South African democracy is in crisis. People do not see benefits from 28 years of freedom. Many are hungry, homeless, unemployed, subject to constant violence and without a remedy. Both rich and poor share an interest in retrieving constitutional rights. A combination of forces is needed to build on common interests to recover the hope and promise of 1994.
Is it presumptuous to suggest that we ought to consider a different type of political life to that which characterises politics in South Africa today?
My sense is that very many people are alienated from political life in a way that was unthinkable in the 1980s. Obviously, someone who was involved in the UDF period often thinks back to the 1980s with nostalgia because that was a period when one saw things happen, that one only reads about in books.
I'm thinking here of mass activity, mass creativity, mass involvement in all aspects of society. While I do think back on that period, as an important formative experience for many of us, I do not believe it's realistic to think we can recreate the UDF today. (I am not suggesting the UDF period was without blemish, which I and others have tried to address. See, for example: Raymond Suttner “The UDF Period and its Meaning for Contemporary South Africa: Review Article”, Journal of Southern African Studies, 30(3) (September 2004), 691-702 and Michael Neocosmos, “From People’s Politics to State Politics: Aspects of National Liberation in South Africa’, in A. O. Olukoshi (ed.), The Politics of Opposition in South Africa (Uppsala, Nordic Africa Institute, 1998), pp. 195–241. Both available on request.).
We have different conditions. We have not got the mass organisations, the social movements, that comprised the base of the UDF. We have very few.
And some other organisations that formed the base of the UDF, like the trade union movement, are weakened or in disarray and in some cases, discredited from their role in the Jacob Zuma period.
Also at that time, we looked at the ANC as the senior partner in our endeavours, the organisation to which we deferred before we did certain things or made certain decisions. Many of us listened very carefully to what the organisation advised on its Radio Freedom, broadcast from Lusaka and other parts of the continent.
It is incorrect to draw a binary between the ANC in exile and the people struggling on the ground inside the country. Certainly, some people thought that those inside the country were not the “real ANC”.
But my experience is that the ANC in the 1980s gave strategic advice that was very valuable and pointed to directions that many of us, because we were immediately involved with specific campaigns, sometimes did not see, wider possibilities beyond what we were doing then.
Where we are now is very different. We are some 28 years into electoral democracy. And what enthusiasm there was for what is called liberal democracy or more accurately representative democracy has eroded to a significant extent because the main bearer of representative democracy, the ANC, has proved to be a dishonest representative of the people of South Africa, reprehensibly stealing from the poor, diverting resources to such an extent that the Treasury is depleted beyond what it should have been after the various disasters like Covid-19 and floods that have been experienced.
Disillusionment with the ANC and democracy is not a theoretical question
I mention the ANC because we are not talking about a philosophical question - what one thinks of representative democracy, although it’s not the only form of democracy and the original form of democracy is direct democracy, which the UDF in many ways emulated.
But the level of disillusionment that people are experiencing is not related to some philosophical analysis of ancient Greek democracy and its replication to some extent, in later experiences not only in the UDF, but in other countries. It is not a theoretical issue, even though such questions may well be under discussion, in study groups or WhatsApp groups and other fora that exist.
It's an experiential question, that people do not feel they're getting anything, or very little, from the democracy that we have now and we must find a way of remedying this.
It's not possible to just say, “Let's do X or Y” and implement some or other democratic model. There are institutions in place. We already have democracy in action, albeit a very imperfect democracy. It cannot simply be wiped off the slate by saying, “Get off the stage of history and make way for something new”. The participants in that democracy cannot be disregarded.
But we must find a way of developing an alternative that is more satisfactory, without bloodshed, and without simply excluding those who are participating in the present dispensation where they may well, in good faith, also be open to participating in something new.
The starting point in examining this question is to take stock of what we have and what can be done with what we have and what can be done without violence and within the Constitution that we have now. But also, we need to find a way that makes it attractive to people to participate in democratic life, to find a way of exercising their own agency, seeing what they do as having tangible results, as a contribution to the building of this country.
In previous contributions, I’ve suggested that we need to look beyond electoralism and create a new political force which is not necessarily a political party, but a broad alliance of forces drawn from a range of sectors in society. It may include some of the parties in Parliament, or members of those parties if they subscribe to the goals of this potentially new unifying coalition of individuals and organised forces. It is both important to build unity, but also to avoid exclusionary practices or sectarianism.
When one tries to establish something new, one usually announces this and says this is what it stands for, and I think it's important that we do subscribe to some identifiable unifying vision. But for the moment, I would limit it to saying that this is a pro-constitutionalist endeavour. And a pro-constitutionalist initiative immediately excludes the use of violence, excludes corruption, excludes acts of illegality, excludes acts which impair the dignity of people, racism, gender and sexually based violence and potentially also xenophobic acts and statements.
Having said that, the unifying vision may be laid out in a very limited form that is simultaneously broad if one accepts the Constitution as being that - laid out as law but having a potentially very wide and an elaborated reach.
Identifying and developing commonalities between people, sectors and organisations
The reason why I say that it's not up to a few individuals who may initiate this to define the scope of a new democratic politics beyond broad principles, is because if the initiative results in people coming together, it is up to the collection of groups and organisations and individuals to elaborate and define what they have in common, develop commonalities, or perhaps initially simply identify commonalities.
What I have come to realise is that if one says that big business must be part of such an initiative, it's important to say why big business has commonalities with others. It's important to elaborate what those commonalities are.
The first commonality that is identifiable is that the scourge of violence that primarily affects the poor and the marginalised, is also antagonistic to the practice of business and to the environment that business - big and small, formal and informal - needs to do its affairs.
Business and the poor both need a non-violent society where people can carry out their activities, whether it is small or big business or working in one or other way or existing as an unemployed or homeless person - all must be without fear of violence being wreaked on them by other members of society or by the police or other people in authority.
That is a concern that affects the poor as well as the rich, although the poor obviously now have less protection against this violence than the wealthy. Equally, the wealthy and the poor share an interest in constitutionalism in general, in regularity, in knowing that their rights will be protected, in knowing that the rights are not just there on paper but that they will be enforced, that an MMC will not simply incite people to remove informal traders despite a Constitutional Court decision, that the rights of all laid down in the Constitution and interpreted by the courts will be respected by all. ( https://www.seri-sa.org/index.php/latest-news/1239-press-statement-city-of-johannesburg-mmc-mbundu-reinvents-operation-clean-sweep-in-breach-of-the-constitutional-court-s-order-27-july-2022). That is something that is required by the poor but is equally required in the areas of their concern by the wealthy.
It is important to identify commonalities, but not simply have the unequal protection against violations deriving from inequality of resources be simply a footnote. Where the wealthy can be protected against violations, in some ways there may be less interest in seeking common protection under the law - by the state and not simply private security. Part of the work in building unity will be to engender a sense of shared destiny and solidarity between those who do not normally relate that way.
Work to be done
If these ideas resonate with the constituencies to which the article refers, there is a lot of work to be done, to hear what people want and how they want to achieve it, how they react to the suggested combination of forces and the modifications or adaptations they may suggest.
It took long to achieve democratic rule. It cannot be squandered, and it is necessary to retrieve its emancipatory potential so that people do not simply wait in an environment where they are often hungry, unemployed, and subject to violence.
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, violence, gender and sexualities. His books include Recovering Democracy in South Africa, The ANC Underground and Inside Apartheid’s Prison, all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.