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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.

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