South Africa


How do we understand democracy and human freedom?

How do we understand democracy and human freedom?
Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

To comprehend the possibilities of freedom, it needs to be linked with an understanding of ‘human nature’ that is not static, that does not regard human beings as having fixed, innate, natural qualities, but as dynamic and capable of development in a range of ways. Just as freedom can be continually broadened and deepened, human beings can continue to grow and be much more than they may be at this moment in time.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

What is the democracy that we celebrate on Freedom Day? It is common to speak of the South African political system as a liberal democracy and many liberals greeted the post-1994 order as a triumph for liberalism and liberal democracy. (See RW Johnson, David Welsh, Libby Husemeyer, Ironic victory: liberalism in post-liberation South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press. 1998).

Liberation movement tradition is not a liberal tradition

Many or almost all who were involved in the struggle for freedom in South Africa never used the words “liberal democracy” when speaking of the type of order they wanted to replace apartheid. Yes, they wanted democracy, but the word liberal was not part of any programme of the ANC, SACP, BC or PAC. The ANC/SACP and Cosatu (previously SACTU, the South African Congress of Trade Unions) referred in the past and to this day to the democracy to which they aspired as “national democracy” (see Ben Turok (ed) Readings in the ANC Tradition, volume 1: Policy and Praxis, 3, 2011. Jacana Media, pp 224-262.)

Liberalism was a doctrine from which the liberation movements distanced themselves in various respects, and sometimes for distinct reasons. It related to liberal opposition to or ambiguity on universal suffrage for some time, their opposition to substantial socio-economic transformation and shuffling backwards and forwards on issues like the invitation received by the Liberal Party to participate in the Congress of the People, leading to the adoption of the Freedom Charter. The Liberal Party and other liberals generally condemned the turn to illegality and armed struggle, which increased the distance between them and the ANC and the PAC.

There were variants in understandings of liberalism and some liberals had close relationships with leading ANC figures. In the case of Alan Paton, he had a close relationship with Chief Albert Luthuli and EV Mahomed, a Liberal Party member, provided considerable support to the Chief, while he was under house arrest. (See In the shadow of Chief Albert Luthuli. Reflections of Goolam Suleman, by Logan Naidoo; Luthuli Museum, Groutville, 2010. Goolam Suleman worked with Mahomed).

Like liberalism, liberal democracy does not have one agreed meaning. There are various permutations that may fall under the same label. But many definitions stress its limited nature, that it sets limits on what any person and the state can do, and it prizes its capacity to prevent abuse. It also stresses the rights of individuals as opposed to collective action and rights, by curbing what the state or society may do or what may be done by or in the name of the majority of the population. Some refer to liberal democracy as not being “unlimited”, implying that there is a need to curb “excesses”.

The demand that freedom be limited has two prongs. The individual right to demand limits on state actions derives from a progressive origin when liberal demands curbed absolute monarchy and feudal rights denying individual freedom. It claimed to provide rights to the individual on a universal basis instead of those held by hereditary feudal rulers, and this was to be based on consent of the people. In that sense, liberalism is associated with a call for universal freedom. But this was phrased in abstract terms and while having a progressive core, rendered it essentially limited through curbing realisation of freedoms, beyond liberties enjoyed by individuals against the state. Even liberties against state repression could, in practice, be less than claimed insofar as resources were often needed, like professional representation, in order to realise these.

For liberalism, in providing a critique of apartheid, the most important freedom was individual freedom. What was seen as fundamentally wrong with apartheid was the restriction of the individual freedoms of black people to own property, freedom of movement, and rights like freedom of association. Acceptance of universal suffrage was of secondary importance and historically it was adopted much later.

Resistance to “votes for all” was in line with the focus on the individual. Universal suffrage is a collective act, where people come together to decide on how they want to be ruled or how they want to rule themselves. It is a collective act that cannot be performed by the individual on her own. Opposition to this tallies with liberal fear of the “tyranny of the majority”, a continual refrain in much of the history of liberalism.

But most of the “individual freedoms” that liberalism champions cannot themselves simply be realised as natural rights possessed by individuals. Freedom of thought, for example, is not a natural attribute but a social construction. How does one form an opinion without access to resources that introduce one to ideas? How does one do this without being able to read literature, or access other media or have the means to attend meetings of political organisations?

Individual freedoms, in the liberal conception, are supposedly used to constrain what society may wish to do. In fact, all the individual freedoms need to be understood as themselves dependent on society, rather than being seen as somehow standing prior to and independent of society. In truth, individuals and individual freedoms are, from the start, integrated into the life of society and not independent of or prior to society.

If we believe in a pluralist conception of democracy, there is not one immediately available “popular will”. It is contested from the outset. To engage in contestation, each individual must have the freedom to think for themselves and express themselves and associate with whom they wish and to join political parties and other organisations. These are preconditions for forming opinions and debating ideas. This may be seen as liberalism’s contribution to democracy. But these individual freedoms always depend on material factors in order to be effectively exercised.

What is an alternative and more emancipatory form of democratic realisation?

Freedom must be unlimited

The argument, in contrast to liberal democracy, is that the freedom we want, need, ought to have, and are entitled to have, must be unlimited. That does not mean that all human beings or the state have an unlimited right to do anything. Words or actions that are abusive cannot fall under the mantle of freedom. They are not part of any conception of unlimited democracy or freedom. To assault someone is not an exercise of freedom but an attack on the freedom of another human being through an act of criminality. To use racist or xenophobic or fascist language falls outside the bounds of freedom (cf Raymond Suttner, “Freedom of Speech”, South African Journal on Human Rights, 6,3, 1990 pages 372-393, and section 16 (2) of the South African Constitution, Act 108 of 1996). Much of what is erroneously thought to comprise “unlimited freedom” ought not to fall within any conception of the parameters of freedom.

On the one hand, freedom is finite in the sense that the conception advanced here excludes, from any claim to exercise freedom, all groups and doctrines that physically abuse and are harmful to others. But freedom is also infinite in the sense that it is capable of continued growth in ways that cannot be foreseen and should not be limited.

Freedom is never finally realised

We mark Freedom Day on 27 April, when all South Africans were first entitled to vote, in 1994. In the eyes of many, that is the day when we achieved our freedom. On that understanding, freedom was won, once and for all, at a certain point in the past and, now all we need to do is pay our respect to that victory, on various occasions.

There is nothing more required, no way of enlarging that freedom, because it had been already fully realised. It is thus limited not simply in terms of being a system that sets boundaries on what individuals or the state can do as its primary goal, but because it does not have a capacity to grow in an expansive and creative way.

Freedom must, instead, be conceived as constantly growing

Any state of freedom that may exist at any time, can never comprise the limits of the scope and potentialities of human liberty. It is important in arguing for unlimited freedom to assert that we have not reached the limits of what freedom can be at any particular moment. Freedom must be understood to entail the capacity to grow ever larger, wider and richer. It must be what it is at any particular moment as well as much more that it can become in terms of scope and opportunities over time. How we think the relations we form and how we interact have no intrinsic limits. In that sense, we cannot accurately visualise what freedom may be in 20 years’ time. (I leave aside the fact that we have lost some ground that needs to be recovered in South Africa in terms of the existing political and constitutional order, before one can fully contemplate more expansive notions).

Understanding of democracy needs to be expanded to re-incorporate place and role of the popular

The original meaning of democracy and traditions of political activity in South Africa place weight on “direct democracy” and popular power. The period of negotiated transition saw the displacement of the popular in the ANC-led alliance, replaced by the ANC and ultimately the ANC-led state as representative and embodiment of the people (Raymond Suttner, “African nationalism” in Peter Vale, Lawrence Hamilton and Estelle H Prinsloo, eds, Intellectual traditions in South Africa, UKZN Press, 2014, pp: 121-145, at 140-143).

The UDF was dissolved (by its own decision, not diktat of the ANC leadership), in that it made way for what it saw as being the “real leadership”. What was lost was an appreciation of the human creativity that was expressed in the period of popular power. It is true that there are spaces for participation of mass organisations in representations to Parliament and other bodies. But that is not the same as self-initiated organisations acting to advance a range of social and political goals, independent of the state and other constitutionally created organs.

There are a limited number of such organisations today, notably Abahlali baseMjondolo and Equal Education. The ANC has not encouraged these developments and Abahlali has in fact experienced continued repression and, possibly to a lesser extent, Equal Education has too.

It is important that we do not shut off any modes of expression that may make people active agents in their own lives. That is not to say that we romanticise the popular experiences of the past. We look at successes and failures and try to understand what factors conditioned these, where they were successful vehicles for popular voices and under what conditions abuse occurred. (on the UDF, see Chapter 3 of this downloadable book).

Constitution’s transformational character

It may well be that it is accurate to refer to the constitutional order as conforming in general to the precepts of liberal or, more neutrally, representative democracy. But it goes beyond that insofar as it provides in the Bill of Rights for a duty of the state to meet basic needs. Among the provisions that require the state to go beyond the formal liberties stressed by liberal democracy are the framing of the right to equality, dignity, right to life, a healthy environment, adequate housing, health care, water and social security. (See sections 9, 10, 11, 24, 26, 27, 28 and 29 of the Constitution).

National democracy

When the notion of national democratic revolution (NDR) was advanced by the ANC, SACP, COSATU and other allied organisations, this was part of an understanding of democracy that went beyond addressing civil liberties, freedom from arbitrary arrest and similar abuses of the rule of law. It was understood as a response to a political order that was fundamentally colonial in nature, referred to as Colonialism of a Special Type (CST), because the colonising power (white South Africa) and the colonised (black South Africans), were not separated by an ocean, but occupied the same territory (See Turok above pp 108, 135-149, 228 and Pallo Jordan, “The South African Liberation Movement and the Making of a New Nation” and Joe Slovo “The Working Class and Nation-building” in Maria van Diepen (ed), The National Question in South Africa. Zed Books, 1988, at pp110-124 and 142-151, respectively.)

The national element as well as the notion of a revolution or deep transformation (not necessarily entailing violence), implied that the “social” also had to be addressed, in the sense that those who had experienced barriers blocking their opportunities in life, under apartheid, had to be provided with state assistance, partly realised in the constitutional provisions just cited.

The notion of national democracy was, consequently, wider in scope than most or all conceptions of liberal democracy. It had to be, insofar as it aimed to respond to the problems of life encountered by the majority of South Africans. The notion of NDR was formulated in the context of a social and political order that did not only affect one or other aspect of life of any category of people. National oppression was conceived as an all-encompassing attack on the dignity and the overall life experiences of black people.

National democracy and liberal democracy were not interchangeable as political orders, insofar as the latter could be realised without addressing the social in a transformatory manner. Also, the rights understood in liberal democracy ought to have been encompassed in national democracy, though there was often a tendency, as in the former Communist-led states, to stress socio-economic rights at the expense of individual liberties. Likewise, there was a stress on substantial as opposed to formal democracy, depicted as binaries.

Realisation of freedom and realisation of full humanity

At the core of the claim to an unlimited freedom is a demand to be fully human and that means the capacity to realise all the possibilities of being human, without being barred from doing some things or achieving some goals because of any aspect of one’s identity, for example, ethnic, gender or sexual orientation. It also means that one’s conditions of life should not form a barrier to individuals becoming what they want to be and fulfilling themselves. Some of these social and economic conditions, the Constitution recognises, can only be progressively achieved. But, on principle, providing the material goods that can better the lives of all is now possible, due to scientific progress.

What is possible to provide to humanity in 2019 is quantitatively and qualitatively different from what was possible in 1819 or 1919. Ways of working the earth, our understanding of climate and water usage and energy resources, have all developed. Equally, we understand more about health care, disease prevention and cure and other threats to the wellbeing of humans.

Since 1994, opportunities have in fact opened up for people to realise themselves in a range of ways and in a number of areas of social life. Purely at a legal level, the Constitution provides for rights that were never allowed or respected for black people. But, as indicated, it goes further than providing to all human beings the rights that are part of liberal democracy. The South African Bill of Rights goes further than the United States Constitution and decisions by its Supreme Court, including some key decisions in its history, such as that which struck down segregatory rules.

In terms of providing for the “basic needs” of all, we know that this has not been as far-reaching as has been possible, even within the resources available in South Africa and that there have been human factors that have frustrated these goals. Such factors as corruption and patronage and the failure to manage projects adequately have formed barriers to enlarging the scope of people’s well-being and opportunities in life.

Conception of freedom and conception of ‘the human’

The understanding of freedom advanced here is linked with an understanding of “human nature” that is not static, that does not regard human beings as having fixed, innate, natural qualities, but as dynamic and capable of development in a range of ways. Just as freedom can be continually broadened and deepened, human beings can continue to grow and be much more than they may be at this moment in time. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA. 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 blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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