South Africa


Power in Action: Rebuilding the fragile democratic state

Having only very recently surfaced from the devastating Zuma era of State Capture and politically orchestrated attacks on our key democratic institutions, many South Africans are no doubt wondering whether President Ramaphosa’s new administration will be able to reboot Mandela’s promise of democracy and freedom. Steven Friedman’s Power in Action offers the reader insights into these matters of public concern.

These days it would seem that democracy and its institutions are impotent in the face of the global challenges of growing inequality, rising poverty and the increasingly destructive ravages of neoliberalism, rightwing populism, xenophobia and a whole host of other challenges including those brought on by global climate change.

Yet, seldom do critics take cognisance of the fact that democracy is always, everywhere, a work in progress and vulnerable to reversals and collapse. Democracy never works seamlessly and without friction; it requires constant and ongoing repair work and maintenance. It can also require considerable effort by citizens and civil society to prevent the breakdown of democratic systems. Nowhere has this been more evident than in South Africa over the past decade. These concerns are at the centre of Steven Friedman’s new book Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Justice (Wits University Press, 2019).

Walking through the Port Elizabeth Airport with Friedman brought home to me that this political analyst and media commentator is not only a national “thought leader” among the chattering classes, scholars, journalists and political elites, but also among ordinary South Africans.

While we were strolling through the departures section, a middle-aged man walked up to Friedman and asked him whether he thought the country’s democracy was still intact, or whether it was teetering at the precipice. Another passer-by asked me if I would take a photograph of him with Friedman.

This former trade unionist, newspaper columnist and political scientist at the University of Johannesburg is clearly not your typical academic, sequestered out of sight in libraries or archives; he is instead one of a rare breed of politically engaged public intellectuals.

The previous evening I had been a discussant at Friedman’s launch of his latest book at the Nelson Mandela Art Museum. This well-attended public event, organised by New Brighton’s Red Location Museum, resulted in a lively discussion about the state of South Africa’s democracy, and the consequences of the election results.

The timeliness of Friedman’s new book cannot be overstated. As the author notes in the introduction, the book was written in the wake of a seismic global shift from “unbridled optimism to deep anxiety” about the future of democracy in an age of Trump, Putin, Orban, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Farage, and the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rightwing politics in Europe, the US and elsewhere in the world. The book also invites political theorists, social scientists, media commentators and ordinary citizens to critically reflect upon taken-for-granted democracy keywords such as rights, citizenship, participation and sovereignty.

For South Africans, the book is an important resource for taking stock of our two-decade old democracy. Having only very recently surfaced from the devastating Zuma era of State Capture and politically orchestrated attacks on our key democratic institutions, many South Africans are no doubt wondering whether President Ramaphosa’s new administration will be able to reboot Mandela’s promise of democracy and freedom. Friedman’s Power in Action offers the reader insights into these matters of public concern.

The book interrogates conventional thinking about democracy, citizenship and rights in mainstream political science and public discourse. Friedman notes, for example, that it is often assumed that the “new democracies” in the global south still need to undergo processes of “democratic consolidation” and economic development before they can “catch up” to the more mature democracies in the global north.

These notions of “democratic deficits” in the global south underpin linear and teleological narratives of the spread of democracy from the mature democracies of “the West” to the underdeveloped ones in the global south. Yet, as Friedman points out, the current historical moment has revealed, yet again, that the future of democracy in the global north is far from certain.

In Power in Action, Friedman argues that all democracies are always unfinished, fragile and aspirational projects. Like dams and sewerage, water, electricity and transport infrastructures, democracy is continuously breaking down and requires constant repair and maintenance. Moreover, as the pioneering ethnographer of infrastructure, Susan Leigh Star, famously noted, infrastructures are typically invisible until they break down. The past nine years of the Zuma administration certainly brought into public visibility the dangers of the collapse of the institutional infrastructures of democracy in South Africa.

Although Friedman’s book does not use the concept of infrastructures of democracy, it highlights the importance of the institutionalisation of democracy, rights and citizenship. He notes, for instance, that it is only by means of sustained, routinised collective action that citizens can become capable of claiming more control over their lives and participating in decisions that impact upon them.

In fact, Friedman’s key philosophical premise is that every adult everywhere in the world strives to have control over decisions about his or her life.

Friedman insists that this is a universal human aspiration, notwithstanding the many obstacles to the realisation of such autonomy and self-governance. This foundational belief assumes that, given the choice, we would all opt for freedom and self-governance rather than submission to religious or secular authority. Yet, as we will see, there are some who question this assertion.

Power in Action provides a systematic critique of a number of taken-for-granted assumptions about democracy, citizenship and rights. For instance, Friedman questions claims that democracy and its institutions are simply Western inventions and cultural impositions, and that this system of governance cannot work in “non-Western” settings where traditionalist conceptions of gender and age hierarchies and patron-client relations are assumed to clash with ideas such as democracy, rights and liberal individualist conceptions of citizenship and autonomy.

For Friedman, democracy should not simply be characterised as a “Western invention”; neither should it be caricatured as a Eurocentric ideology and (neo)colonial system of governance.

To counter this view, Friedman draws on the anthropological writings of John and Jean Comaroff to show how indigenous Batswana political ideas and practices can be understood as analogues of “Western” notions of rights, accountability and citizenship. In fact, as the Comaroffs argue, indigenous modes of Batswana democracy are often more substantive than the rather “thin” and superficial rituals of electoral participation that characterise many of the procedural democracies of the advanced capitalist countries of the global north.

Friedman concludes that, notwithstanding different conceptions of agency and autonomy, all people desire to be heard, to make their own decisions about their lives, and they want their leaders to be accountable, notwithstanding arguments that traditional African culture and modes of governance are antithetical to egalitarian forms of democracy, a position that can become a convenient ruse for authoritarian rulers.

Friedman does acknowledge that there are indeed numerous material, political, cultural and financial obstacles that prevent people from exercising their rights to participate in decision-making.

In many parts of the world, authoritarian political leaders and repressive states routinely prevent citizens from exercising these rights. Yet, Friedman insists that even the most marginalised subalterns and subjugated citizens exercise some form of agency.

He draws on James Scott’s pioneering books Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1990) to argue that the marginalised and oppressed often feign compliance when in the presence of state officials and political leaders; yet they routinely deploy a rich repertoire of tactics of subtle resistance and subversion when they are out of earshot of their rulers and overlords. In other words, these “weapons of the weak” can be deployed in situations where people cannot overtly challenge powerful and repressive authorities.

Bringing the discussion back to South Africa, we know that marginalised citizens in the townships and informal settlements regularly take to the streets. “Service delivery” protests have become very much part of the post-apartheid political landscape

Like the urban poor and slum dwellers in cities such as Mumbai that Partha Chatterjee (2004) writes about in Politics of the Governed, the marginalised in South Africa often survive by occupying land illegally, connecting to electricity illicitly, and entering into clientelistic relations with slumlords, political brokers, and even criminal syndicates.

This repertoire of tactics may not resemble the style of liberal democratic participation in bourgeois civil society, but they nonetheless reveal that even the most marginalised people exercise some degree of individual and collective agency.

It would seem that the urban and rural poor in South Africa, and elsewhere in the world, are seldom able to become more involved in the kinds of routine collective action that are readily available in the affluent, middle-class suburbs. Whereas those living in the leafy suburbs are typically able to get their refuse collected and street lights repaired simply by making a phone call or sending an email message to their local councillor, this is seldom the case in poor and working-class neighbourhoods.

Friedman draws on the case of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) to demonstrate that democratic institutions can indeed offer possibilities for poor and marginalised people to develop these kinds of routine citizen engagement with the state that seems to be the monopoly of the middle classes and the wealthy.

My own research on social movements and activism in the Western Cape found that the hyper-transient and spectacular “service delivery” protests in the townships and informal settlements are seldom able to translate into long-term successes in terms of improved services and infrastructure. Like Friedman, I have written about the TAC’s ongoing participation in health policy, thereby contributing towards challenging rule by experts and democratic elitism.

The question remains, however, to what degree can these forms of routine collective action be multiplied and scaled up in other places; or are they exceptions to the rule?

The TAC case suggests that the institutions of constitutional democracy can, under certain circumstances, enable marginalised citizens to be heard by government, for instance through the TAC’s ongoing participation in the South African National Aids Council (Sanac). However, as Friedman observes, these forums and “invited spaces” can also result in citizens simply being consulted on decisions that have already been taken elsewhere by political elites and policy experts.

So, how is it possible to expand and deepen citizen participation rather than reinforcing rule by experts? And, how can citizens and activists move beyond episodic and transient spectacular protests that seldom translate into substantive improvements in poor peoples’ lives?

My own research suggested that the TAC’s successes were related to the long-term consolidation of what I call the “infrastructures of citizenship”. These achievements emerged as a result of the forging of local and international networks of donors, NGOs, social movements, and health, media and legal professionals. Such networks included partnerships with NGOs and social movements such as Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), Section 27 and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

In addition, the TAC’s successful litigation efforts against both the global pharmaceutical industry and President Mbeki’s administration benefited from a Constitutional Court bench of progressive judges and a well-functioning judicial system that was able to stand up to both global capital and the executive branch of government. Furthermore, the TAC received academic support from three universities in the Western Cape with well-resourced and supportive public health faculties.

Finally, the TAC benefited from having allies within a relatively well-functioning Western Cape provincial health system, including senior ANC health officials such as Faried Abdullah and Ivan Toms. These kinds of networks of institutional support and capacity contributed towards the development of strong TAC branches in the Western Cape.

The successes of the TAC can be explained by taking cognisance of its access to strong state and civil society institutions that enabled what Friedman describes as a routinised collective action. In many parts of the country characterised by weak state and civil society institutions, collective action is typically hyper-transient and episodic.

In such cases, service delivery protests are typically unable to produce long-term improvements and policy gains. These popular protests, which often involve political spectacles of the burning barricades, can be contrasted with the more sustained forms of collective mobilisation that I have referred to elsewhere as “slow activism”.

Successful social movements such as the TAC, as well as effective trade unions, can be understood as political and organisational infrastructures that need constant oiling and maintenance to function properly over the long term. Without a functioning state and responsive civil society and state institutions, such democratic organisations often become weak and impotent.

The problem in an unequal country such as South Africa is that access to these political infrastructures of democracy is highly uneven. For instance, in South Africa it is typically the affluent middle classes in the suburbs that are most enabled by means of access to democratic institutions and state accountability.

In other words, differential access to political, financial, social and cultural capital and institutions typically translates into differential access to the infrastructures of citizenship. This explains why it is so difficult for those in townships to demand state accountability in relation to water, sanitation and other service delivery issues.

Reading Friedman’s Power in Action provides an important perspective on these questions of “differentiated citizenship”, or what I have referred to as the unequal distribution of the infrastructures of citizenship.

The challenge for the new Ramaphosa administration will be to rebuild a democratic state that can shift these infrastructural inequalities. It is precisely this call for a more democratic distribution of the possibilities for routine collective action that underpins the democratic aspirations that Friedman seeks to advance in Power in Action. DM

Professor Steven Robins is with the Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted