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Constitutionalism and the quality of democracy: are we immune to fascism?

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Constitutionalism and the quality of democracy: are we immune to fascism?

Photo by Chris Snelling

30th October 2018

By: Raymond Suttner


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In contemporary South Africa much attention is rightly devoted to restoring legality, constitutionalism and practices that conform to what is required in the exercise of public duties by officials.  This is an essential part of addressing the wholesale pillage of state resources that was one of the key characteristics of the Jacob Zuma period. 

In rebuilding democratic life, it is important that we restore the rule of law.  Vital work is being done to re-instil a culture of regularity in State Owned Companies and other state entities. 


Where one has a democratic constitution as is the case in South Africa it is important that we ensure compliance with its provisions and where possible, interpretations of its meanings that enhance liberty as much as possible, so that the quality of democratic life which the law and constitution oversee, is continually enriched.

There was a time when respect for the law was considered rather “tame” for those who considered themselves revolutionaries.  But law and constitutionalism in South Africa today means something quite different from the 1980s or the entire period of white rule of South Africa. It has become a rights-bearing, rather than a rights-denying law and constitution. Moreover, the constitution goes beyond defending rights from attack and incorporates provisions that aim to compel the state to advance socioeconomic rights, to meet basic needs (See Chapter 2, Bill of Rights).  This is where the state-owned entities and various organs of state ought to have played a crucial role, where they, instead, looted resources that were intended for the poor.


But we ought not, when we consider the present and future of democratic life to restrict ourselves to simply returning to where we were prior to the rise of Zuma.  The period before the Zuma presidency, had its flaws. But what is important for this contribution is that it did not represent all the potentialities of the understandings and practices of democracy.

Whatever the qualities of our constitution, we need to understand democracy as never being fully realised.  That is why it is wrong to suggest, that it was realised at a particular point in time, as in phrases like “we achieved our freedom in 1994”.   This is not to imply that there is something wrong with a constitutional democracy and representative democracy per se.  The vote was and is very important.

There was a time when Africans were referred to with such phrases as a “child race” by Hertzog and Smuts and the denial of the vote was sometimes premised on the “primitiveness” of black people in general but Africans in particular. That is one of the reasons why the vote was a central demand not only in South Africa but in the whole continent.  The vote is sometimes referred to as universal adult suffrage and in the context of Africans being treated as “boys” and “girls” irrespective of their age, exercising the vote was symbolic of rupture with key colonial and apartheid constructs.

But what can happen in democratic life does not derive only from what is in a constitution or through being able to exercise the vote. There is provision for participation of members of the public at various moments of parliamentary life in the South African constitution, through inviting public comments on proposed legislation, for example.  But that does not represent the full scope of potential democratic life. Nor does it capture some of the experiences of popular democracy that have been witnessed in the history of this country. 

What we have in South Africa does not exhaust the meanings of the word democracy nor do our practices conform with the original definition of democracy, advanced by Aristotle, with some disdain, not agreeing with what he saw it implying.

In its original meaning it was unthinkable that the people would not directly govern, that there should be the mediation of parties or other representative bodies (Anthony Arblaster, Democracy, 3rd edn (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002). They would rule directly. Thus, Aristotle writes:

“A democracy exists whenever those who are free and not well off, being in the majority, are in control of government, an oligarchy when control lies with the rich and well-born, these being few (Aristotle (1962), The Politics, (Harmondsworth: Penguin).  p. 155).

“The first, and most truly so called, variety of democracy is that which is based on the principle of equality. In such the law lays down that the poor shall not enjoy any advantage over the rich, that neither class shall dominate the other but both shall be exactly similar. For if, as is generally held, freedom is especially to be found in democracy, and also equality, this condition is best realised when all share in equal measure the whole politeia. But since the people are the more numerous class and the decision of the majority prevails, such apparent inequality does not prevent its being a democracy (Aristotle, p.  159).

Pericles, without the same emphasis on the poor, nevertheless stresses direct majority rule: “Our constiutution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Penguin, 1972, p 143).

In line with this emphasis on democracy meaning direct democracy, the great Nigerian scholar, Claude Ake referred to representative democracy as a contradiction in terms.

Statism and human self-realisation.  When we revisit popular power as- at least- an element of democracy we distinguish what results from state power and what is self-empowering or democratic self-emancipation or entails popular agency.  If the state enacts certain rights or “delivers” certain goods that improve the quality of life, it is very important.  But that is a quite different type of power from that of self-acting people or communities who decide for themselves what they want and act to achieve or in fact do achieve that.

Statism refers to the scope of democratic life being delimited by the state, so that there is no space in the political sphere for the actions of citizens unless they are relating to or petitioning the state. That diminishes human self-realisation in the political domain.

Popular power, of the type we had in the 1980s was outside of, though sometimes interfacing with, state entities.  It is a form of democracy that comes into being without state authorisation though it need not stand in an antagonistic relationship to the state.  It may interact constructively or be an independent presence in people’s lives, without engaging the state.

With the repression during the mid 1980s until 1990 many of the structures of popular power were crippled or destroyed and thousands of grassroots activists and leaders were arrested. The UDF itself was banned. In this context, the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) was formed to coordinate struggle for popular demands.  It is important to distinguish the MDM from the UDF, for the latter was directly connected to the masses through grassroots organisation and accountability to grassroots structures.  The MDM often acted with the masses or with mass organisations, like COSATU when it had some public space. But the MDM was not the same as the UDF, given the broader severance of the links to the ground.  (See Michael Neocosmos, “From People’s Politics to State Politics: Aspects of National Liberation in South Africa in Adebayo A. Olukoshi (ed), The Politics of Opposition in contemporary Africa, Nordic Africa Institute, 1998, chapter 7).  The MDM did not pretend to have a connection of the kind that representation entailed, even though it sought to embody popular demands.

Without intending it, this experience created the conditions that made it possible for the ANC after 1990 to displace mass organisations. When the ANC was unbanned many popular organisations of the 1980s disbanded or were demobilised. It is important to understand that this was not under orders of the ANC leadership.  The local forces often understood their role to be that of a “B team” that left the field when the “A team”, i.e. the ANC arrived as a legal organisation. 

This had negative consequences for the place of the popular in South African political life.  Much of the process of negotiations was conducted by leaders and the masses tended to make sporadic appearances through various marches and other mass action to “break the deadlock”.  But the general sense was that the notion of the Freedom Charter’s demand that the “People Shall Govern!”, was to be realised through electing the ANC as the embodiment of the people. And that would later come to mean the state, as the embodiment of the people’s will, given that it had been elected by the people.

Deepening and defending democracy in a time of fascism

When we speak of deepening and broadening of democracy, we are referring to the full capacities of human beings being realised and what that means must continually change insofar as science enables humans to do more all the time. That they may do less is generally because of barriers in human understandings and common discourses about what democracy means.  This therefore limits its scope and also accustoms or encourages people to be passive or there are formal barriers in the way of their full self-realisation.

We are living in a time where there is an upsurge of right-wing populism or sometimes fascism, in a number of countries.  The turn to fascism relates to disillusionment with liberal politics and also that of a liberation movement, in India or a left leaning party in Brazil.  The fascists are not a solution to such disillusionment.   But it is common for fascism to arise as an illusory answer to the anxiety, fears and cynicism that we find today. This was also true of the time of the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany (See Eric Hobsbawm, The age of extremes, 1994, chapters 4 and 5). 

We need to be reminded of what Ruth First, in her classic work, The Barrel of the Gun, reported of the military coups d’état in Africa in the 1960s.  She said that people did not want military rule, but nor did they mourn the fall of the decadent elite governments. No one was in the streets to protest their being overthrown. They did not see these as their governments or states.

The lesson for us is that people need to be invested in democracy.  That investment is made stronger, the more the people themselves are directly involved.  South Africa cannot be said to be immune to the rise of fascism. There is widespread disillusionment and cynicism regarding politics in our times.  There is an atmosphere without serious debate or advancing of political ideas that excite people’s imagination.  Populism is widespread, although it is difficult to know whether to characterise it as left or right wing in character.

One of the best ways of combatting this state of affairs and averting any danger of testing receptiveness for fascism is by involving the people as directly as possible in political democracy.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His prison memoir  Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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