Do South Africans understand democracy?

2015-02-26 13:41

There are times when readers make comments on our articles and we ignore them. There are times when readers make comments and trigger a response. There has been growing sentiment that people who comment on online pieces are somewhat cynical, ignorant and racist. Of course this happens, but there are those readers that have many productive discussions and at times say bold things in the midst of all the cynicism, ignorance and racism. This article was triggered by one of the responses to my last one responding to Mmusi Maimane’s charge that South Africa is a broken society.

One reader commented, “A very long article that is unrealistic in its ideas. We, the tax payers, all have jobs and responsibilities towards our families. We don't have time to be activists. I'm glad if you do. Politicians have their jobs, and if they're not doing it, no amount of protest or activism is going to change it. The answer is simple. We live in a democracy. Vote the bastards out. That's how you deal with these buggers.”

I have heard these comments a lot in South Africa and they always bother me because they communicate a level of ignorance on what democracy is. The layman definition on democracy is that given by Abraham Lincoln, the “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The word ‘government’ appears once and ‘people’ appears three times. This is very telling. Democracy is the people. If we accept this, then as the people we have a responsibility (daily) to the sustenance of democracy. We do not have the luxury of deferring this duty to politicians every five years.

The state (in traditional definitions) is made up of three arms; the executive, legislature and the judiciary. Two other components of the state are the media and civil society. The weakening of any of these five components is a direct assault on democracy. If democracy is the people, it means that our daily conduct must be geared towards the everyday consolidation and strengthening of these components as entities independent, but complementary, of each other. The comment above by the reader concerned me because it plays into the narrative that working people are already doing too much to keep the country going. Whilst this is somewhat correct, we must ask the question; can you ever do enough to ensure that your country is in good standing?

The fallacy of elections

Elections are important but they are too much of a farce in many ways, especially in a country like ours with a proportional representation electoral system at a national and provincial level. If we indeed, as the reader suggested, see the duty to govern the country as reserved only for politicians, we risk creating a space for unchecked and authoritarian politics. It is the people that must ensure that daily the politicians are kept in check. Politicians serve a nation, they do not dictate the terms and conditions of that service – the people should. Especially taxpayers. It is for this reason I have for some time contemplated the idea of a taxpayers’ movement akin to that of ratepayers at a local government level. I remain flabbergasted that taxpayers do not see the need to hold government accountable daily on the use of their taxes even with so rampant and visible corruption in our country.

It would take courageous men and women to set up such a movement. The movement would ensure that the recommendations and findings of the Auditor-General and the Public Protector are implemented. The said taxpayers could also find coercive means to force government to act. What would happen if three million people did not file their tax returns? Or if taxpayers decided to have a stay away from work for a week to send a serious message about their importance to the functioning of the country so government may listen to them? The taxpayers’ movement would also take departments to court, get corrupt politicians and public servants prosecuted and lobby parliament when the budget of the country is being considered or even those of departments. Is this too much to ask for?

The fallacy of elections is in two forms. Firstly they are every five years, meaning there is too much room for wayward politicians to misbehave if we heed the counsel of the reader to be complacent with the malpractice of politicians. Secondly, in real terms there is still far less participation in the elections process than is desirable. A policy brief by Dr Collette Schulz-Herzenberg for the Hanns Seidel Foundation indicates that for the 2014 elections there were about 32.7 million voting age people. Of these, 78% (25.3 million) registered to vote. However, the total number of people that voted is actually 18,654,771 representing a voter turnout (which declined from 2009 elections) of 73.5%. When this turnout is calculated relative to the voting age population, it means that only 57.1% of eligible voters actually cared enough to go and cast a vote. I must admit that our voter turnout remains relatively high compared to many democracies across the world.

If we hold ourselves to a high standard we must not accept this shambolic state of voter participation. And in a way it undoes the hope that elections are the most effective way to safeguard democracy. Taken to their logical conclusion, the figures above indicate that only about 35% of eligible voters in our country voted for the African National Congress (ANC). This is clearly an indication that the governing party does not enjoy the ballot support of the majority of eligible voters, with poor participation amongst those between the ages of 18-29 years. If only 35% of eligible voters voted for the ANC, where is the rest of the 65% that did not vote at all? What is their contribution to democracy?

We need protest, activism and dedication to the country

The reader made another wrong claim when he said “no amount of protest or activism is going to change it [politicians who do not perform their duty]”. Protest and activism are in fact currently the lifeline of the South African democracy in the absence of sound governance and politics. It is through the many efforts of civil society to hold departments accountable on education, health, informal economy etc. that have and continue to move the country forward.

However, there is something wrong with the premise of participation in our country. Even government and parliament public participation forums are unfriendly to the working population. More often than not, public participation meetings take place during the week in the day; even on serious matters such as demarcations. This is a systematic way of minimising participation and shutting our certain voices and we should fight for this practice to be changed; not because the affected people are taxpayers (there are many people working for untaxable income in our country) but simply because the majority of citizens are not afforded an opportunity to participate in issues of governance.

We need to be serious about our country. We own it and politicians run it at our leisure. We have the burden of defining the terms and conditions of how they run it. For example, if ever we became extremely unhappy about something with constitutional implications we could lobby for a referendum. We are certainly not at the mercy of politicians to change the state of affairs. We have hamstrung our own voices. We have limited our own imagination at the face of despondency. We have abdicated on our responsibility to act in sustenance of our democracy. In the age of social media (even though 64.8% of South Africans – according to census 2011 – remain without internet connection) we ought to be organising more creatively and expansively as citizens. The country is ours, we dare not surrender it to politicians.

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