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For democracy to be meaningful, representative government and popular power need to coexist


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For democracy to be meaningful, representative government and popular power need to coexist

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

21st May 2024

By: Raymond Suttner


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In the previous article, I argued that the ANC had transitioned from being a liberation movement to become a conventional Western political party, like that of the UK or the US, focusing on elections every four or five years. )

It was argued that this would have a negative effect for the involvement of the public in matters that concerned them. In making the case for popular power to be revived and to become a part of our daily acts of agency as members of South African society, I may have brushed aside the need for representative government or put in insufficient qualifiers, for there is no need to choose one or the other. 


This was argued in the context of popular power being sidelined and where the public role in politics is that every five years one can vote for one of the various parties, or now independent candidates, who stand for election. Other than that, the electorate is cast as passive observers.

But in advancing popular democracy, it was incorrect to pose it in a way that possibly created the impression that it is an alternative to representative democracy. (I was influenced by the phraseology of the late distinguished Nigerian author Claude Ake, who refers to the designation “representative democracy” as a “contradiction in terms” (The Feasibility of Democracy in Africa, 2000, Chapter 1).


Certainly, some of the history of representative democracy poses it as alternative to the popular, with an expressed need to tame or sideline the popular. 

In earlier articles I have referred to the need to augment representative democracy with the mass element, but the main point is to find an adequate expression of the necessary coexistence of these two forms or elements of democracy.

Coexistence of representative and popular democracy 

John Hoffman and Paul Graham in their Introduction to Political Theory, (3rd edition, 2015) argue that we should not pose popular and representative democracy as binaries, as mutually exclusive. They argue that even in ancient Athens, an early example of direct democracy, the understanding of popular democracy was not as the absolute form of the democratic experience. There were certain questions that were delegated for people to do on behalf of others. The idea of representation is not always excluded or often is included in the notion of democratic rule. (Chapter 5).

The critique of representative democracy that was made in the previous article was based on the experience that many of us have of unresponsive representatives who one votes for or doesn't vote for every five years. The electorate is generally cast in a passive role.

Ours is a proportional representation electoral system and some argue that a constituency system remedies this lack of responsiveness to voters, and arguments for electoral reform often see a constituency system as meaning regular reporting to constituencies. That may be the theory, but it is also partly mythology. 

Most of the decisions that involve representatives are made by the leadership, meeting as a caucus, in parliament in Westminster in the case of the UK, or wherever parliament is located in other countries. 

But that is not the only model of representation. Hoffman and Graham argue that to represent or re- present the people who have voted, the representative has to act in a way that the electorate would want to have that person act on their behalf. 

They argue that this does not require making a choice between representational democracy and direct democracy: between situations in which people elect representatives to govern them, or they directly take decisions themselves. 

They are however alert to the classical liberal connotations, that could set limits:

“The very notion of representation as a re-presenting of the individual, arises from the classical liberal view that citizens are individuals. This is an important and positive idea, but to be democratic, representatives can only act on behalf of those they represent if they understand their problems and way of life.

“We do not, therefore, have to make a choice between representational or direct democracy. Those who have neither the time nor resources to make laws directly, need to authorise others to do so on their behalf. 

“Only through a combination of the direct and the indirect – hands-on participation and representation – can democratic autonomy be maximised. Of course, there are dangers that representatives will act in an elitist manner…. 

“Democracy requires accountability, so that people can get decisions made which help them to govern their own lives.” (at 108)

Their notion of accountability is more than checking numbers that respond to undertakings, but relate to a much-needed empathy towards those who are their constituency, who experience hardship:

“Representation, it should be said, involves empathy – the capacity to put yourself in the position of another – and while it is impossible to actually be another person, it is necessary to imagine what it is like to be another. Hence, accountability is ‘the other side’ of representation: one without the other descends into either impracticality or elitism. The notion of empathy points to the need for a link between representatives and constituents. Unless representatives are in some sense a reflection of the population at large, it is difficult to see how empathy can take place.” (at 108)

In a sense, one is stepping into their shoes, metaphorically in the Parliament, and one must do one’s best to be and do as they would want to be and do themselves if they were there. It is better still, if the groups who experience various vulnerabilities, including but not exhausting the categories - gender-based violence (women and men); lack of access to various social and health services and benefits; unemployed people; people with disabilities - are themselves directly present by virtue of their own experience. But at the least we need a form of representation that is aware of and sensitive to the particular identities and problems of those they represent.

That is one reason why it is desirable to have people who come from a variety of sectors of society and who have a range of distinct needs, that ought to be heard in Parliament. 

Women who have experienced oppression by men (or partners) at first hand, are more likely to have insight into the problems women face than men who – however sympathetic they may be – may have never been the recipients of that particular form of discrimination. The same is true for members of ethnic and sexual groups facing hostility and attacks. 

That is why it is desirable, if we are concerned about gender-based violence, to have women or men who have experienced gender-based violence, or know about it. It is those who know about it who are likely to act against it, to articulate these specific ills.

To “know about it” means imagining what it means for people who experience these hazards, dangers and fears. One has also to hear people speak of their experiences and incorporate them into one’s understanding, that then goes to Parliament. One has to hear how they put it, the words they use to express their concerns. What you read about is seldom as powerful as the words of those who experience the pain.

One cannot simply do this by taking a list of demands. It needs to be that on incorporates within the makeup of a representative a sense of empathy and compassion. 

It means putting oneself in the shoes of the person who is suffering and trying to feel what it means to be a woman who has been, or fears being raped; to be without a home; to be without water; to be with a pit toilet instead of a safe, clean flush toilet; and not to have a roof over one’s head. 

Representatives, in this interpretation, have to capture that to such an extent and so extensively that they themselves can re- present them by the representative’s presence in Parliament as if they were there themselves, knowing their problems sufficiently well to do that.

Very often, it's not possible to directly have representatives from the various constituencies within the community, or the various people comprising different identities - gay, lesbian, trans or working class or unemployed and a range of other sectors of the community. 

Consequently, there is a need for someone to voice their problems when they are not able to do it themselves. If representation is conceived this way, the barrier between elected representatives and those practising direct popular action will erode and the idea of their being opposites will disappear.

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His current writings cover mainly contemporary politics, history, and social questions.


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