he ANC came before democracy.” So said President Jacob Zuma, although the concept of democracy predated the formation of the ANC in 1912 by about 2 500 years.
Democracy – people power – came to us from the ancient Greeks. However, Zuma did go on to explain that he meant his comment to apply to South Africa, where the first nonracial parliamentary elections were staged 82 years after the birth of the ANC.
This put the question of democracy into focus. At the same time, the media was again accused of misleading the voting public and so undermining democracy and both the ANC and its trade union partner, Cosatu.
But do votes for all equal democracy to Parliament? And to what degree can the media manipulate public opinion?
In the first place, there are different forms of parliamentary “democracy”. On the Zuma definition, Britain was not a democracy until 1933, the first election in which women could vote on an equal basis.
So what applied in Britain up to that date – and in Greece until 1952 – is best described as a gender-exclusive parliamentary democracy. And, in South Africa, when white women were given the vote in 1930, there were still black men on the common voters’ roll.
The remaining black voters were removed in 1936 and, 20 years later, voters classified “coloured” followed suit, making the country a racially exclusive parliamentary democracy. But democracy is supposed to mean that all people enjoy equal rights and constant oversight; that a majority cannot also remove the rights of a minority to dissent.
Citizens and voters are not soldiers at war, so ongoing debate is healthy. Decisions, therefore, are always open to revision, with the power always resting with “the people”.
This is the essence of the Cosatu constitution, just as it underpins the justly lauded Bill of Rights. But while democracy is much demanded and talked about, it is frequently abused.
There are many ways in which the electoral process can be distorted. The media usually plays a role in reflecting this, but there is plenty of evidence that the power of the media is very limited.
Having recently returned from Britain, I was able to see at first hand an excellent example involving democratic practice and the role of the media. It concerns the election of the new Labour Party (LP) leader Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong socialist and human rights, anti-racist and peace activist.
The 231 members of the parliamentary LP wanted Corbyn’s name on the list of candidates to provide an illusion of choice in a field of business-friendly members of the party’s right wing. Only 20 of the MPs supported him and most of the LPsupporting trade union leaders were antiCorbyn.
The media, in turn, either reviled or rejected him. But for the first time, there was a leadership election on the basis of “one member, one vote”. Corbyn scored a landslide victory.
Here is a lesson, especially for Cosatu: truly go back to basics, to unity in diversity, to the democratic principles of your constitution and the goals of the Bill of Rights. True shop floor democracy and the tolerance of difference may be the only hope left to halt a slide to irrelevance.