Democ­racy could be doomed

CityPress - - Voices - Thuli Madon­sela voices@city­press.co.za

‘Democ­racy needs to be re­viewed or repack­aged for it to re­main mean­ing­ful to all and, ac­cord­ingly, main­tain sus­tain­abil­ity.” This view was ex­pressed by one of the South African mil­len­ni­als at Har­vard with whom I have been en­gag­ing in spon­ta­neous democ­racy di­a­logues since our ar­rival here. His col­leagues who par­tic­i­pated in the con­ver­sa­tion, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally con­curred.

The young lead­ers ad­vised that they had been giv­ing the is­sue of democ­racy – and what they see as its con­tem­po­rary chal­lenges – some thought for a while. One of their bold state­ments was that if cur­rent democ­racy trends con­tin­ued, democ­racy was doomed. One of them opined that the key threats to democ­racy to­day were ir­ra­tional­ity and self­ish­ness among those who are pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives and their ad­min­is­tra­tive sup­port func­tionar­ies.

The spon­ta­neous democ­racy di­a­logues I have been hav­ing with young peo­ple have dis­pelled the myth that young peo­ple have no in­ter­est in pol­i­tics or are some lost gen­er­a­tion with re­gard to lead­er­ship and na­tional af­fairs.

My di­a­logues with young peo­ple have con­vinced me that if young peo­ple tend to do noth­ing about con­cerns re­gard­ing proper use of state power and pub­lic re­sources, it is not that they don’t care or don’t have an opin­ion. It is prin­ci­pally be­cause they tend to find cur­rent democ­racy av­enues rather un­demo­cratic or in­ac­ces­si­ble to the av­er­age per­son.

How can democ­racy be un­demo­cratic? You must be won­der­ing if this is not an oxy­moron. I too had sim­i­lar thoughts when for­mer Span­ish pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Pe­dro Sanchez com­menced his ad­dress on democratis­ing democ­racy at the 2016 con­fer­ence of the In­sti­tute for Cul­tural Diplo­macy in Berlin. As I lis­tened to his talk, though, I found res­o­nance be­tween his thoughts on con­tem­po­rary democ­racy gaps and the views I have ex­pressed in var­i­ous forms re­gard­ing the need to reimag­ine democ­racy.

Has democ­racy be­come un­demo­cratic, you might ask. My an­swer is yes. You might even ar­gue that many of the things that are done in the name of democ­racy only share the “-cracy” part with democ­racy and that the “demos” part – a Greek con­cept mean­ing “peo­ple” – is miss­ing.

Democ­racy is meant to con­note “the govern­ment of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple, for the peo­ple”. The Free­dom Char­ter sim­pli­fied democ­racy into the phrase: “The peo­ple shall govern.” It’s a sys­tem in which peo­ple govern them­selves di­rectly or through their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives who are ac­count­able to them. In the sim­plest of terms, democ­racy means power to the peo­ple. Worth not­ing, ac­cord­ingly, is the cen­tral­ity of the peo­ple in a democ­racy, both as the man­date givers and the sup­posed ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the ex­er­cise of pub­lic gov­er­nance.

The phi­los­o­phy be­hind democ­racy is that the col­lec­tive de­cides that un­reg­u­lated co­ex­is­tence is an­ar­chic and po­ten­tially bru­tal, with sur­vival of the fittest be­ing the or­der of the day. The col­lec­tive sur­ren­ders to reg­u­lated co­ex­is­tence with a few cho­sen to reg­u­late the con­duct of the group and col­lec­tive re­sources for com­mon good. The cho­sen few, com­monly re­ferred to as po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the elec­torate, are sup­posed to be the most self­less and most reg­u­la­tory com­pe­tent of them all. The out­come of democ­racy must be the im­proved for­tunes of all and peace­ful co­ex­is­tence.

Es­sen­tial ele­ments of true democ­racy are that the few cho­sen – based on trust to look af­ter ev­ery­one’s in­ter­ests – govern at the will of the peo­ple and are ul­ti­mately ac­count­able to the peo­ple as man­date givers.

But let’s look at the state of democ­racy to­day through the lens of the true mean­ing of democ­racy. You will agree with the young lead­ers’ views that there are se­ri­ous dis­crep­an­cies be­tween what is done to­day in the name of democ­racy and what democ­racy is sup­posed to mean.

For ex­am­ple, pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives are sup­posed to be elected by the peo­ple, but many are not.

Tak­ing South Africa as an ex­am­ple, the peo­ple have no say what­so­ever in the ap­point­ment of an in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple to Par­lia­ment and even Cabi­net to­day. Many of the peo­ple hold­ing key po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions were never elected by the peo­ple or put on a list that was re­viewed by the peo­ple when they con­sciously voted for po­lit­i­cal par­ties in April 2014.

Un­like in con­stituency elec­tions, the pub­lic has no say about who does or does not get on the list of the par­ties they will vote for. Only party mem­bers have a say, but even then, within the con­straints of power dy­nam­ics in each po­lit­i­cal party.

Govern­ment must be at the will of the peo­ple. But not so long ago, the ex­ec­u­tive uni­lat­er­ally de­cided, with­out the in­volve­ment of Par­lia­ment or the peo­ple, to with­draw South Africa’s mem­ber­ship of the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court (ICC), de­spite hav­ing no al­ter­na­tive mech­a­nism for the im­punity for geno­cide and re­lated war crimes the court was es­tab­lished for.

Fur­ther­more, all pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives are sup­posed to be im­par­tial and self­less, but many are en­cum­bered by con­flict of in­ter­est with a few fla­grantly choos­ing to favour ac­tions that ad­vance their in­ter­ests, in­stead of the pub­lic in­ter­est.

An ex­am­ple is Cabi­net get­ting in­volved in the con­flict be­tween Oak­bay and the banks, de­spite the pres­i­dent hav­ing a con­flict of in­ter­est aris­ing from his son’s part-own­er­ship of Oak­bay.

While im­proved for­tunes of all is an es­sen­tial out­come of democ­racy, we must agree that so­cial jus­tice con­tin­ues to elude many of those “left be­hind”, while the for­tunes of some can only be prin­ci­pally at­trib­uted to their po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions or con­nec­tions.

In an­other coun­try, a pres­i­dent who came into power on the prom­ise of tak­ing power away from the cap­i­tal and giv­ing it back to the peo­ple has since been mak­ing ma­jor lifechang­ing reg­u­la­tory de­ci­sions with­out the leg­is­la­ture’s in­put or the in­volve­ment of the peo­ple.

The courts, of course, have helped the peo­ple to push back against some of the ex­cesses of the ex­ec­u­tive and other state func­tionar­ies. The high court re­cently de­cided that the ICC with­drawal with­out par­lia­men­tary in­volve­ment and peo­ple’s par­tic­i­pa­tion was un­con­sti­tu­tional. The con­sti­tu­tional ad­min­is­tra­tive ac­count­abil­ity in­sti­tu­tions have also played some role, as seen in in­ves­ti­ga­tions such as the state cap­ture re­port.

This in­deed of­fers a lot of com­fort. Such mea­sures help de­fend and deepen democ­racy. The me­dia and civil so­ci­ety also play a part.

The mech­a­nisms for de­fend­ing and deep­en­ing democ­racy are all thanks to the vi­sion­ary ar­chi­tects of the con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy. Such ar­chi­tec­ture in­cor­po­rates in­de­pen­dent ju­di­cial and ad­min­is­tra­tive scru­tiny of acts of state func­tionar­ies to en­sure con­sti­tu­tional, le­gal and pol­icy com­pli­ance, among other fac­tors.

But are these enough to plug the gaps re­gard­ing un­demo­cratic ten­den­cies brazenly ex­e­cuted in the name of democ­racy?

Are cur­rent mea­sures aimed at deep­en­ing and de­fend­ing democ­racy enough to save and sus­tain it as the best model for reg­u­lat­ing peace­ful co­ex­is­tence?

The mil­len­ni­als be­lieve we should dig deeper. One of them pro­poses con­sid­er­ing the fu­ture use of robots (ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence) to govern, as they’ll do so with ef­fi­ciency, pre­ci­sion and im­par­tial­ity.

I have my doubts. But I do agree that it is time to re­view or reimag­ine democ­racy. Democ­racy must work for all. Above all, democ­racy must yield fair­ness and im­proved for­tunes for all – not just some. It seems to me that the cen­tral­ity of the peo­ple in democ­racy is the an­swer.

If we don’t find a way to bring back the peo­ple el­e­ment into democ­racy, democ­racy is in­deed doomed. If democ­racy is doomed, peace and sta­bil­ity are equally doomed in the long term. Madon­sela is a Har­vard Ad­vanced Lead­er­ship Fel­low and

chief pa­tron of Thuma Foun­da­tion

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PHOTO: DEON RAATH

NOUGHTS AND CROSSES A fa­mil­iar sight in post-apartheid South Africa – elec­tion re­sults at the na­tional re­sults op­er­at­ing cen­tre

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