/ 14 May 2019

Elections: The great democratic swindle

Elections and other democratic institutional forms linked to representative democracy advertently cushion the state from popular control from below.
Can Electoral Act amendments revive faith in SA’s democracy? (David Harrison/M&G)


With the May 8 elections results announced, the analyst-pollster machine goes into another gear. The data geeks and other people linked to the machine jostle for positions in the front row, debating the significance of campaign messaging, voter turnout and their meaning for the outcome. Typically, there is also point-scoring as to whose political polling and prophesies came closest to the actual results.

But what the commentators, political pundits and the rest of the numbers brigade do not tell us is that the biggest democratic swindle has just occurred. Through the election ritual, a dangerous lie has been sold — that, by putting a cross next to a political party, the will of the populace is expressed, effective control over governance is established and that people take their destiny into their own hands.

Lost in the so-called celebrations of democracy is the reality that, despite the passing of the political party funding legislation, voters are none the wiser about the moneybags that bankrolled their parties and what paybacks await the “party blessers”.

READ MORE: Parties strain against Funding Act

Also not viewed as an annihilation of democracy is the fact that hardly a week after voters went to the polls, the first steps of exclusion are already in motion as horse-trading and the exercise of “prerogatives” go into overdrive to decide who gets into Cabinet and who leads provinces. Despite protestations to the contrary, without the right to recall our elected representatives if they are not doing the job we expect them to do, they are simply given a blank cheque.

In an exchange on the re-election of Abraham Lincoln as the president of the United States in 1864, Karl Marx and his lifelong political collaborator, Friedrich Engels, characterised the US as the “model country of the democratic swindle”, where people are made to believe that the state represents them and that taking part in elections gives them power. Unfortunately, this is what happened on May 8 and in the run-up to our elections.

Those against whom the campaign against corruption was directed, conveniently and cynically expropriated people’s struggles against state capture. As they crisscrossed the country, parties that had demonised the campaign against exorbitant university education trotted out free education as one of the deliverables of their tenure in office.

In addition to the expropriation of people’s struggles without compensation, nogal, the swindle involves a deliberate conflation of democracy with periodic voting and elections. The historical lesson that democracy takes different forms — direct, participatory and representative — is ignored. Also disregarded is that in its 3 000 years of existence, it is only in the past two centuries that elections have been associated with the concept of democracy. Part of the trick is to reduce democracy to representative democracy and, more narrowly, to elections.

Unfortunately, forms of representative democracy and occasional voting create an illusion of popular sovereignty where people believe that the mere casting of a vote is an exercise of total power and political control. During election time, we forget that important spheres of daily life such as the economy, workplaces and households are exempt from democratic control.

Elections and other democratic institutional forms linked to representative democracy advertently cushion the state from popular control from below. Inequalities and disparities in economic resources also produce unequal capacities to exert influence over government.

Like any Ponzi scheme, the “democratic swindle” is bound to crash at some point. The danger is that when voters realise that their votes are not as meaningful as they think or are made to believe, the basis is then created for anti-democratic tendencies such as right-wing authoritarianism and fascism.

The ascendancy of Donald Trump in the US, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in India, Rodrigo Duterte’s regime in the Philippines and the misogynistic Jair Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil are examples of what voter scepticism about democracy can produce.

South Africans are sometimes blind to seeing how variations of authoritarianism can take root in our country.

Yet the drop in registered voter turnout from 73.74% in 2014 to 65.99% this year is worrying and needs serious political probing. Equally perturbing, is the anti-migrant crescendo from many quarters in the elections campaigns and the formal emergence of parties representing conservative interest groups among religious communities, traditional leaders and taxi owners.

The trust in democratic institutions in South Africa is in decline and there is general ambivalence towards constitutionalism.

The early 1990s attempts to combine representative and participatory forms of democracy in our constitutional dispensation have largely failed, with institutions such as ward committees, school governing boards and community police forums becoming gatekeeping platforms and pressure valves to release mass anger.

The Afrobarometer survey of 2 400 adult South Africans conducted in August and September 2015 found that outright support for democracy had declined since 2011 with six out of 10 people saying that they were willing to forego elections in favour of a nonelected government that would guarantee basic services such as safety, rule of law, housing, and jobs.

It is a pity that the ANC manifesto says little about how to stem the tide of growing scepticism about democracy beyond platitudes to strengthen democracy, bolster the oversight role of Parliament and provincial legislatures, resource institutions supporting democracy and empower communities by conducting regular forums or imbizos.

More democracy, not less

The fragility of democracy calls for more democracy not less. What is required is to mitigate the democratic swindle through a programme of thoroughgoing democratisation, extending the frontier of democracy into areas such as the economy, the media, the workplace and the household.

The starting point of any project to deepen and further democracy must acknowledge the fact that the country’s socioeconomic condition excludes and alienates large numbers of poor people from effective control and decision-making, particularly the majority of black women. A key platform for the maintenance and extension of democracy is to deal with multiple dimensions of inequality, which was recently captured in the cover story of Time magazine.

Second, the programme will have to go further than the commitment in the ANC manifesto to “strengthen relations with institutions of traditional leadership” and deal with the plight of 17-million people who live in the former homelands. The last Parliament passed a raft of Bills that disenfranchises former Bantustan citizens and empowers traditional leaders in ways that will allow the latter to conclude deals on land with third parties without the consent of residents of these areas.

Third, a web of measures to hold public representatives accountable is required. Uppermost in this web is electoral-system reform and the monitoring of the implementation of the Political Party Funding Act regulations.

The fourth area for exploration is economic democracy. In this regard it is vital to revisit the debate in the mid-1990s on provisions of the labour law that gives workers, through union-triggered workplace forums, joint decision-making powers and stipulates areas such as product development plans, plant closures, and mergers as issues for consultation. The question is whether, using the provisions of the Labour Relations Act, we cannot trigger a movement and agenda for economic democracy and tame management’s runaway prerogatives?

Unless an intervention to restore faith in democracy in its expansive definition is undertaken, by making it meaningful to people, “democratic fatigue syndrome” as David van Reybrouck refers to it in his provocative book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, will set in and we will not be able to escape the syndrome’s attendant symptoms such as political cynicism, populism and authoritarianism.

Dinga Sikwebu is a co-director for programmes at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education