This is how SA can be truly democratic

The Freedom Charter’s central tenet is not being adhered to because we don’t actually get to vote for our leaders, writes Terry Bell

The people shall govern – so says the 1995 Freedom Charter.

And so they do, says the ANC and all the parties represented in Parliament.

But this is a lie.

An awareness of this fact is what has caused such widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics and political parties.

In our party list electoral system, this is particularly pertinent – every five years, we go to the polls to vote for a party where a president, and perhaps the party elite, usually decide on the representatives over whom we have no control.

Yet a universal franchise – one person, one vote – is a concession won after many bloody and bitter battles in recent centuries by working people deprived of even the slightest influence over those who ruled them.

But that concession was made within the same inherently corrupt framework that existed before; a framework that enables the monied minority to bribe, bully, flatter and otherwise manipulate those elected to represent the majority.

Nothing has changed from the times when only the monied and propertied minority had the vote; although the regulatory – managerial – structure of society is elected by the majority, it remains captured by the minority, who own and control the means of production, distribution and exchange.

We lagged behind many countries. The majority, defined by “race”, had been deprived of, or never attained, even the concession of a vote.

We caught up after 1994, joining other democracies in granting all citizens older than 18 the right to vote for the structures that lay down the regulations that govern our lives.

But we are also in a possibly unique position – we have a Bill of Rights that amounts to an egalitarian political programme, granting equal rights to education, healthcare, housing and welfare to all citizens.

Crudely put, what it advocates is that all citizens should have the right to do exactly as they please provided that they do not impinge on the rights of others.

This is a programme – built on the basis of the Freedom Charter – that calls for an end to exploiters and exploited; for cooperative governance rather than competitive anarchy – obviously something that cannot be achieved overnight.

What it requires is that citizens who agree with the programme outlined in the Bill of Rights be marshalled to support its implementation.

The only question is how this could be done; how the majority, with whom power – through democratic decision making – should ultimately rest can be organised, informed and brought into action.

The answer seems quite simple: use modern technology to link individuals in groups throughout the country to a central database as voting members of a collective of citizens.

The database should be administered by people who have no political influence or control and who would act only as a “switchboard” for the transfer of information.

Trade unions, religious institutions, clubs of various kinds – even political movements – and neighbourhood groups already meet regularly.

Unorganised people should be encouraged to set up units of a “citizens’ coalition”, perhaps with a minimum of 10 voting members.

Each unit would, in turn, be one element in a branch structure that could meet monthly and be made up of perhaps one delegate for every 10 unit members and so on up to regional or even provincial level if thought necessary.

Since each citizen has a unique ID number, there can be no duplicate voting as every citizens’ coalition member would be registered according to the unit they have joined.

So a factory worker where a unit exists could either be a member of the factory unit or of a neighbourhood, club, church, mosque, temple unit and so on.

Such members of a citizens’ coalition should debate and decide on all matters relating to themselves nationally, provincially and locally, with all information decisions being relayed throughout the network.

Ideally, members in each putative constituency should have a say over who should represent them in Parliament.

However, while we still operate on a list system, without defined constituencies, MPs may be allocated, in accordance with the numbers of votes cast, to constituencies defined according to votes gained in any region or province, with the number of candidates determined according to the populations of each province.

For the 400 seats in Parliament, for example, there should be 96 candidates (24% of the national population) for Gauteng, followed by 80 for KwaZulu-Natal (20%), but there would be only eight for the Northern Cape (2%).

All candidates for office should be women and men who live in and are widely known, respected and supported in the provinces to which they are nominated.

All such candidates should also sign a legally binding undertaking that, after being allocated to a constituency, they will be answerable to – and recallable by – that constituency, with constituency boundaries determined by where votes were cast.

The incomes of all such “citizen” parliamentarians should also be decided by the vote of the citizens’ coalition members with all and any surpluses from parliamentary salaries and allowances going to constituency and communications expenses.

Communication is the essence, allowing decisions to be made after informed debate and within the boundaries set by the Bill of Rights.

On this basis, there can be no populist clamour for the death penalty or to prohibit a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy.

Individual rights within a truly democratic society would be protected.

However, informed decisions can only be made by people who are in possession of all available information and by those who are prepared to accept the egalitarian principles spelt out in the Bill of Rights.

MPs and representatives at various governmental levels would, in such circumstances, act as the true voices of their constituencies – tribunes of the majority.

Like winning the right to a vote, it would be a major (perhaps the major) reform to fight for on the way to the full, democratic transformation of society.

It could happen in South Africa and provide an example to an increasingly alienated and impoverished global majority.

This certainly seems preferable to anything else that we have as more than 200 parties prepare to enter the polls on the same corrupt and corrupting basis as before.


Do you think the author’s idea of citizens’ coalitions would advance SA’s aim to be truly democratic?

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