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25 years of democracy: ruptures and continuities

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25 years of democracy: ruptures and continuities

Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Raymond Suttner

11th February 2019

By: Raymond Suttner

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How is it that what seemed so promising in the inauguration of South African democracy, 25 years ago, has turned sour?  Should those who were involved in the struggle and the transition have anticipated the crime and grime and general decay of the liberation project that has ensued?

What is telling about where we find ourselves now is that much attention is devoted, not to moving forward but in the first place and that may take time, to return to where we were a few years back before the widespread pillage set in. But it is worse.  As various enquiries are indicating, this pillage did not start when it became a powerful part of public consciousness, during the Jacob Zuma era, but earlier, as indicated by the recent revelations relating to alleged contracts concerning BOSASA.

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The character of freedom realised in 1994

The first elections were not the final realisation of our freedom. It could, in ideal terms, have been without certain safeguards intended to assure those who feared majority rule.  But freedom is, in any case never something that is finally realised, a destination to be reached at a particular moment in time. 

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This understanding is not some superior foresight or insight, rather how many of us understood and still understand the notion of freedom.   We believed there was a lot of work to be done and even though elections with all people entitled to vote for the first time was a massive victory, freedom is never finally realised. As the African American spiritual declares “freedom is a constant struggle”.

This is not purely about socio-economic transformation, that key economic institutions and resources remained in the same hands as before or out of reach of the majority of the population.  It is about freedom itself and how we understand it. It needs to be seen as a concept with an indefinite scope and meaning.  It can grow ever wider and deeper as we continually remove obstacles in the way of self-realisation. It can also suffer setbacks, as we know only too well.

How we understand and imagine freedom can also be amplified as the capacity to provide more for all human beings increases.  Over the millennia human power to feed themselves has increased to a point where no person ought to go hungry.  There is no food scarcity or natural famine that cannot be overcome by human intervention. Whether or not that happens depends not on need, but greed, whether those with the power to provide for all enable that to happen or put obstacles in its way. This may be in order to make profits or other reasons; whereby human solidarity and needs are undermined.

We used to express this understanding partly in the formulation of ever “widening and deepening” of democracy.  This derived partly from what many of us had experienced in the 1980s “popular power” period, where local level democratic practices enlarged our understanding of the scope of freedom.  The notion of popular sovereignty became identified not purely with voting for people to represent constituents, but also with direct action in communities, some of this protest action, then against the apartheid regime, but some actions taken, not as direct resistance, but  in order to control aspects of people’s lives, that were independent of or linked up, to some degree, with state efforts where necessary.

1994: a revolution?

Some dictionaries and textbooks equate revolutions with violent overthrow of a state or classical Marxist definitions privilege change in class relations, in particular control over the means of production shifting from one class to another.  This would lead to a change in a mode of production, from feudalism to capitalism or capitalism to socialism, amongst others.  The transition in South Africa entailed none of that. But it was a revolution in the sense that South Africa was “utterly changed”, albeit remaining unchanged in important respects. 

That legalised apartheid was defeated, and all people became citizens who elected their own government constituted a revolutionary change, or what the ANC-led alliance described as a “democratic breakthrough”.  The onset of democratic rule created the opportunity to develop a rights-based constitution that would serve all, as opposed to the rights-denying constitution of the apartheid era which served whites and denied rights to black people in a range of ways, covering all aspects of their lives.

For white South Africans, life had been similar to that enjoyed by people in Western Europe or the USA.  They had the vote, could move freely, acquired many of the good things of life.  They were able to acquire properties and thrive. Those who were not so fortunate, amongst the whites, had a state that was eager to help and until near the end, provided a generous welfare safety net.

For black South Africans, in the formulation of the ANC and SACP, life was akin to that of a colony, rightlessness and denial of access to political control over their lives and most of the resources required not merely to develop fully but even to be free of hunger and disease.  It was described as colonialism of a special type (CST) because the colonial power was not located overseas, but in the same territory, where white South Africa stood in a colonial relation towards the subjugated black majority.

The “democratic breakthrough” of 1994 constituted a revolutionary rupture with the past, incomplete then and incomplete now.  It nevertheless represented a moment that signified a very fundamental break with much that was at the substance of white apartheid colonial rule, much of what was most significant about what that had gone before. Whatever its limitations, the breakthrough made other things possible, though not inevitable.

That nothing was inevitable is clear from the continuities that coexist within the ruptures.  This is manifested in the continued squalor in which very many black people continue to live.  It is notable in state practices, especially in the area of policing, even where enforcement is done by black officers.  There continues to be a “racial profiling” of black people as potential criminals.  The institutionalised racism within the police force survives, so that whites tend to be waved past at road blocks and black people can be seen being searched, often by black police, flat on the pavements.  Many black police may not consciously see themselves as acting out white racist conceptions, though that is what they are doing. 

Rupture with revolutionary doctrine

Paradoxically, in negotiating a constitutional system that represented a fundamental break with apartheid law and order there was simultaneously an unstated rupture with the revolutionary doctrine that had guided the liberation movement and especially those who adhered to Marxist/Leninist notions of revolution.

Those who were engaged in insurrection in order to establish a state of people’s power were not preoccupied with constitutions and ideas like the importance of separation of state and party.  Revolutionary doctrine operated on the basis that the revolutionary party (in our case primarily the ANC/SACP alliance) drove the revolution. This was on the model of communist states where the leader of the Communist Party was more powerful, more politically significant in almost every way than the president of the state.

Although from early in its history the ANC had developed various Bills of Rights and other potential components of constitutions in its history, the preoccupation from the 1960s was insurrectionary, with overthrowing the apartheid regime and this was especially the case in the 1980s.  It is true that there was a constitutional committee of the ANC, in exile, that drew up Constitutional Guidelines made public in 1988. But that was not the preoccupation of those who were involved in insurrection.  It is also unclear how wide discussions of the guidelines were, even in exile, until the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Constitutions stipulate rights and duties and the relationship between various organs of state. For most who were engaged in making South Africa ungovernable or attacking police stations or driving police and the Bantu Administration Department out of the townships, there was not time to discuss constitutional models.  When asked about negotiations, the common reply was that there was nothing to negotiate except the “immediate transfer of power to the people”.

Constitutions and rights

Albie Sachs has remarked that it was a paradox in South Africa that Bills of Rights were advanced in the 1970s and 1980s not by the oppressed but by the oppressors and those allied to them, mainly in order to safeguard minority privileges, disguised as legitimate minority rights.  The main object of these was to undermine the achievement of full democracy under majority rule.  Emanating from Chief (now Prince) Mangosuthu Buthelezi and some scholars who were proponents of consociationalism, they aroused suspicion. They were antagonistic to any notion of democratic liberation and consequently won little support.

In the period of intense liberation struggle, other constitutional or constitutionally-relevant notions, were not interrogated.  They did not appear to have application to people’s lives, in the urgent situations of repression that prevailed.  Consequently, the modalities for achieving democratic rule and within what constitutional framework were not adequately addressed in the country in the general debates within the struggle.

People-centred and driven democracy and the courts

The 1980s was a period where the masses themselves drove a series of democratic and also insurrectionary situations.  The masses, about whom one reads in textbooks, were there- building democracy at a local level and doing things that had not been previously conceived.  Many cherished the hope that the future democratic state would incorporate this direct democracy, alongside representative democracy, as a permanent feature.

But it was not to be.  The 1990s saw the displacement of the popular by the ANC, designated as the people’s movement. In the period of negotiations, the masses were periodically invoked to break deadlocks with mass action, but some of the leadership were unhappy about a continuous mass role. This, despite the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) speaking of a people-centred and people- driven democracy.

When the various acts of thieving and diversion of state funds took place, it was not the ANC nor the masses who were able to address this, the masses having been demobilised and located as spectators, after 1994.  Paradoxically, it was the courts and other constitutional instruments, like the Public Protector, that stepped in to safeguard rights and resources belonging to the people of South Africa.

That was not how those who advanced popular democracy had envisaged defence of the democratic state, but credit is owed to these constitutional instruments for what they did.  Generally, it was not the ANC or ANC-allied forces who initiated these judicial actions or reports of the Public Protector, but the opposition parties and civil society and professional organisations. 

While this did serve to define and name grave misdemeanours, it is not desirable, in principle, that it should be the courts that play so substantial a role in curbing misuse of power.  They are themselves uncomfortable with that. But that is how it worked out.  At a political level, again without detracting from the important results, it has tended to become a default position of opposition parties, that instead of building an organised force to back their political goals, they resort to the courts.

Rebuilding democracy

The demobilisation of mass organised support for democracy may have facilitated some of the pillage of the post-apartheid period. Certainly, the involvement of people from all walks of life in political activity can strengthen democratic foundations.  There does not seem to be an intention, in what is described as the “New Dawn” to focus on the popular and reviving the role of mass organisations in public life.  But if we, as citizens, want to ensure that our democracy and resources are not stolen, it is important to be organised in a range of ways that deter those who may contemplate any repeat of the treason we have witnessed. 

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities.  He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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