Opinionista Xhanti Payi 19 September 2011

Who is the real representative of public interest – Parliament or the media?

We know who’s supposed to guard the guardians but who represents the South African voice? Surely not journalists and vocal civil society groups? If so, we’re becoming an elistist democracy.

I think it was Museveni of Uganda who famously declared, after having ruled the country for a quarter of a century, that no one else had the vision and therefore could lead his country. It’s not hard to imagine that many of his critics, particularly the democrats, would have found this assertion something of an outrage.

This is because, I think, we generally believe that more than one person or group of people in any nation has the vision and capacity to govern the country, and not just the rich or educated elite. We, who believe in democracy, believe in the will and capacity of the people to self govern, or at least choose their own leaders.

However, contrary to this, South Africans, including those who are devoted democrats, have found themselves unwittingly debating against the very philosophy of democracy. I admit, that they do so using accepted principles such us the importance of a free press.

Observe, for example, the debate on the “secrecy bill” – and note the alarmist reference. It is said that if the draft Protection of Information Bill is passed without the inclusion of a “public interest” defense, it will bode very badly for our democracy.

We are made to understand that investigative journalism will be stifled, thereby starting us on a march towards our own demise. This is a view few people wouldn’t sympathise with, given what we know about the excesses of governments all over the world. Thus, to protect against this, a journalist should be able raise a defense where she says, “I released secret information in the public interest”.

Public interest is a loaded term as it is, but let’s not go into that here. Let’s assume we know what it is and agree on the definition.

But we need to consider the fact that the draft law, if passed, will be passed by a group of lawmakers who are democratically elected by the majority of the public. In democratic societies, it is usually assumed that members of Parliament are elected representatives of the people, in some places referred to as “public representatives”. Isn’t it strange, therefore, to claim that a journalist or unelected members of a vocal civil society could successfully argue for or represent public interest better?

Or perhaps the issue isn’t so much the act being passed, but the officials in government who would necessarily be tempted to hide their own excesses, disguising it as “public interest”.

But aren’t government officials, in some way, and better so than journalists, elected by the public who trust them with their hopes and interests? Or is it that as a fact, proven by life itself, we know how the electorate are prone to elect as representatives and government, people who are given to sinister ways and intentions, and so we the cautious, should look out for them?

We the elite (how I hate that word) weren’t always so untrusting of the will and capacity of the people. At the beginning, it seemed that the educated and enlightened were quite confident about the rights and abilities of the masses.  When people went in large numbers to vote for the ANC led by Mandela in 1994, all applauded the choice and outcome. No one spent any time questioning the public’s ability to think critically and make sound choices. Certainly, we did not divide the voting class and analyse their social standing, education levels and aptitude to find that the choice was a good one. We didn’t even accuse people of racial voting. We accepted that the people made a choice for a leader and leadership they wanted, and it was a splendid thing given our history.

This suddenly changed when they voted for the ANC led by Zuma, and we found all manner of reasons why, and completely forgot that if we found these people fit and apt to vote in Mandela, that same political aptitude must apply now when they voted for Zuma.  However, doesn’t separating the two imply that we are intolerant of choices that are separate or disagreeable to our own, or have not much regard for the public or masses?

So it would seem that we are on another slippery slope towards what some call an elitist democracy, which has very little regard or respect for majority voice if it different from our own. One in which the very well educated and funded, civil society organisations, and a very powerful media, serve together as what was referred to by a now seemingly obscure politician as the “vox populi” and therefore the “vox dei”.

Even the social media is breeding such an attitude towards the “public and the masses”. As a member of the twitterati, I had such an interaction with a famous actor. He declared that South Africans did not agree to forgiving, and that it was forced upon them in 1994. The famous actor is known for his interest in politics and democracy. But it seemed that the fact that the people of South Africa went to the polls in 1994 to vote for the Mandela-led African National Congress, knowing that Mandela stood for forgiveness and reconciliation, and rejected the anger and retribution on offer by some parties –including one which starts with a P – eluded him.

We are on such a slippery slope towards what was aptly described by another famous actor, Danny Glover, who said of America: “This country has always been run by the elite, and it’s an elitist democracy. And that’s not a radical concept. It’s elitist democracy. When people talk about democracy, they don’t talk – really talk about participatory democracy…” DM


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