Sunday, April 15, 2007

SA democratic?

South African Democracy Revisited

By Nyiko Floyd Shivambu

Concepts, euphemisms and terminology are observably very important in politics, not because they linguistically explain and obfuscate certain matters, but because they have substantive, profound and systemic potential to guide and/or misguide policy directions and positions. The South African democracy and developmental trajectory has in the recent past employed the concept of “first and second economy” to explain the vast South African socio-economic inequalities and disparities.

The concept is ubiquitously utilised, despite the fact that it means different things to different people, circumstances and scenarios, depending on who uses it for what purpose.

The recent observation associated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) that South Africa could be drifting towards “dictatorship” is one observation and importantly terminology that cannot just be dismissed as “fulminations of the imagination”. The observation calls for a thorough and conscientious debate and analysis of South Africa democratic structure, with specific focus on participation and development. A conscientious debate and analysis of South Africa’s democratic structure should not be linked and confused whatsoever with the omnipresent reference to the succession debate and/or the Thabo Mbeki/Jacob Zuma rift, if such indeed exist. This is despite the fact that in the recent past, the succession debate and/or Mbeki/Zuma rift have become some sort of ideological lenses through which political commentators see South African society—which is very dangerous for critical political thought.

One does not need to totally agree with COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP) to realise that we indeed need a robust and vigorous debate about South Africa’s democratic structure, its institutions and systems. The government Imbizos, the Peer Review Mechanism and public hearings on legislations indeed requires a closer assessment and analysis in understanding the extent to which these forums and systems deepen the democratic order. Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari (2001) observed in a book entitled Participation: The New Tyranny that “participatory development has often failed to engage with issues of power and politics and has become a technical approach to development that, in various ways, depoliticises what should be an explicitly political process”.

There is certainly a plethora of scenarios in South Africa, which although participatory and democratic in government’s view, explains the nucleus of a “new tyranny”, and this requires a fair, honest and careful debate. The fact that there are apparent participatory structures and systems, does not necessarily entail that there is indeed meaningful participation. This is not to suggest anyhow that government should always seek consensus from stakeholders on developmental programmes, since such would be quixotic and unworkable, but to suggest that all spheres of society should at least own up to a national programmes, and mainly those that deal with developmental issues.

The adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution macroeconomic framework by the South African government in 1996 set the tone for a “top-down” approach to developmental ideology, process and policy. This conspicuously caused unprecedented damage politically, giving rise to many of the political challenges in the tripartite alliance currently, and the labelling of “neo-liberal” and “ultra-left” taking centre stage. The process that led to the adoption of GEAR effectively pulled the carpet from under the feet of labour, civil society and the tripartite alliance, since they were made to believe by the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) process for instance, that they are at the core of developmental policy formulation in South Africa. We all know the successes and failures of GEAR and the bequest it left for South Africa in the second decade of political democracy.

The border re-alignment process, in Khutsong in this instance, is one factor that could have been handled quite differently by both authorities and important role players in the matter. Against a very vociferous and vigorous resistance of the Khutsong communities to be incorporated into North West, the SA central government went ahead to “provide leadership” by passing a bill on cross border municipalities, in effect disregarding the voice of Khutsong communities. The central government did not only pass the bill, some of its senior members called community leaders “drunkards”, who are misleading the Khutsong community, causing many of us to shiver and wonder over the imagination that almost everyone in Khutsong could allow to be misled by “drunkards”. Of course central government is entrusted by the Constitution and the present democratic structure and systems to take such decisions, but the fact that virtually everyone in Khutsong resisted such incorporation is just sour grapes. It really confirms that there is a structural possibility in South Africa’s “democracy” to take decisions against the will and aspirations almost everyone.

The development of Gautrain was objected not only by labour and civil society, but by a parliamentary portfolio committee on transport, yet cabinet endorsed its establishment for reasons best understood by them than communities it intends to benefit. Gautrain endorsement process was indeed procedurally correct as per the democratic structure, but did the people of Gauteng want it to solve the public transport problem in the Province? Did they even know that there are alternate means to address the public transport system?

In the recent past, security guards, who are mainly employed in the informal sector, embarked on an industrial action, which basically called for humane working conditions and sufficient remuneration. The industrial action went on for more than 30 days, and the most vigorous intervention government could make on the action was condemnation of the violence, which was indeed and evidently abominable. However, the democratic structure and systems could not allow government to intervene on behalf of workers whom we all agree need better working conditions and sufficient remuneration in a genuine democratic order. A legislation entrusting the Minister of Labour to make such necessary intervention and labour regulation of the informalised security industry are long overdue. As a result, the SA democratic structure and systems, without a doubt failed the security industry employers, employees and the general public.

At the beginning of 2006, the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative (ASGI-SA) was ushered in as a “national development initiative” intended at halving poverty and unemployment by 2014. ASGI-SA will certainly define the socio-political and economic life of South Africa in the coming years, and requires the broader society to meaningfully participate in its programmes and projects. Although well intentioned, ASGI-SA has been bombarded by responses, inputs, critiques and perspectives from labour, civil society, student movement and so on, which could have been addressed and incorporated into the initiative by an unbiased and organic participatory process in its formulation. A national development initiative should indeed be owned up by the broader society, and such could only happen if all sectors of society are sufficiently given space to meaningfully participate in its formulation. Nonetheless, government exclusively “provided leadership” on this national developmental initiative and requested other sectors of society to own up to the initiative at a subsequent stage.

Juxtaposed to other democracies, say in Europe, South Africa’s is not organically participatory and/or deserving, as per a different conceptualisation, to be “new tyranny”. In 2005, the French peoples successfully rejected the adoption of the European Union Constitution, despite the political elite’s vigorous endeavours to have the Constitution passed. Other countries in Europe followed suit, despite what their democratically elected parliaments said. Recently, French students and workers mobilised against a controversial labour policy, which sought to informalise young workers, and the French government conceded despite its highest court approval of such policy. This was in recognition of the fact that participation is not merely a technocratic, but political process, which does not only happen after every five years. In South African democracy, a consensus in Cabinet over a policy or strategic matter is a national consensus, despite different and differing perspectives from labour and civil society. This is not to suggest whatsoever that there is no political commitment in the current government to a democratic order and principles, but to highlight the fact that South Africa’s democratic structure has its own inadequacies, which should be openly debated.

Democracy should indeed go beyond casting votes once every five years. Democracy should mean that people are able to impact on decision-making processes, mainly on issues that affect them. If the people of a country are able to meaningfully input into the way decisions are made at different levels of governance; that begins to give the term democracy meaningful content. Are majority of South Africans sufficiently equipped and strategically located, in the present democratic structure, to could meaningfully input into the ways decisions are made at different levels of governance?

Most importantly democracy is about people maximising their collective and individual creative energies to eradicate social ills that afflict society—poverty, hunger, unemployment, disease, environmental degradation, homelessness, ignorance, unemployment, oppression and exploitation. This is not to burden democracy, but to deepen it, thereby freeing it from neo-liberal shackles.

It is therefore within this context that an observation of South Africa drifting towards “dictatorship” should not merely be dismissed as “fulminations of the imagination”, but a conceptualisation that requires a thorough and conscientious debate and analysis of South Africa democratic structure. The Peer Review Mechanism could have fulfilled such role, but it is not entirely dissimilar from a government top-down technocratic process, which will not give a true reflection of South African society.

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