Democracy in SA still elusive

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Only the crudest propagandist would dare deny that the ANC is an increasingly predatory and authoritarian excrescence on society rather than a democratic expression of society. It is equally clear that the party confronts what is arguably the highest rate of sustained popular protest anywhere in the world, has overwhelmingly lost the support of the intelligentsia and is increasingly resorting to violence and other forms of repression to contain dissent.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), unlike the South African Communist Party (SACP) which welcomed the Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, certainly has a democratic history. But its recent congress seems to indicate that its capture by the ruling party, its drift up the class structure and its degeneration into a bureaucracy with its own interests has seriously and perhaps fatally compromised its capacity to be an independent, critical voice.

But while all this is widely acknowledged it is much less frequently acknowledged that, with the possible exception of some very local experiments, it is not possible to vote for democratic alternatives for the simple reason that they don’t exist.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian, Cape Town- based activist Jared Sacks has shown that the Democratic Alliance and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are, just like the ANC, unable to grasp the political agency of poor people and so resort to fantastical conspiracy theories to explain it away.

Sacks found that Cape Town’s Sweet Home shack settlement protest was organised by residents themselves, across party lines and for good reasons – and not, as the DA suggested, by the external, malicious machinations of the ANC Youth League.
The technocratic authoritarianism of the DA is a very different language to the Stalinism that frequently shapes the language of key figures in the ANC, but both parties are systemically incapable of understanding popular challenges to their authority without recourse to witch hunts for imagined agitators.

Democracy is supposed to be the rule of the demos, of the people. But while the idea that “the people shall govern” was taken seriously in some trade union and community struggles against apartheid, it was never the politics of the ANC in exile nor, of course, the Stalinists in the SACP.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the affirmation of democratic principles has seldom translated into a meaningful commitment to democratic practices. Our public sphere has largely understood itself to be a site in which contending elites debate each other. And elites across the political spectrum, and located in a variety of institutions, have often responded to the demand for real inclusion in discussions and decision-making by poor people with astonishing paranoia and hostility.

There have been cases, and civil society and the left are as guilty of this as any other elite constituency, where the demand for inclusion has literally been read as criminality and violence, even when it violates no law or human body.

Jane Duncan, a professor at Rhodes University, analysed all of the 153 newspaper articles between August 13 and 22 dealing with the Marikana strike and massacre. She took a statistical measure of who it was that the press went to in order to get information on what happened. She found business got the vast bulk of the opportunities to speak, 27%. Political parties got 10%, government 9%, independent experts 8% and the police 5%.

Only 3% of the articles asked workers for their views on what happened and the bulk of these were primarily interested in questions about muthi.

Duncan found that only one article out of 153 “showed any attempt by a journalist to get an account from a worker about their version of the massacre”.

The initial assumption of the bulk of our media was that workers were people the media should speak about but not to.

Duncan’s research is a stark indictment of the profoundly anti-democratic assumptions that structure the unthinking common sense of much of our media. In fact if it hadn’t been for the Daily Maverick it is quite possible the public discussion of the massacre in Marikana would have largely been shaped by the assumptions and agendas of contending elites.

The uprising in Marikana differs from the wider rebellion of the poor in a number of respects, one being that its central material demand was expressed by workers seeking higher wages rather than by residents seeking access to urban land, housing and services. But, along with the political salience of the shack settlement, a key point of connection with the wider rebellion is the militant challenge to authorised forms of political representation.

In Marikana this took the form of a popular rejection of the authority of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), while in the wider rebellion it is usually ward councillors, ward committees and local party structures that come under attack.

In some cases people have resolved, like the miners in Marikana, to represent themselves.

It is striking that decisions by people to represent themselves have often resulted in political innovation that, despite being confronted and weakened by repression, has been able to weather attempts to contain engagement to “the right channels” and the narrow parameters of “service delivery”.

The ANC retains a considerable although waning capacity to function as a mechanism of top-down social control over collective aspirations and their political expression.

It provides all kinds of opportunities to access wealth and power and is often an accessible route into individual progress for people willing to cash in a popular constituency for personal gain.

In recent years it has brazenly tied access to much of what it does “deliver” to the performance of support for the party.

We’ve now reached the point where, for many people, a party card is required to access the limited social benefits of citizenship.

The party has also been able to exploit ethnic and national sentiment, some of it plainly chauvinist, as well as the lure of masculinist forms of personal power, to offer a sense of inclusion to people who remain materially, spatially and politically excluded.
And it has been able to sustain the ongoing production of zones of exclusion, most notably the former bantustans and, in the cities, shack settlements and transit camps, where large numbers of people are effectively treated as if they do not have a full and equal claim on democracy.

A degree of enduring popular faith in the party will continue to buy it some time. For instance, many people who are appalled by their own local experiences of the party take comfort in the fantasy that if its senior leaders knew what was going on they would share their outrage.

This is one reason why popular protest often continues to take the form of trying to draw the attention of senior party leaders to local realities. It is also why, in recent years, the ANC has campaigned against aspects of itself as much as against other parties in local elections. And there are also many people who sustain a fidelity to the idea of the ANC in the face of their disgust at its current state and hope that what they imagine to be the true ANC will return.

Nonetheless, the fact that the control that the party used to exercise at the bottom of society is now fracturing cannot be denied.
Of course there’s no guarantee that when people decide to represent themselves their politics will take a democratic form.

But it is difficult to imagine a genuinely democratic resolution of our crisis that would not be grounded in the entry, the forced entry, onto the political stage of poor people resolved to represent themselves.

  • Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was published on Daily Dispatch online.