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Opinionista

We must never reduce democracy to mere elections

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Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

Democracy is a ceaseless struggle waged through community organising, worker mobilisations and sustained grassroots pressure.

South Africa is in crisis. The disillusionment with the ANC is overwhelming. It has plundered the country, state-owned enterprises don’t work, essential services are lacking, poverty and inequality persist, and we have an unemployment bloodbath.

We’ve reached the 30-year mark of democracy. This is usually the point at which liberation movements implode and get pushed to the political periphery, largely because of infighting and looting of the public purse.

Of course, the ANC’s principled stance in supporting the Palestinian struggle will win it some votes. But foreign policy posturing rings hollow for those grappling with the bitter realities at home. Too many have lost faith, severing ties with the movement that has betrayed its liberationist core.

The DA is seen as a party of the white middle class with a pro-Western worldview often framing the white West as morally and intellectually superior. It has shown no serious attempt to win back large pockets of black voters who have turned away from it.

The less said about the EFF the better. Julius Malema does not inspire confidence and it’s impossible to predict what life would be like under a Malema government, but we do know it would be highly authoritarian. And the public purse would be looted more than we have ever seen before.

I’ve argued before that there is ample electoral space to the left of our political spectrum, but we don’t have a viable left in South Africa.

What, then, do we make of those who choose not to vote in an election that is seen to be the most significant since 1994? No one who has lived under a dictatorship or entrenched corruption would ever dismiss the right to vote as trivial.

But every time we get to an election we are subjected to all kinds of mystification. It’s frustrating when you hear: “Vote or else you can’t complain.” This is an insult to all who mobilise through grassroots organisations and movements, confronting injustice through activism rather than the ballot box. Our rich history of mass action proves democracy transcends elections alone.

A free press, an independent judiciary and the right to organise and protest freely are every bit as important for democracy as free and fair elections. But those political theorists who write off elections altogether are seriously mistaken.

In many countries, removing an authoritarian government from power via the ballot box is the only real option available. Community mobilisation of social movements is vital political work, but on its own it cannot resolve the fundamental contradictions of our society.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

Yet we must never reduce democracy to mere elections. It is a ceaseless struggle waged through community organising, worker mobilisations and sustained grassroots pressure. Transformative change cannot simply be elected; it must be wrested through the continual contestation of entrenched power structures.

There are no easy answers, especially when electoral options are limited. Our democracy remains tattered, diminished by the cruelties of poverty and unemployment amid the vulgarity of opulence. Whichever road we take, it must be lined with ceaseless struggle. For it is there that real democracies are continually born anew.

How we vote or not vote at all is a personal decision. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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  • Charl Engelbrecht says:

    My feelings were ambivalent until I read the last paragraph that leads me to bellieve the author may be a nasty little bolshevik masquerading as a reasonable man.

  • Dominic Rooney says:

    I agree with the headline but little else in the story. The failure of democracy in this country is 1) the failure of the elected government to consider itself accountable to the population and 2) the adherence to a culture of patronage/loyalty . The observation was made some time ago that this country has never had a good government; thirty years of ANC rule have done nothing to alter that view.

  • District Six says:

    We may be an essentially lazy citizenry, opting for the political saviour astride a horse, galloping in fresh from the election, to “rescue us.”
    Hence, the cynical up tick in “service delivery” in the months prior to an election. Who doesn’t see through such nonsense?

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    Unlike the other commentators before me I agree 100% with both the sentiment and the analytical backing. I would even go a bit further, to say that our quite pathetic understanding of democracy has been reduced to a tick in a box every 5 years or so because of a lack of any real grasp of the fundamentals. It’s like people talking about ‘our democracy’ when we don’t really have one. We, like most other supposed ‘democracies’, are a little way down the road towards this idealised state, and of course much, much further down than in 1993. However we can probably only describe our ‘democracy’ as ‘latent’; indeed there was a time when it appeared stillborn (no guesses). Even today, in the run-up to the May elections, there are few signs of genuine democratic thinking. The current political model, with political parties vying for ‘power’ is in fact anathema to any real understanding of democracy and. although it has served something of a purpose in different parts of the world for almost 200 years is well past its sell-by date and needs a serious rethink. It will never take us to democracy, but leave us stewing somewhere along the way. And there are visionary and interesting models that could get us closer, but getting from here to there without a complete overturning of current narrow and entrenched ways of thinking will be quite a mission. Time to take the gloves off! I am now just waiting to be characterised as a ‘nasty little bolshevik’ – oh shame :(.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Your concluding observation is apt. While going through your reflections on ‘democracy’ … I found myself agreeing with many of your points … but did not find any answers or solutions to what ‘democracy’ actually is or should be. Maybe 1500 characters are nor sufficient for such expectations ?

  • Kevin Immelman says:

    We have a perfect democracy in that we have all the modern trappings of the perfect state. Our problem is that the governing party has been allowed to influence the civil service to the point that they have forgotten the tenet – by the people, for the people – and have been operating on the basis of – by the people, for the party. Of course this has allowed the party and it’s leaders to take control of the cheque book as if it were their own. Until we have a professional civil service, this will continue, under any governing party.
    Mr Buccus is clearly from the old Marxist ‘revolutionary’ school, who to date have never been successful in governing following any good revolution.
    A functioning democracy is only possible with a stable state management system where the political arm is separated from the judiciary and the administration.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Would a “functional democracy’ look like the one in the US where the last election was apparently ‘stolen’ ? Is that an example of “successful in governing” … following the genocide of the indigenous people of that land, with remnants languishing in ‘reservations’ ?

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