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What went wrong? Saving the democratic project needs more than elections to maintain close links with the people


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What went wrong? Saving the democratic project needs more than elections to maintain close links with the people

Raymond Suttner
Raymond Suttner

16th November 2021

By: Raymond Suttner


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We are living in confusing times. During the Struggle for freedom, it was clear to those who were actively involved that one had to take sides and one had to know who was on the same side as oneself, or the organisation to which one belonged. Nowadays, the ANC contains many who have sabotaged the democratic project.

During the Struggle, one had to know who belonged where and that often required thinking and debate. Misrecognising who was part of the liberation forces could have harsh consequences. In the 1980s we would draw a line in the middle of a flipchart stuck to the wall and debate who belonged on the side of “the people” and who were part of “the enemy”.


It was very clear in some cases who was on which side and who were on the other side, but there were categories of political actors like the Inkatha Freedom party (IFP) who were not obviously on the side of the people, or if one went by their own self-description, they did not accept that they were on the side of the enemy. The rank-and-file membership of the IFP, we nevertheless understood, derived from the people.

But the IFP in the 1980s played a role that was antagonistic to the Struggle for freedom, and this often entailed violent conflict with the United Democratic Front (UDF), trade unions and in the early 1990s, also with the then-unbanned ANC. It is on record that the IFP was militarily trained by the apartheid regime to attack UDF and ANC sympathisers and communities considered sympathetic to the ANC and UDF.


What is confusing about the present is that if we were to draw a line down the middle of a flip chart and ask who is on which side, in relation to the ANC, it would be hard to put all its leaders or members on the same side of the page. In their actions, for some years, many of its leaders cannot be said to have furthered the interests of their purported constituency, the poor. It could be argued that there are substantial differences between the principles that guided the ANC, at least up until 1990 and the conduct of some who have been leading figures in recent times like Mosebenzi Zwane, Faith Muthambi and Malusi Gigaba.

We are living in a time when the lines of division between freedom and denial of freedom is blurred. Those who advance the vision belong to the same organisation as those who have and may still divert money meant for the poor towards their own pockets. They may all be members in good standing of an organisation that is formally committed to freedom (or in the case of the EFF, belong to an organisation that defines itself, in some respects, as being more radical than the ANC, purporting to advance fundamental transformation. The EFF articulates these values while at the same time, strong evidence points to their benefiting from fraud, notably but not exclusively in relation to the VBS Bank.)

In suggesting that there has been what amounts to a betrayal, one is not necessarily saying that all the meanings of the Struggle for freedom are the same at every phase of its existence and any change in its understanding may mean betrayal. If there is betrayal, it happens in a context where changed meaning needs to be factored in and, where necessary, debated afresh. This change in meanings is relevant to this discussion.

If one takes the Freedom Charter, how it was understood in 1955 was not the same as how many of us came to understand it after the popular power period in the 1980s. In particular, the notion that “The People Shall Govern!” was previously understood to relate purely to attaining the vote for all.

What some of us learnt in the period of popular power is that the masses could sometimes take control over their own lives, albeit not in as extensive a way under the apartheid state as we hoped would be the case in a democratic state. But we came to understand then that the notion of the people governing could not be restricted to enfranchisement, even though that was a fundamental and important demand of our Struggle.

This is captured in a statement by Murphy Morobe, a leading UDF figure in 1987:

“We… explain the democratic aspect of our struggle in two ways… Firstly, we say that a democratic South Africa is one of the aims or goals of our struggle. This can be summed up in the principal slogan of the Freedom Charter: ‘The People Shall Govern’. In the second place, democracy is the means by which we conduct the struggle. This refers to the democratic character of our existing mass-based organisations. It is useful to separate these two levels, but obviously they are also connected. By developing active, mass-based democratic organisations and democratic practices within these organisations, we are laying the basis for a future, democratic South Africa.

“The creation of democratic means is for us as important as having democratic goals as our objective. Too often models of a future democratic South Africa are put forward which bear no relation to existing organisations, practices and traditions of political struggle in this country. What is possible in the future depends on what we are able to create and sustain now. A democratic South Africa will not be fashioned only after transference of political power to the majority has taken place, nor will it be drawn up according to blueprints and plans that are the products of conferences and seminars. The creation of a democratic South Africa can only become a reality with the participation of millions of South Africans in the process - a process which has already begun in the townships, factories and schools of our land.” [Emphasis in the original]

Now if we look at the present situation, it is one which manifests itself at the centre of politics through representative democracy, through elections. There are popular organisations in existence, like the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo - however, they are subject to subject to repression from the ANC-led government in eThekwini in particular.

But all these categories of people who are in politics today in national politics are focused on elections. This displacing of the popular is not a recent phenomenon, deriving from the Jacob Zuma period or even the Thabo Mbeki period. The emphasis on electoral politics together with the attempted transformation of the ANC into a conventional political party, like many in Western states, happened, in my understanding as a person who was in leadership at the time, without a specific decision to discard the then liberation movement model of popular politics.

But in the process of preparing for elections and becoming government, it in fact happened. Nelson Mandela liked to say that “government has to govern”, which I understood to mean that a government could not continually return for consultation with its base. It had to conduct the business of government.

There is some truth in the notion that being a government does not sit easily with continuing popular power and if there is to be coexistence between electoral politics and the popular, there has to be clarity on how they relate to one another.

By “the popular”, reference is not made purely to organs of popular power of the 1980s, but also the ANC itself, which many of us understood to be a grassroots organisation. When I was in the ANC Political Education Section after the organisation’s unbanning, one of our preoccupations was how to maintain that popular element. In fact, notions of induction of ANC members - and there were very many new members after 1990 - entailed communicating an understanding of the character of the organisation that presupposed an active membership, through branches and other structures, from the bottom up.

At the same time as we nurtured this notion of ANC membership, Western experts advised the ANC to “normalise” and “modernise” itself, which I feared meant becoming a conventional political party geared for elections - and from time to time people came to make presentations at ANC HQ - seemingly out of the blue, and the trend seemed to be towards this form of modernisation. I remember a comrade with whom I went back quite far saying that the notion of the ANC being a political party was not an anathema.

The fact of the matter is that the transition into a political party happened (and that is how most people appear to refer to the ANC today), but without debate or any formal decision. That transition through a de facto process, created a distance between formal politics and the base. Representatives were no longer constrained by the masses “breathing down their necks”. Some continue to behave ethically to this day - and that is not because of tight organisational constraints, emanating from a popular connection, but their personal integrity.

What those of us who wanted to see in the continuation of the liberation movement model was the presence of the popular within an understanding of politics as not being an activity purely for an elite. Through the mass presence it was hoped to have that politics be people-centred and people-driven (as the RDP in fact declared, on the eve of the first elections).

When one wants to understand how things have gone wrong, whether in Zimbabwe or South Africa or anywhere else, we need to retrace our steps to find the “wrong turning” and correct that. My belief is that this transformation of the ANC into a conventional political party was that wrong turning, though I do not suggest that all that has gone wrong since then is attributable to adoption of that organisational form. But what I do believe is that insofar as a decision was made to ditch popular politics, in practice this created a distance between the representatives of the people and the people themselves.

What can be done about this?

My sense is that the situation within the ANC may not be remediable but the lessons to be derived are, in my view, relevant to any organisational formation or alliance that aims to operate with a popular base. If we wish to rebuild democratic life in South Africa it is necessary to create and maintain the bond between organisations and membership, supporters, people who are involved/represented, on a continuous basis.

What this will entail if such a popular formation becomes government and runs the state will need to be addressed over time, because direct democracy, involvement of the people in ensuring specialised tasks, cannot simply be implemented in the way that the 1980s popular power period operated, nor as the limited number of popular organisations in existence today, do their work.

How that coexistence between the representative, state power and the masses is to work will require extensive discussion and listening and debating.

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. 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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