We must speak and shout un­til we are heard to safe­guard our democ­racy

Protests sign of dis­il­lu­sion­ment with sub­ver­sion of con­sti­tu­tional state

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As we inch closer to the end of the year, the ANC elec­tive con­fer­ence is pre­oc­cu­py­ing the mind of any con­sci­en­tious ob­server of South African politics.

The ANC is at a tip­ping point. And given how cen­tral this lib­er­a­tion move­ment has been to the po­lit­i­cal life of this coun­try pre and post apartheid, the cri­sis in the party rip­ples through the en­tire body politic. It rip­ples across as crises of gov­er­nance, of stag­nant de­vel­op­ment and grow­ing in­equal­ity.

The ques­tion that should be ex­er­cis­ing our minds is how do we safe­guard democ­racy?

There is no democ­racy in the world that is iden­ti­cal to an­other. Ev­ery so­ci­ety that has democra­tised is the prod­uct of its own his­tory and so­ci­o­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion.

But ev­ery so­ci­ety has to de­cide what it will make of democ­racy. It’s not a one size fits all.

As a start­ing point, it’s im­por­tant to iden­tify the biggest threats to the kind of so­ci­ety en­vi­sioned in the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion: an equal, fair and just so­ci­ety.

Whereas apartheid worked on the premise of race as a ba­sis for dis­tribut­ing rights and re­sources, with­out mak­ing a pre­tence to ra­tio­nal le­gal no­tions as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, the con­tem­po­rary demo­cratic state is premised on neo-pat­ri­mo­ni­al­ism where rights and re­sources are dis­trib­uted on the ba­sis of per­sonal in­ter­ests – us­ing pub­lic re­sources for pri­vate ends.

Neo-pat­ri­mo­nial sys­tems are hy­brid sys­tems, a mix be­tween per­sonal rule and bu­reau­cratic govern­ment; a co­ex­is­tence be­tween the con­sti­tu­tional state and the shadow state as out­lined by the State Ca­pac­ity Re­search Project in its re­port Be­trayal of the Prom­ise, an anal­y­sis of state cap­ture.

Al­though the le­gal prin­ci­ples on which the con­tem­po­rary state are founded dif­fer re­mark­ably from that of the apartheid state, th­ese prin­ci­ples are sub­verted by the logic of pa­tron-client re­la­tions that per­me­ate the state at the lo­cal and na­tional lev­els.

But the re­sults are sim­i­lar: an alien­ation of the large ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion who find them­selves voice­less and mar­ginal in the de­vel­op­ment process.

The re­course to not just protest but vi­o­lent protest as a reaction and re­sponse to this alien­ation has been aptly doc­u­mented by re­searchers.

The le­gal ra­tio­nal as­pects of our democ­racy, or the con­sti­tu­tional state, are not a myth. There are mech­a­nisms by which all cit­i­zens are ac­com­mo­dated in de­cid­ing the al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources and pri­or­i­ties for ser­vice de­liv­ery.

The prob­lem is not the lack of th­ese par­tic­i­pa­tory plat­forms but their mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion by bu­reau­crats and coun­cil­lors for their own po­lit­i­cal and pat­ri­mo­nial ends.

It’s not that branches of the ANC do not ex­ist but that the branches are dys­func­tional. They are the mar­kets where buy­ing and sell­ing of sup­port, of favours, of po­si­tions, is done.

It’s not that the peo­ple do not speak, it’s that what they say is dis­re­garded, ig­nored or used to rub­ber-stamp agen­das that have noth­ing to do with the im­prove­ment of their lot.

As Tom Lodge puts it: “Both within the ANC and in the wider po­lit­i­cal sys­tem pat­ri­mo­nial be­hav­iour in­ter­acts with norms that re­flect bu­reau­cratic le­gal ra­tio­nal­ity as well as demo­cratic pro­ce­dures: that, af­ter all, is the hall­mark of a neo-pat­ri­mo­nial polity.”

This is a malaise that per­me­ates all are­nas of our so­ci­etal life.

There is no clearer ev­i­dence of the gen­eral and grow­ing dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the sub­ver­sion of the con­sti­tu­tional state than the cul­ture of protest – the pro­lif­er­a­tion of in­vented spa­ces.

There is a grow­ing feel­ing that the in­vited spa­ces – con­sti­tu­tion­ally man­dated plat­forms of pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion and par­tic­i­pa­tion – are in­ef­fec­tive.

For this rea­son cit­i­zens may find it tempt­ing to aban­don th­ese. But this is not the an­swer.

To safe­guard our democ­racy we need a dual strat­egy. As cit­i­zens we must not only con­tinue to flood the streets – in­vent spa­ces – we must swell the im­bi­zos and the town hall meet­ings.

We must speak and shout un­til we are heard and be vis­i­ble un­til we can no longer be ig­nored.

/ ALON SKUY

South Africans must swell the im­bi­zos, like this one at the Union Build­ings in 2015, and the town hall meet­ings un­til they can no longer be ig­nored, the writer ar­gues.

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