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Pandit Nardev Memorial Lecture 2021: Our goal is a people-centred, people-oriented and participatory democracy

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Mac Maharaj is a seasoned politician, communicator and businessman. He was imprisoned on Robben Island with former president Nelson Mandela. After the 1994 elections, Maharaj was appointed to Cabinet, where he served as Minister of Transport until 1999. He returned to active service during the fifth government administration as special adviser and spokesperson to then president Jacob Zuma. Maharaj has retired from active politics.

The promise of democracy is not to eliminate conflicting interests but to address them in a manner that allows society to move forward. Demagogues seek to invoke fear, promote hostility and stoke anger among the people without regard to the consequences of their actions. Lurking beneath this reckless disregard for consequences is a systematic undermining of the people’s faith in constitutional democracy.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this biennial lecture in memory of Pandit Nardev Vedalankar. My point of reference is the ideal of vasudhaiva kutumbakam – that the world is one family – which Panditji practised.

I would like to frame my presentation on the topic that “Current Realities are Reshaping Society and Values” in the context of the challenges we share with the world. In doing so, we shall better appreciate the dilemmas and challenges of South Africa.

Climate change is the greatest threat to life on this planet and will invariably result in the mass extinction of millions of different species, humankind included. The signs are there: more frequent and intense drought, storms, heatwaves, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and warming oceans. The cause of climate change is mainly human activity, like burning fossil fuels – natural gas, oil and coal.

The effects of climate change are pervasive. Climate change is forcing us to fundamentally rethink values and behaviour. Human society can no longer consider ourselves superior and holding dominion over other living creatures. Our vulnerability to nature is revealed.

We are subject to the unalterable laws of nature.

Our survival requires that we restructure production and consumption because we humans depend on other living things, the natural environment, and the interdependence of the world’s people and countries. No country on its own can chart our survival. 

The same message is embedded in the effects of globalisation. Cross-border economic exchanges and deepening integration of economies make it possible for us to envisage a world without want and hunger. The share of the world’s workers living in extreme poverty is falling.

Between 2012 and 2021, China lifted 100 million people out of poverty.

Globalisation brings a relentless drive to deepening inequality and the continuation of an economic order that locks out the majority of the economies. At the same time, Hans Rosling presents evidence that over the past 200 years, all countries are inexorably moving towards the “healthy wealthy” corner of the graph.

Globalisation has weakened the ability of states to manage their economies. The integration of the economies has been at the expense of democratic representation. Increasingly, generating incomes and creating jobs is managed through uncontested and unaccountable private institutions and market structures.

The answer, however, to removing or mitigating these harmful effects does not and cannot lie in retreating to “economic nationalism”. No country on its own can fashion effective responses. What is needed is open dialogue committed to the structural transformation of the economy, supported by international trade, financial and production relations, to close the gap between the more affluent countries and the newly industrialising economies. We need to find a way to regulate the economy at both the state and inter-state levels.

Thirdly, our world is defined by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. At the heart of this phenomenon is accelerating technological innovation generated by fusing the physical, biological, and digital worlds. There appear to be no limits to the possibilities that arise when billions of people are connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity and access to knowledge. The potential to improve the quality of life for the people worldwide and make the citizen the centre of attention is enormous. This revolution is evolving exponentially. Change and disruption are becoming permanent features of production, management and governance systems. The technological revolution, combined with advances in artificial intelligence, will fundamentally alter how we live, work, and relate.

Government will have to change how it makes policies and engages with the public. The test when contemplating or making any changes must be whether it empowers or diminishes the power of the citizen. The first and the last line of defence of democracy is the people.

It has the potential to transform agricultural production, distribution and consumption, and to lever us into renewable energy and out of dependence on fossil fuel energy. The ultimate goal of a Smart City is transformational. Its essentials are proper sanitation and waste management, 24-hour electricity and water supply, and efficient mobility and public transport with a network of well-connected roads. The circular economy based on reuse, recycle, and share intersects with the concept of the Smart City.

The perils of this revolution include the unequal division of spoils of technological advances, the threat of mass unemployment, the erosion of governance, and the potential abuse of robotics, genetic engineering and cyber weapons.

While digital innovation has placed information at our fingertips, we witness how social media spreads hatred and fear. Facts become irrelevant. Truth is of no consequence. The one-liner and the tweet become potent vehicles to invoke fear, hostility and anger, the breeding ground for violence. In this way, demagogues exploit the uncertainty that accompanies change to corral people into separating emotion from reason, leading to a systematic undermining of people’s faith in democracy.

According to Andrew Maynard of Arizona State University, the gap between our technological capabilities and our ability to handle them responsibly has continued to widen. Closing the gap will “depend on new partnerships being forged between experts and organisations that have insight into the complex dynamic between society and technology, and those that call the shots”. And, he adds, it “will also depend on ordinary people … being included in defining and helping determine how this … revolution plays out”.

No state, acting independently, can contain the harmful effects of climate change, globalisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcefully making us aware that no country, no one, is safe until everyone is safe. Despite this lesson, we find a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines. The wealthiest countries have effected a near-monopoly of the world’s supply of vaccines, leaving countries with the fewest resources to face the worst health and human rights outcomes.

Even though the pandemic has cast a harsh light on the need to save lives before profits, the world is unable to cooperate effectively and equitably.

We need conversations and actions on the domestic and global stage, which will enable us to develop comprehensive and shared views on reconfiguring the world we live in. It is in our power, in our daily decisions, to influence how these phenomena evolve. We can shape them and guide their effects towards a future that reflects humankind’s common objectives and not some narrowly defined selfish interests.

The decisions have to be a shared view. Shared ownership of decisions is a precondition for shared responsibility for the implementation and consequences of our actions. Success will depend on the combined efforts of organisations, citizens and governments.

This is a struggle that must be waged in the global arena as well as within countries. Let us, therefore, briefly look at the state of our democracy.

There are many features of the current situation that are specific to our country. We have the most unequal society in the world. As of June 2021, the official unemployment rate was 32,6 percent. Young people are struggling to find jobs. Corruption is not only widespread but has become systemic. And we are witnessing a broad-ranging attack on our democracy and our Constitution.

Democracy is founded on the principle that all humans are equal. Consequently, all social constructs that discriminate between and among individuals and groups — whether they take the form of patriarchy, racism, religious intolerance, caste — violate the principle of equality.

Democracy allows for the mediation of conflicting interests in society without the conflicts degenerating into civil strife and violence to bring change. When civil strife and violence enter the political space in a democracy, the door is opened to authoritarianism or a failed state.

The promise of democracy is not to eliminate such conflicting interests but to address them in a manner that allows society to move forward. It rests on the premise of dialogue, rational discussion and mobilisation to find ways to address one’s sectional interests in the context of ensuring that the more extensive interests of society as a whole are paramount. The impact of poverty, lack of jobs, growing inequality, and our failure to systematically deracialise our economy and society is felt in people’s daily lives. There is a growing sense of being marginalised in our democracy.

The corrupters and the corrupt are exploiting these failures and shortcomings to evade the long arm of the law. As their Stalingrad tactics in the courtrooms are exhausted, their desperation outside the courts grows.

Demagogues seek to invoke fear, promote hostility and stoke anger among the people without regard to the consequences of their actions.

Lurking beneath this reckless disregard for consequences is a systematic undermining of the people’s faith in our constitutional democracy. Instead of holding the executive accountable, ensuring it carries out its mandate and does not abuse its power, they seek to disempower it. Instead of strengthening the role of Parliament, they strive to immobilise it as the people’s voice. Instead of enhancing the capacity of the justice system to uphold and enforce the rule of law, they work to undermine public trust in our judiciary.

Rule by elites, authoritarianism — these cannot be the way forward. There must be a perceptible relationship between measures we undertake to address the conditions under which the people live and work and the vision enshrined in our Constitution.

At the same time, the gap between the representatives and the institutions of government, on the one hand, and the citizenry on the other, requires urgent attention. A democracy based on an informed and active citizenry will be better positioned to effect the structural transformation of economic relations, access to resources and a society founded on equality.

What dominates the headlines today is how authoritarian personalities and populists exploit the advances in technology. However, these technological advances can become instruments of empowerment by making it possible for a more informed citizenry to voice their opinions, coordinate their efforts, and engage with governments at every level.

Direct democracy – government by the people – is neither feasible nor practical in modern-day complex societies. In its place, we have different forms of representative democracy in which those who govern are mandated and elected by the people to whom they are accountable.

But accountability, vital as it is, is not and cannot, on its own, be sufficient to bridge the gap between the elected representatives and the people, particularly those who feel marginalised, powerless and voiceless.

Rather than allow the undermining of democracy to descend into authoritarianism or a failed state, we need to deepen democracy. Our constitutional democracy allows us to devise ways about decision-making to make all, especially those who feel powerless and voiceless, part of the process.

We need to nail to our mast the goal of a people-centred, people-oriented and participatory democracy. This perspective, whose goal is the creation of a society founded on the principle of equality, should become the measuring tape against which we assess how we harness the opportunities arising in the world while striving to mitigate and contain the ability of organisations and government to manipulate and control the digital infrastructure.

Government will have to change how it makes policies and engages with the public. The test when contemplating or making any changes must be whether it empowers or diminishes the power of the citizen. The first and the last line of defence of democracy is the people. But they will only rise to this challenge if they feel a sense of ownership — that democracy is theirs and for them. DM

This is the text of the Pandit Nardev Memorial Lecture, organised by Arya Samaj South Africa, delivered on 21 August 2021 by Mac Maharaj, former ANC Cabinet minister and former spokesperson for Jacob Zuma.

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  • Agree – We need to nail to our mast the goal of a people-centred, people-oriented and participatory democracy. Has anyone told the ANC that recently because they are anything but any of them? Not even one of them.

  • There’s a lot to digest here, some of which I agree with and some I do not. Overall I think it is jumping the gun with too much idealism about democracy itself.

    Aristotle said that democracy arose from men’s thinking that if they are equal in any respect, they are equal absolutely. This is clearly a criticism and the inefficiency of it is well illustrated by the flaws of the one-man-one-vote concept. Can the political opinion of an illiterate farm labourer be considered equal to a qualified engineer? As counterintuitive as it sounds, in an egalitarian democracy it is indeed so. The result is that the majority opinion descends inevitably to the lowest common denominator.

    The ideal of getting the best minds making the most important decisions is thus undone by blind egalitarianism.

    A further warning from Aristotle was that neither the wealthy nor the poor are fit to govern, and for much the same reason. Only the middle-class should be eligible to hold office. This alludes similarly to Bertrand Russell’s view that the driving force behind democracy is envy – an insidiously destructive emotion. We see this evidenced in the latest EFF shenanigans and the ANC as a whole. It is the inherent pragmatism of the middle classes that stands the best chance to avoid polluting the structures of democratic governance with envy.

    Instead of a participatory democracy founded on the principles of arbitrary equality, I would rather see one founded on the principles of pragmatic freedom.

  • “The first and the last line of defense of democracy is the people. But they will only rise to this challenge if they feel a sense of ownership — that democracy is theirs and for them”
    The final two sentences sum up the dilemma. How do the people develop a sense of ownership of democracy when power elites both intentionally and unintentionally exclude people from democracy and decisions that have major world wide impact? As illustration, South Africa is not a genuinely democratic country, the US has just trashed its constitution and China tramples on democracy in Hong Kong. Mark Zuckerberg and the Murdoch family use the media in a manner that is destructive of a better world. Biological researchers are possibly the culprits of generating the Covid 19 epidemic. Who knows?
    What options do ordinary people have when probably less than 500 people of power determine our future. The fundamental problem seems to be the emergence of a socio-political-economic-technological system that gives rise to excessive concentration of power – in government, business and technology. How d0 we as ordinary people bring about either much wider distribution of power or more responsible decision making by those who control positions of power? I guess we live by hope and prayer

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