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If we want to remedy our current choiceless democracy, we must re-establish link between politics and the people


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If we want to remedy our current choiceless democracy, we must re-establish link between politics and the people

Raymond Suttner
Raymond Suttner

12th October 2021

By: Raymond Suttner


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There is a general sense of cynicism about the forthcoming elections. Political parties are not trusted, and their undertakings are not believed. It is necessary to re-establish the link between politics and the people, through finding ways of direct participation, not necessarily through existing parties or party-political organisations. The seeds of renewal may be found in unexpected places

“…The ANC is going into the November 1 local government elections carrying bags of promises about fixing things that they themselves broke, upgrading infrastructure they neglected and enforcing ethical conduct that they have hitherto observed in the breach. 


“So unbelievable are the ANC’s election pledges that much of the reaction since the party’s manifesto was released has been a mix of derision, laughter and anger. 

“What has elicited the most mirth is the ANC’s promise that it will ‘fix roads, potholes, sewage spills and broken water pipes’. A walk or drive down any street in which this party is in power will beg the question: who broke these things in the first place and where will they now find the will and wherewithal to put it right?” - Mondli Makhanya, City Press, 10 October, 2021.


When one reads careful investigative reporting, covering conditions in various townships, villages, and other localities in South Africa, one gets a sense of the desperate conditions under which very many people continue to live.

I recently referred to the majority of South Africans as still being oppressed. And it's not something that many of us anticipated saying some 27 or 30 years ago. It was the hope of many who struggled for freedom that apartheid would be defeated and a situation created where all would live in dignity and with all the rights to which they were entitled as human beings.

Regrettably, the oppressed have remained oppressed in the main, with some exceptions, who have escaped from the condition of oppression, some of whom have made considerable wealth through legitimate or illegitimate means. But those who were oppressed under apartheid generally remain oppressed in the present, post-apartheid order.

It is by no means exceptional - in fact, it is common to read of communities having no access to clean water, having sewage spilling into the streets and into their homes, and the likelihood of waterborne diseases like cholera in a number of parts of South Africa.

It is bad enough that one can make a strong case for arguing that the majority of South Africans remain oppressed. But it is dispiriting to read that their condition has actually worsened in many communities. There was, at some point, provision of water and electricity and that has proved unsustainable, in some or many cases, so that even what was gained in the early years of democracy has not been maintained for many.

We are now facing local government elections with very many people saying that they do not want to vote, or that there is no alternative to continuing to vote for the ANC that has been responsible for their oppression, although this option may be seen as less viable as was demonstrated in the 2016 local government election results.

If things are looking so bad and the ANC presents little evidence of regeneration, of renewal, of turning its back on corruption, on lawlessness and violence and xenophobia, what do we do? The DA is hardly an option, continuing to present itself to the public as mainly concerned with whites, and to some extent, what they believe other minority sections of the population want to hear.

Likewise, the EFF is also not a viable alternative, with its propensity towards violence, and an overall macho self-representation. This reservation is heightened by reports of the alleged corruption of EFF leaders which derives partly from the looting of the VBS bank, that is, looting from the poorest sections of the community whose monies were wrongfully invested in the bank by councillors and has left some people who had saved with great difficulty with nothing for their old age.

What does one do?

What does one do? It is important not to give up or abandon trying to restore the country to a trajectory that is emancipatory. If we are hoping to do this, where are the seeds from which this can grow?

One of the reasons for the collapse of democratic life as a means for meeting the needs of all the people of South Africa relates to the displacing of the popular, direct action and self-empowerment of the masses, as happened in the time of the United Democratic Front and some periods of ANC history.

When the ANC became a conventional political party without any specific decision to abandon its liberation movement quality, it lost its connection, or substantially changed the character of its connection with the support base that it had established in the pre-liberation period.

It is not suggested that the restoration of the popular should be at the expense of the processes and institutions of representative democracy. Achieving the vote for all was a hard-won right. But many did not understand the onset of representative democracy to mean the erasure of the popular.

That there has been a rupture with the popular is one of the reasons why there is a sense of caring nothing for the fate of the poor, that the ANC has been responsible as government for failure to provide people with basic needs and for the woes they currently experience.

If that is true that the ANC as a government has failed the people of South Africa, one of the conditions for ensuring that this no longer happens is that the place of the popular is made secure, that it is not merely a phrase to refer to the liberation movement character of the ANC, or whoever rules the country.

There needs to be a presence of popular politics within the overall South African democratic polity. That need not be through the formation of a new liberation movement, or the formation of a new political party, though there are a limited number of new popular-based, social movements. In the case of one of these, the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, it faces considerable state repression.

It is necessary to have this presence of the popular so that leaders of the country are aware that the masses who they claim to represent are “breathing down their necks”. In other words, the popular must be visibly present as a powerful force within the South African social and political order. Through ensuring that, one should not be attempting to restore the connection that has been ruptured between the leaders of the country in the ANC with the masses. This is not aimed at ANC renewal but at other ways of restoring popular power, though it could also impact on the ANC.

To resolve the problem of choiceless democracy needs clarity on what needs remedying.

My understanding of the problem we confront at the moment is that it derives from the breaking of a connection between the liberation movement and the oppressed people of South Africa.

During the struggle for freedom, the ANC had a strong bond with oppressed people in many parts of the country. Most of its leaders derived from the oppressed and took on the struggle for freedom as their life vocation. Those who did not derive from the oppressed, including heroic figures like Bram Fischer and Ruth First, went beyond solidarity and formed a close bond with the oppressed, going beyond solidarity in the sense that their notion of commitment entailed embodying as one's own life the struggle to free all who suffered under apartheid.

Having established that bond after many decades of existence, where there had only been sporadic mass involvement, the ANC was transformed into a mass popular force able to wage a struggle for liberation with broad support.

What has happened in recent times has however ruptured that connection between the ANC and its previous support base.

Most dramatically, the Zuma era entailed the siphoning off of public funds towards private benefits and enrichment at the expense of the needs of the poor. In fact, the Nkandla scandal, while relating to unlawful expenditure for improvement of the home of the president, was also diversion of funds meant for poverty relief towards the benefit of the president. Such diversion of resources was characteristic of the Zuma period and has not been eradicated.

In voting for the legitimacy of the Nkandla spending, the whole of the ANC in Parliament and the ANC as an organisation endorsed actions that repudiated the needs of the poor. Now Nkandla was a precise moment in the Zuma era when resort was had to the courts to remedy one aspect of that era in a period characterised by a range of forms of illegality, corruption, patronage and a number of other irregular features. The Nkandla Constitutional Court judgment, finding the Nkandla spending unlawful, was one of a number of moments where constitutionalism featured in a manner that demonstrated the value of the post-apartheid constitutional architecture.

When Zuma was eventually removed and Cyril Ramaphosa replaced him, he pledged that there would be a “new dawn”, a renewal of the ANC, and the country’s democracy.

In reality, many of those who formed part of the ANC and state leadership were themselves soiled through illicit activities during the Zuma era. And some of them admitted this in the face of evidence presented to the Zondo Commission. Sometimes this was presented unapologetically, as in Zizi Kodwa’s evidence of receiving handouts comprising over R1-million, though he claimed there was nothing untoward in receiving so large a sum of money as an act of “friendship”.

Beyond what was revealed in the public broadcasting of the Zondo Commission, ANC rule over a number of localities continues to compromise the already fragile existence of the poorest of the poor.

How then do we rebuild the popular? What organisational form can we expect it to take, or ensure that it takes? With what should it be built? What type of people should be drawn in and on what basis should we expect this? How do we find the people and the organisational form to rebuild mutual solidarity, caring, empathy, passion and compassion?

If it is correct to stress connectedness, a bond between an organisation, its leaders and communities, it will not help to focus on existing political organisations, although they are by no means uniform, sometimes presenting different features in various locations. That being said, the ANC may well be different in some parts of the country from the cynicism that seems to be uppermost at the higher levels. That is my experience in an earlier period, and its organisational history bears this out.

The ANC has never been one singular phenomenon. It has borne distinct characteristics at every moment and often had different features at the same time in different parts of the country. This is true, for example, of the formal provision that the organisation was established for African male membership only. Scholars like Peter Limb and former Speaker, Frene Ginwala, have shown that women were often members of the ANC long before the formal change in membership. Likewise, there is evidence of Coloured people and no doubt also other non-Africans being members, long before the formal change to admit them.

This is said simply to cover the possibility that so large an organisation has not necessarily descended into a uniform decadence.

Seeds of the new

When we look for the seeds of something new, these are not always in the places where one expects to find them. If one looks within existing conventional political parties in South Africa there is not much to offer towards an emancipatory route, despite the caveat about the ANC (and such regional difference may be true of other organisations).

My sense is that we need to build on small acts of generosity, of solidarity and mutual concern that we find among some sections of the population or in some communities, in friendships, in kindness towards strangers, in care or concern about others falling into danger. Some of this plays out in purely interpersonal relations. Sometimes it is in religious or sporting or cultural contexts. Many people play out hierarchies to destroy the confidence of others. But some spend lots of time to nurture or mentor or build the confidence and ensure development of the capacities of others.

This is a resource for emancipatory trajectories, ways of being that must not be detached from ways of thinking. Emancipation does not play out as an intellectual phenomenon detached from ways of being. The route towards emancipation must join the artificially ruptured link between human beings, their passion, compassion and thinking.

These traits are found within our society, albeit ranged against massive selfishness and abuse. We need to ask ourselves where we find these seeds, and how we build these seeds, often derived from small scale activities between individuals into large-scale activities for the society as a whole?

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. His books include Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2 ed 2017), The ANC Underground (2008) and Recovering Democracy in South Africa (2015), all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.


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