An alternative to more chaos and destruction?

Terry Bell
Opinion
The promises and the policies, the personalities elected, even the potential political punch-ups at Mangaung are basically irrelevant.

The centennial conference of the ANC will doubtless end with the usual fanfare and pledges of unity despite obvious deep-seated divisions promoted as diversity. There will also be the usual slew of promises about policies to cure poverty and the lack of jobs.

And all of this will not really matter because the ANC will have missed an opportunity to take a major step into its next century. This could only have been by seriously discussing a radical move toward a new political dispensation; without a move in this direction nothing will change and the ANC will cease to be a way to a better future. And, unless a new and more democratic formation emerges, the social fabric of the country will continue to fray and tear, causing further moves towards repression. Because it is only through repression that political parties and the governments they control in the present dispensation can keep eruptions of popular dissent in check.

It is these “unrest incidents”, manifest most dramatically in recent times at Marikana and on the farms of the Boland that have increased the widespread calls for “social cohesion”, and for citizens to become more involved in in the affairs of the country. But such involvement requires democratic control that is impossible under the present dispensation.

Because it is a simple fact that we do not have a democratic political system. Placing a cross on a ballot paper every five years in order to hand over political control to a party bureaucracy is democratic only in that voters willingly forgo the potential power they, collectively, have. It is, in effect, fraudulent democracy. A constituency system is marginally better, but unless the authority is vested, on an ongoing basis, with the majority of citizens, what we have, at best, is limited or partial democracy.

The interests of politicians, many of whom move seamlessly from political office to the boardrooms of big business, lie not with the voters, but with party bureaucracies. These bureaucracies, in turn, rely for much of their funding on the financial elites whose fundamental interests are diametrically opposed to those of the majority of the population. And they who pay the piper tend always to call the tune.

So, in order to have the best chance of achieving egalitarian goals such as those set out in the South African Bill of Rights, democracy should be realised to its fullest extent; rule by the people, the definition of the term given to the world by Athenian Greece, should be implemented. In simple terms: let the people decide.

The only questions that arise, are: is this possible and, if so, how can it be achieved? Since systems of direct democracy have existed in the past, usually on a village level, both in Africa and elsewhere, the possibility exists. Co-operative governance, without chiefs or hereditary rulers, has been practiced in areas as diverse as the Eastern Cape and Iceland. Regular assemblies, in many cases admittedly only of men, would be called to discuss and decide, as equals, policies to be implemented and on actions to be taken by the community and for the community.

Where necessary, representatives, wholly accountable to, and recallable by, the community would be elected to carry out specific functions. Their pay and conditions of employment would also be decided by the community. This is real democracy in action and should be the goal aimed at by every person laying claim to be a democrat.

Communication is obviously the essence here and it is readily pointed out that millions of people can hardly be gathered together on a regular basis to discuss and make decisions; that the partial democracy we now see around the world, in one form or other, is the only answer. It is not. Courtesy of the very technology, that has made increasing millions of men and women redundant as workers, rather than freeing them from drudgery, it is perfectly feasible for every citizen to be kept informed, to discuss all issues and to decide on appropriate actions.

As we are constantly reminded: we live in a world village. But it is a village in ongoing crisis where the management structures — the governments — of a system based on competition and the pursuit of profit as an end in itself pay lip service to democratic principles. Solutions are sought in economic policy, in greater or lesser regulation of national or international economies. But without changing the political framework, this amounts only to variations on the same theme that has now clearly outlived its usefulness to humanity.

Yet the technological advances that are now proving harmful could equally be immensely beneficial. Cell phones and the internet connect even the most remote communities — and South Africa is no exception. The latest survey, published this month, has revealed that more than 12 million South African adults regularly access the internet.

These are people who are members of various organisations such as trade unions, religious communities, stokvels and other groups — even political parties — that come together regularly. There is also, especially in the Eastern Cape, a move toward community “hubs” in the form of community schools. So units large and small of what could be a coalition of citizens already exists, along with the technology to link them.

What is required is organisation within an agreed framework and on the basis of a set of goals and code of conduct. The goals and the principles of conduct — effectively a political programme — exist in the Bill of Rights. Using existing social structures or setting up new ones in neighbourhoods or wherever, citizens can come together as members of a coalition of equals to debate and decide on all matters concerning them.

This will require that elected representatives of such groups, at all levels, should be both accountable to, and recallable by, their constituencies. In the case of parliament, for example, this would mean each nominated candidate signing a legal agreement to accept the conditions imposed by the constituency.

Ideally, constituencies should be clearly defined and candidates for office should be selected by coalition members in each constituency. However, because we are constrained by the present list system, with constituencies arbitrarily defined by political parties after the event, it will be necessary to adapt to this until change can be introduced.

This means a “citizens’ coalition” putting up candidates for office who are broadly acceptable to voters in different regions and who are prepared to sign “constituency agreements” whereby they agree to be wholly accountable to, and recallable by, the constituents to whom they are allocated. The proportion of votes for such a citizens’ coalition in various regions should determine the boundaries of “constituencies” and who should represent them.

Because every individual has an individual ID number, there can be little chance of duplicate membership or voting. A trade unionist, for example, may choose to be a member of a trade union unit of the coalition or of a religious, community or other grouping. Only in the unit where the coalition member is registered may a vote be recorded.

To get such a system underway in the present conditions will perhaps require representatives from major social organisations such as trade unions, religious groups and community structures to come together to finalise the organisational details. These could be presented to the public at large for comment, criticism and eventual implementation.

The basic structure would probably require a computerised “hub” that would have no political authority and would collect and collate the membership details of those subscribing to the coalition. It would also act as a “switchboard”, passing on debates, requests and arguments from various regional groupings to every coalition member using perhaps a specially tailored social media platform.

Such a system should be wholly transparent and, to ensure this, checks and balances would have to be put in place. What these should be and how they should operate should be one of the subjects for debate should a national gathering come together to seriously discuss this proposal. Since the ANC, as the largest political organisation has not moved in this direction, perhaps the numerically larger groups such as Cosatu, the South African Council of Churches or other large trade union, religious or community organisations, either alone or together, could arrange such a dialogue.

It seems vital that this is done because it seems that only an extension of democracy will avoid still more suffering and desperation as the present, fundamentally undemocratic, system attempts to claw its way back to stability. It can do so, but only at terrible cost to millions of people and to the further destruction of the natural environment. The choice seems clear: an alternative is possible. Let’s build it.