepening and defending democracy enough to save and sustain it as the best model for regulating peaceful coexistence?

The millennials believe we should dig deeper. One of them proposes considering the future use of robots (artificial intelligence) to govern, as they’ll do so with efficiency, precision and impartiality.

I have my doubts. But I do agree that it is time to review or reimagine democracy. Democracy must work for all. Above all, democracy must yield fairness and improved fortunes for all – not just some. It seems to me that the centrality of the people in democracy is the answer.

If we don’t find a way to bring back the people element into democracy, democracy is indeed doomed. If democracy is doomed, peace and stability are equally doomed in the long term.

Madonsela is a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow and chief patron of Thuma Foundation


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Read more on:    thuli madonsela  |  politics


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