Opinionista Terry Bell 22 March 2021

Technology can help us confront the farce that masquerades as democracy

Hopefully, we are on the cusp of a new and radical democratic breakthrough with the launch of the orange-flagged Defend our Democracy campaign, aimed at rooting out corruption. But, if we really hope to root out corruption, we have to deal with its causes, a major one of which is the farce ‘democracy’ we now practise.

Terry Bell

Terry Bell is a journalist, commentator and author specialising in political and economic analysis, and labour matters.

We need to defend our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. Above all, we need to fight for the implementation of the principles enshrined in these documents. By ensuring that the Bill of Rights becomes a reality for everyone, the curse of corruption will be dealt with.

But this means confronting the farce that now masquerades as democracy. It is when we, as individuals, go every five years to polling booths to put crosses on ballots that give administrative power to a political party. And the party leaderships then hand out positions on the basis of party loyalty, making legislators answerable not to the people, but the party bosses.

In terms of real control over the social and economic system, the overwhelming majority of people have very little say. The interests of politicians, many of whom move seamlessly from political office to the boardrooms of big business, also lie not with the voters, but with party bureaucracies. These bureaucracies, in turn, rely for much of their funding on the financial elites whose fundamental interests are diametrically opposed to those of the majority of the population. And they who pay the piper tend always to call the tune.

This is also unlikely to change much, in spite of the recent decision to have political parties make public donations above R100,000: parties may have to work harder to raise funds and donors will have to drip-feed the amounts they give. The system of patronage with its embedded seeds of corruption will continue.

Awareness of this has resulted in a widespread and growing call for transparency and accountability from “our leaders”. But the only way the majority can ensure transparency and accountability is if – collectively – the majority wields the power over such “leaders”. In other words, individuals (“leaders”) elected to represent a constituency should be both accountable to, and recallable by, those who elect them.

Cooperative governance, without chiefs or hereditary rulers, has been practised in areas as diverse as the Eastern Cape, West Africa and Iceland. Historically, regular assemblies, in many cases admittedly only of men, would be called to discuss and decide, as equals, policies to be implemented and on actions to be taken by the community and for the community.

Where necessary, representatives wholly accountable to, and recallable by, the community would be elected to carry out specific tasks. The community would also decide their pay and conditions of employment. This is real democracy in action and should be the goal aimed at by every person laying claim to be a democrat.

Communication is obviously the essence here and it is readily pointed out that millions of people can hardly be gathered together on a regular basis to discuss and make decisions; that the “democracy” we now see in one form or other in most countries around the world is the only answer. It is not. As we are constantly reminded, we live in a world village. Cellphones and the internet connect even the most remote communities – and South Africa is no exception.

Most citizens are capable of regular, almost instant contact with one another and are usually members of various organisations such as trade unions, religious communities, stokvels and other groups – even political parties. These come together regularly. So units large and small of what could be a coalition of citizens already exist, along with the technology to link them and to keep them informed – and involved.

What is lacking is organisation within an agreed framework and on the basis of a set of goals and a code of conduct. The goals and the principles of conduct – effectively a political programme – exist in the Bill of Rights, and in upholding the Constitution. Using existing social structures or setting up new ones in neighbourhoods or wherever, citizens, who accept the principles in the Bill of Rights, could come together and register as members of a coalition of equals to debate and decide on all matters concerning them.

Such units, cells or groups of a citizens’ coalition could register their members with a central database. Because every citizen has a unique ID number, there can be little chance of duplicate membership or voting. A trade unionist, for example, may choose to be a member of a workplace unit of the coalition or of a religious, community or other grouping. Only in the unit where the coalition member is registered may that vote be recorded.

Such a database – a computerised “hub” – should be operated by technicians with no political mandate or authority. The hub would manage the membership details of coalition groups and act as a “switchboard”, passing on debates, requests, votes and arguments throughout the coalition.

The technology exists. The will to really bring about change appears to be developing. This rising wave should not be allowed to dissipate. DM

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  • It is not often but I agree with Mr Bell. Can you imagine the likes of our politicians being in employment for the good of the people? It’s a fantasy. The only language that our leaders understand is plunder of the public purse. Any challenge will be fiercely resisted-expect character assissination!

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