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South Africa: Ten Years of Democracy

(Un)civil Society and the Vote

Ashwin DESAI & Richard PITHOUSE, 21 January 2004

Radical civil society is returning to a vision that aims to diffuse power rather than to seize it. It is a vision that aims to steadily limit the power of parliament and managers by building people’s power from the bottom up. It is a spark in the ashes.In the tenth year of our democracy we are forced to confront a number of sobering facts. For the purposes of this short article we’d like to highlight just five.

The first is that the ANC has reorganised economic policy and key social institutions in the interests of the elite with the result that the poor have got poorer and the rich have got richer under democracy. The second is that the ANC has used its political legitimacy to launch a massive assault on the poor via disconnections from water and electricity, evictions and exclusions from access to education. Thirdly is clear that, although the ANC came to power via democracy, there are many powerful currents and individuals in the ANC that are anti-democratic. Internal practices within the organisation and its leadership’s support for the Mugabe dictatorship make this clear. Fourthly, the ANC is gripped by a leadership cult that has allowed the President’s paranoid thinking about AIDS to supersede both science and evidence from the experience of ordinary citizens with catastrophic consequences. Our final point is that the ANC has sought to co-opt all parliamentary opposition. So in the Western Cape it is in alliance with the Nats, at the national level and in KZN it is in alliance with the IFP and the Minority Front. At the same time COSATU and the SACP form part of a separate alliance. So the DA is in cahoots with the IFP, the IFP is bed with the ANC and the ANC is in a simultaneous alliance with the NNP and the SACP. Then there was the floor crossing debacle. Its no surprise that student graffiti at the Westville campus of the new UKZN calls on its readers to ’break the African National Consensus.’

The only parliamentary party that can claim to offer any meaningful opposition to the ANC is the DA. The DA won its space in parliament by claiming that it would fight back against the onslaught that the communist-dominated ANC was going to unleash on the suburbs of Houghton and the boardrooms of Anglo-American. But the ANC has not unleashed communism on Houghton. Its leaders have gone to live there. It has not nationalised the mines, its leading cadres now own shares in them. On the fundamental economic questions, the DA and ANC are in the same GEAR. Both parties represent the interests of predatory elites. This means that the only real role for the DA is to retard the implementation of affirmative action and preserve historical advantages for as long as possible.

It’s no surprise that ten years after ANC stepped off a great tide of popular mobilisation and into parliament there is a deep seated popular ’disrespect’ for parliament. Mbeki, Leon, Buthelezi, Ginwala are all cut from the same sari. We see then on TV, the living dead, lifting their hands with as much independence as docile sheep. Their staged gestures, boring press releases and self-servingly vacuous clichés are completely removed from the struggles and suffering of ordinary South Africans. And this elite driven and public relations fuelled authoritarian managerialism is repeated in our universities, factories, news rooms and NGOs.

We have to turn to sport and game shows for unscripted surprises and passion and risk. South Africa is suffering a bad case of what Karl Marx called "parliamentary cretinism, which confines its victims to an imaginary world and robs them of their senses, their recollection, all knowledge of the rude external world."

The Mercury reported that a week after Mbeki’s State of the Nation address some 10 000 job seekers responded to an advertisement for 300 people to work in low paid menial jobs at the uShaka Marine World in Durban. Seventy people were injured in the stampede that insued. One of the applicants Themba Dlamini said they were chased away ’like dogs’. In return many of the young job seekers raised the chant ’No jobs, no vote’. In response to the tragedy, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce said that the emphasis should be on self-generating employment-like women who wash dishes at townships weddings and funerals! The Department of Labour called the incident "unacceptable" and promised to investigate. What they should investigate is an economic policy that promised a million jobs and lost a million.

More and more people are refusing to buy the self-serving public relations of capital and the state.

But there is a space in our society where people tell the truth and engage with the real experiences of ordinary people. That space is the social movements that have risen to oppose the ANC’s neo-liberal polices that are enriching an elite at the direct expense of the poor.

It is because of the Treatment Action Campaign that the AIDS has been placed so high on the national agenda. It is because of Jubilee South Africa that the issue of reparations continues to be a struggle. It is because of organisations like the Anti-Privatisation Forum that electricity and water disconnections are resisted. It is because of the Anti-Eviction Campaign that evictions have been resolutely opposed under DA and ANC rule in the Western Cape. It is environmental organisations that have raised the ante on the destruction of the Wild Coast and the oil companies that give us cancer and asthma in South Durban. It is the Landless People’s Movement that has challenged the ANC’s failure to redistribution land. It is in organisations like these that our nation has come alive and it is here that the real fight to defend and deepen our democracy is being fought.

An ANC regional conference in 1992 adopted a slogan- ’Elections-The Last step to freedom’. We shouldn’t be surprised that the ANC aims to reduce democracy to spin doctoring and the empty ritual of voting. But a few years ago South Africa was at the forefront of thinking about ways to make democracy real. The United Democratic Front argued that "Not only are we opposed to the present parliament because we are excluded, but because parliamentary type of representation in itself represents a limited and narrow idea of democracy. The rudimentary organs of people’s power that have begun to emerge in South Africa…represent in many ways the beginnings of the kind of democracy we are striving for."

This is the vision that radical civil society is returning too. It is a vision that aims to diffuse power rather than to seize it. It is a vision that aims to steadily limit the power of parliament and managers by building people’s power from the bottom up. It is a spark in the ashes.


Ashwin Desai is an honorary research fellow and Richard Pithouse is a research fellow at the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.