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There is an alternative to our current form of democracy and it can work

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By Terry Bell
21 Jun 2022 10

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

Systems of direct democracy have existed in the past, usually on a village level both in Africa and elsewhere. Cooperative governance, without chiefs or hereditary rulers, has been practiced in areas as diverse as the Eastern Cape and Iceland.

We live in a fundamentally undemocratic world, one in which generations of often bloody struggles gradually won the right of adult citizens to vote in so-called democratic states. But, in terms of real control over the social and economic system in which they live, the overwhelming majority still have, at best, very little say.

The interests of politicians, many of whom move seamlessly from political office to the boardrooms of big business, 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. So what we have amounts much more to hypocrisy than democracy.

The way the system functions at the moment is in direct contradiction to the egalitarian principles contained in the South African Bill of Rights. This document, in fact, provides a political programme that could be agreed to by the overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens. But in order to have the best chance of achieving such egalitarian goals, democracy would have to be realised to its fullest extent: rule by the people, the definition of the term given to the world by Athenian Greece. In simple terms, let the people decide.

The only questions that arise, are: is widespread — extreme — democracy possible and, if so, how can it be achieved? Since systems of direct democracy have existed in the past, usually on a village level both in Africa and elsewhere, the possibility exists. Cooperative governance, without chiefs or hereditary rulers, has been practiced in areas as diverse as the Eastern Cape and Iceland. 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 partial democracy we now see in most countries around the world, in one form or other, is the only answer. It is not. As we are constantly reminded, we live in a world village. Cell phones and the internet connect even the most remote communities — and South Africa is no exception.

Citizens who are capable of regular, almost instant contact with one another 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.

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. As the first clause of the Bill notes, this “cornerstone of democracy… affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”. 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.

This will require that elected representatives of such groups, at all levels, be both accountable to and recallable by their constituencies. In the case of municipal elections, for example, we already have a dual party/list system in wards (constituencies). This would mean each nominated candidate signing a legal agreement to accept the conditions imposed by the constituency.

Ideally, constituencies should be clearly defined and candidates for office should be selected by coalition members in each constituency. However, because we are constrained at national level by the present list system, with constituencies arbitrarily defined by political parties after the event, it will be necessary to adapt to this until change can be introduced.

This may mean a “citizens’ coalition” putting up candidates for office who are broadly acceptable to voters in different regions and who are prepared to sign “constituency agreements” whereby they agree to be wholly accountable to, and recallable by, the constituents to whom they are allocated. The proportion of votes for such a citizens’ coalition in various regions should determine the boundaries of “constituencies” and who should represent them.

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 trade union 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. This can be managed by a simple computer database.

To get such a system underway in the present conditions will perhaps require representatives from major social organisations such as trade unions, religious groups and community structures to come together to finalise the organisational details. These could be presented to the public at large for comment, criticism and eventual implementation.

The basic structure would require a database and a computerised “hub” operated by people who would have no political authority. This hub would manage the membership details of those subscribing to the coalition and act as a “switchboard”, passing on debates, requests and arguments from various regional groupings to every coalition member. There are various ways in which this could be done, some of this almost certainly using existing social media platforms.

Such a system should be wholly transparent and, to ensure this, checks and balances would have to be put in place. What these should be and how they should operate should be one of the subjects for debate, should a national gathering come together to seriously discuss this proposal. Perhaps groups such as the trade union federations, the South African Council of Churches, other religious or community organisations, either alone or together, could arrange such a dialogue.

It is vital that this is done because it seems that only an extension of democracy will avoid still more suffering and desperation as the present, fundamentally undemocratic, system attempts to claw its way back to stability. It can do so, but only at a terrible cost to millions of people and to the further destruction of the natural environment.

The choice seems clear: an alternative is possible. Let’s build it. DM

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All Comments 10

  • If our people were able to organise from street committee level up during the last stages of apartheid, why should we be able to do so now? Democracy requires active engagement by citizens. We expected after the first democratic elections in 1994 that our representatives would represent us. How rudely have we been disappointed!

  • You can start by doing away with political parties which campaign on the basis of outdated and unworkable ideologies which are not acceptable to large numbers of people. Bring back constituencies where independent candidates are chosen by the communities. Those so chosen are then sent to parliament, where they form a government.

  • GREAT article. We have the opportunity to marry the democratic principles of Ancient Greece with the modern miracle of Communication Technology. There are so many areas where we need to make changes but I would start by making the Boards of all your SOEs (SAA, Transnet etc.) elected by the Stakeholders. Fees of these elected directors to be met by their constituencies, NOT by the SOEs (so they cannot reward themselves fat cat allowances. Also, if a Women’s Group want a board member on ESKOM, they must pay that person’s expenses -NOT ESKOM). I would also make the financing of ALL public institutions (SOEs, Municipalities, Government Departments) freely available on the Internet. A .csv file of monthly income and expenditure on each and every item from each and every department would not clog up the Internet (compare that with the volume of data currently on You Tube) and would leave Corruption no place to hide. When I pay a toll on my vehicle on a particular date, I ought to be able to see that recorded, and then I ought to see how these tolls are accumulated and then spent on certain sections of road. They would not then be able to hide the fact that they “spent” R400m on replacing the road signs on a short section of road. Locals there would be able to confirm that such expenditure was or wasn’t justified. How to get there from here is the challenge, but this article is a great place to start that journey. Bruce Danckwerts, CHOMA, Zambia

  • Let’s, but who has the credibility to lead? People who step forward tend to have their own interests at heart – but I agree we have to rethink what we have to include the majority.

  • This idea appears to me to be workable.
    The difficult part will be the transition from the current set up to the new one.
    The perceived wisdom is that one in power willingly gives it up. But SA proved that such a transition is possible, albeit spurred on by an armed struggle and international pressure.
    The transition process will have to be part of the initial debate.

  • The Swiss have a system of local direct democracy that is well tested and quite simple. Your suggestion of having people choose the organisation they wish to be represented through sounds a bit complex. Maybe that could elect a kind of Senate to begin with, to test it before giving it the powers of parliament?

  • It is precisely “trade unions, religious groups and community structures” that delivered us this mess. I for one would not want any trade union, religious group or community structure (aka murderous taxi organisations, drug gangs and the like) to have any more influence in a democratic structure than they already have. All that will do is perpetuate the current Stalinesque central planning miasma.

    What you really need Mr Bell is a devolved federal or canton type structure, not a different voting mechanism.

  • By far the most refreshing idea in ages but unfortunately just another ideology missing the vitals. No comment here has hit the required mark. No offense intended in anyway to anyone. This is South Africa, a country so broken and bruised and over used we need to go so much deeper.

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