South Africa

Analysis: When criticism dies, democracy dies

By J Brooks Spector 8 April 2013

While it is true that in a democracy elections determine who governs for a stipulated period, this does not mean that the winning party gets to take all of the marbles or that it becomes the judge of civic virtue. Also, it is fundamental to the nature of democracy that victory at the polls in no way exempts the winning party from criticism, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR.

In that wonderful, dark film Network, the one with Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall, among others, there is the truly spooky scene that comes right at the beginning of the film and provides the film’s motive energy. That is where national television evening newscaster Ed Beal summons a great welling up of righteous indignation – and then – live, on air ­– he tells his vast viewing audience to open the windows in their homes and shout out to universe that they are mad as hell and they won’t take it any more. As television network bigwigs stare in horror at their star newscaster’s on-air psychological melt-down, live and unfettered by regulators or videotaped edits, the film then pulls back to show windows opening up throughout New York City as hundreds, then thousands, of hard-done-by citizens shout out their own private angers to the heavens.

Watch: Peter Finch in Network, mad as Hell:

Clearly there are also a great many real-life people in South Africa who are mad as hell and in no particular mood to take “it” any more either. The tally of those events lumped together as service delivery protests has reached well into the thousands, clear across the country. And yet, still, the fundamental conditions that have provoked, and continue to provoke, such protest go largely unattended and unaddressed. Yes, there are many contributing causes to these protests beyond government ineptitude or the mendacity of individual officials – including the usual suspects of enduring social and economic inequalities. But the bottom line is that whatever drives these protests remains present, encouraging  proponents of effective and meaningful change – as well as those who would prefer to pull down the temple walls.

Meanwhile, the South African government continues to stumble over its reasons for its ill-carried out, ill-defined intervention in the Central African Republic. This is in addition to its intelligence failures sorting out what was actually taking place in that unhappy land, before things fell apart. Nor does that include the South African government’s inability to supply the kinds of military hardware, logistical support or firepower crucial in carrying out their troops’ mission ­– whatever that was.

This latest military outrage similarly does not include what is a now-general recognition there is also something seriously out of kilter with the way the nation’s police force carries out its duties. From Ficksburg to Daveyton to Marikana, as well as all the other insults routinely endured by its citizens, based on both surveys and more anecdotal data, it has become increasingly clear the average South African no longer reposes trust in the police to carry out their duties without intimidating or harassing citizens. Sadly, this is a long way from the brave hopes of the immediate post-1994 years when people looked to the police to deal effectively with crime but also respectfully with all the country’s citizens, rather than just being the shock troops of the Apartheid regime.

Last Friday, offered what must surely have been one of those “throw open the windows and yell out into the darkness, ‘I’ve had enough’’ moments. There were reports the national police commissioner had admitted that at Marikana police had removed items – apparently miscellaneous weapons and sticks – from the miners killed or wounded by police fire and then returned these items later to that killing field so as to protect the victims of the shootings.

This is rather too close to that infamous US Army statement that they had had to destroy a village in order to save it.

With police commissioner Phiyega’s comment, we are now heading into a treacherous Orwellian landscape of language harnessed to political purposes.

Then there is that recent pattern of statements from the country’s president – echoed by other top officials – that too many people want to have a say in government, that elections every five years essentially answer the question of what policies will be followed, and that no country allows its military deployments to be subject to policy scrutiny and debate. All of these presumptions harbour a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the democratic process. Yes, it is true the country has an enlightened, progressive constitution and a series of entrenched rights – and formal mechanisms to protect them. Yes, it is true elections do settle who governs for a finite time period, but they do not mean a winning party takes all the marbles – or that they are the sole arbiters of civic virtue.

Rather, shouldn’t South Africans take a lesson from Alexis de Tocqueville’s insightful examination of the emerging American social-political system, from 180 years ago? De Tocqueville had been sent by his government, the bourgeois French monarchy of “Citizen King” Louis Philippe, to evaluate the American prison system. It was then generally deemed to be the world’s most progressive; and then he was chartered to make appropriate recommendations to his own country’s government to reform the country’s justice system.
De Tocqueville travelled across the US for six months, finishing his official purpose but, in the process, becoming transfixed by the energy of American political and social life as it was creating a new society. His resulting classic work on the actual practice and theory of government, Democracy in America, was the powerful result. (Later observers have focused more on economic and political inequalities, but that French traveller in the 1830s was the first writer to locate the heartbeat of democratic life thoroughly in the actions of ordinary, anonymous individuals, rather than in the deeds of great men and visionary leaders.)

De Tocqueville had written that political debate and argument virtually saturated American life. He attributed this, in large measure, to the fact Americans came together in a nearly infinite variety of voluntary associations dedicated to virtually every contentious as well as quotidian civic issue. These voluntary associations – lobbies, interest groups, governing bodies and all the rest – in tandem with a vigorous press and elections for every political office (there are now perhaps close to 800,000 elected offices in the US from the local to national levels) are the best guarantees for ensuring government’s responsiveness to its citizens. Not a perfect system, but, as John Adams – America’s most real politick of the “founding fathers’ – had observed: if men were angels there would be no need for governments and laws. By contrast, in South Africa, the formal democratic process has almost been melted down to the very limited act of casting one vote for a national party slate every few years – save for the efforts (and resulting uncomfortableness for government) that come from of a struggling, but still-vigorous sphere of civic organisations and NGOs.

Moreover, despite recent claims by government spokesmen, it is clearly untrue military issues and decisions are beyond the realm of examination and criticism by civic bodies, the media or irksome, inquisitive legislative bodies – any claim for that belies worldwide practice. Well, maybe in North Korea or China, but not in most democracies. Obvious examples in the US, just to name a few, have been interrogations of the Obama administration over the killings of its diplomats in Libya; hearings on the conduct of the Vietnam War, once that war began to go seriously wrong; and even the so-called Truman Committee’s investigation of war profiteering that made him a popular candidate to become Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944 – right in the midst of World War II. More thorough evaluation and criticism might have avoided mistakes like Iraq as well.

And, of course, Great Britain has undergone some very strident hearings over British participation in the second Gulf War and consequent charges Tony Blair deliberately misconstrued intelligence in favour of arguing those mysterious weapons of mass destruction were a legitimate reason for invasion. If anything, the argument seems tilted towards ensuring that even military escapades should not escape the contentiousness of democratic debate and interrogation by other branches of government, as well as opposition parties, the media and civic society.

De Tocqueville also made one other crucial observation about democratic government, one particularly relevant to this discussion. In another bit of writing, this one primarily about the repressive regime in tsarist Russia in the 1830s, he had also written that the most difficult and dangerous time for a bad or repressive regime is when it finally attempts to reform. Thus, the question, for now, is just how bad a regime exists in South Africa at present, how much it is going to attempt to reform, and how much repressed anger will boil over in the process. DM

Photo: Peter Finch in Network

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