South Africans must reclaim the democracy they fought for
Citizens are largely being excluded from salient decision-making and denied inclusion
OVER the past 20 years, community people and NGOs have become increasingly frustrated by how, despite our democracy, they are increasingly excluded from decision-making. They are denied access to forums where decisions are taken, such as national and provincial portfolio committees and municipal committees.
They are refused reasons for decisions taken by government – both the political leadership and the officials. They are refused access to information or at best they receive heavily redacted documents. And on key developments, they are kept at arm’s length from decision-makers as politicians or officials do not attend public forums where public scrutiny and interrogation of projects takes place. Instead, the democratic process is outsourced to consultants.
These are a few examples of what is challenging about our democratic system. It is shrouded in a cloak of secrecy. The result is that community groups have to rely on public interest law groups such as the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Centre for Environmental Rights and the Legal Resource Centre to access information. Our democracy thus becomes bureaucratic and legalised and takes away the agency of the people it is supposed to represent.
The government is systematically disabling our democracy to replace it with a political-corporate-led autocracy. This has not all happened by chance – it has a clear and deliberate history. The minerals energy complex, created by imperial capital in the early 20th century and combining state and private entities, shaped development in South Africa for over a century and created a highly concentrated economy. It required cheap labour and land, secured through dispossession and the racist division of labour, and reproduced through patriarchal and authoritarian relations.
In response, the “open democracy” agenda was articulated through the anti-apartheid movement and partially realised in the Constitution of 1996. For organisations on the ground, access to information and decision-making opened dramatically as government bodies and corporates assumed that the new regime required it.
However, South Africa’s political transition coincided with the global restructuring of industry under neo-liberal orders – encoded in Gear (growth, employment and redistribution) also in 1996. Notably, under (Thabo) Mbeki the open democracy agenda was pushed back.
Access to information was bureaucratised through the misnamed Promotion of Access to Information Act while economic transformation was reduced to the creation of a black capitalist class enabled – by fair means or foul – by the privatisation of state services and assets.
Corporate secrecy was reasserted and reinforced through the Competition Act and a large measure of impunity restored. Neo-liberalism has been accompanied by the expansion of corruption – already part of the DNA of South African business and government. And neo-liberal policies are well resourced while environmental regulation is crippled.
In the 2010s, the (Jacob) Zuma administration promoted the Secrecy Bill (Protection of State Information) and mobilised the Key Points Act, provoking a fightback from civil society with the formation of the Right2Know campaign. Key Points was repackaged as the Critical Infrastructure Act and signed into law in November 2019. The Secrecy Bill was dropped but the State Security Agency started punting it again last year.
Other acts limiting people’s rights include the “Bantustan Act” (Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Act), also signed into law in November, once more relegating people to the status of subjects and enabling “leaders” to speak in their place, for example in supporting the approval of new mines.
The country is thus again divided, in the memorable phrase of Mahmood Mamdani, between citizens and subjects. groundWork believes that a broad open democracy agenda needs to be put back on the political agenda, including but not limited to:
● The right to know and a presumption that all information held by the state should be open to the public.
● Open decision-making including access to all government meetings with tight rules for any exceptions.
● Participatory democracy – where politicians and officials engage with people at a local level on issues raised by people – with inclusive and bottom up processes and the assertion of rights of assembly and dissent etc.
● Freedom from surveillance by state or corporate capital.
Last week, people from community-based organisations, social justice movements, environmental justice NGOs, research institutions and public interest law clinics met in Durban to share experiences on the closing of democratic spaces. We noted with concern the declining commitment to democracy by those in power and the lack of accountability by political leadership and corporate bosses.
Frustration was noted by the reality that to be able to engage with democracy and or access justice in in South Africa lawyers are needed.
As the majority of people in South Africa cannot afford lawyers, they do not experience democracy. We noted that, with the closing of these democratic spaces, we have seen the emergence of violence and intimidation aimed at preventing people’s participation. The state is fully aware of it and, if not complicit, it fails to respond.
We need to start a debate about how we understand open democracy, agree a collective approach to challenge for it, and to choose specific interventions backed with a strategic and strong response from civil society.
The big question facing all South Africans is how we reclaim the democracy that was fought so hard for?
IN THIS picture taken with a drone, a flock of greylag geese and greater white-fronted geese take flight in Hortobagy, Hungary. |
THE Right2Know campaign was established in 2010 to reduce state secrecy in the drafting of laws, increase access to information and protect freedom of expression.