South Africans must re­claim the democ­racy they fought for

Cit­i­zens are largely be­ing ex­cluded from salient de­ci­sion-mak­ing and de­nied in­clu­sion

Pretoria News - - OPINION - BOBBY PEEK Peek is the di­rec­tor of ground­Work, a non-profit en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and de­vel­op­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion

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.

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