/ 7 October 2023

Democracy and human rights at the crossroads

Graphic Tl Johann Crossroads Website 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)

The current global concern — or depression — about the present state and future of democracy and the human rights it is supposed to protect, fulfil and promote, is justified. Why are we anxious; and what can be done about it?

Elections, at the heart of democracy, are often — falsely or correctly — alleged to have been “rigged” or “stolen”.

Patriarchy and narrow-mindedness continue to cause discrimination against women and the clampdown on the rights of homosexual and non-binary people, in the name of culture, tradition, morality or religion. In Uganda, for example, one could end up in prison for not reporting to authorities that your brother is gay.

Several military coups have recently swept across Africa. Some of them were welcomed by the population as much-needed liberation from corrupt leaders or dynasties. Some countries are practically ruled, or made ungovernable, by criminal gangs.

Far from what one expects democracy to produce, most current world leaders are, at best, boring, mediocre, uninspiring or stupid. At worst, they are pathological liars, self-absorbed, power hungry, greedy or corrupt.

News media, an essential ingredient of democracy, cannot be trusted. “Fake news” has become an accepted fact of life, welcomed and enthusiastically used by many. Those who spread it, accuse others of doing so, to create convenient confusion and chaos.

Many, who feel that they have never benefited from, or been marginalised by, the democracy and human rights regime, “push back”. Ignorantly, or spitefully, they vote for dangerous narcissists like Donald Trump, thinking that they show the middle finger to the establishment and indeed rule of law itself. Or, they join the Islamic State in Syria; drug cartels in Latin America … or street gangs like the “Hard Livings” on the Cape Flats and the “Money Lovers” around North West’s platinum mines.

In the wake of the horrors of World War I and the grave illness of his pregnant wife, the poet WB Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …”. In the book What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract, Minouche Shafik points out that the phrase “things fall apart” was quoted more often in 2016 than at any time in previous years. Surveys allegedly found that four out of every five people in the United States, Europe, China, India and various developing countries believe that “the system” is not working for them. We, the people, are frustrated, disillusioned and disenchanted — “gatvol” in plain language.

Is democracy worth fighting for? It is not necessarily the natural state of humankind. Millions have struggled and died for it though. It has liberated many from slavery, serfdom, oppression and suffering. Things have been worse … and the worst may still await us.

The “fight” requires careful consideration of what the term “democracy” means. Currently it is used widely, loosely and cynically as a brand name and advertising tool. Few regimes would openly boast about being fascist. Calling others “undemocratic” is popular in propaganda warfare. Even North Korea, under the firm fat fist of its “Supreme Leader”, is officially called the “Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea”.

Let us assume that democracy relates to majority-rule — or “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, the phrase used by Abraham Lincoln. Respecting the will of the majority does not mean that the majority is always right, of course. They may indeed be mostly wrong. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, disliked democracy. Uneducated beer-drinking masses supporting Manchester United, Orlando Pirates, the Springboks or the Kardashians cannot take important decisions. He proposed government by “philosopher kings”.

Many kings have been neither wise nor benevolent. Philosophers had for too long tried to explain the world, Karl Marx argued, whereas the world had to be changed. The work of many has been criticised or deconstructed by others. Besides, which self-respecting open minded philosopher would want to be king? Their task is to think and question, not to rule. After his election defeat, Winston Churchill said democracy was the worst form of government — except all the others that have been tried.

In a changing world we have to keep rethinking our understanding of democracy and human rights. The recognition of socio-economic rights (to housing, food, water and healthcare) emerged more than a century after civil and political rights (for example to freedom of expression, political activity, assembly and peaceful protest). Environmental protection arrived later.

More lip-service, window dressing and false promises adding to confusion and cynicism must be avoided though. Concerns such as crime victims’ interests are explicitly or implicitly included in existing rights.

Any rethinking must not detract from the core of human rights protection, found by our constitutional court to be respect for human dignity. Slavery and Nazism have shown the consequences of trampling on dignity.

The interrelatedness and interdependence of rights are important. In the long run a democracy protecting some rights while violating others cannot succeed. In South Africa, civil and political rights are — but for a few exceptions — alive and well. We regularly vote in elections and have the freedom to express ourselves, move and assemble. But we have done very little about housing, food, water and medical care for our poor millions.

The right to free expression on the stage of a city theatre, or to travel to London and Paris, means nothing to the rural mother whose toddler died in a pit latrine while she was carrying firewood on her head, or water from the nearest polluted river. We are the world’s most unequal society. The ample rewards of civil and political rights for a few, for example the salaries, houses, cars, security and other benefits of elected officials breeds resentment.

China vehemently defends “the Chinese narrative of democracy”. In a few decades millions of people have been lifted out of poverty — a huge socio-economic rights achievement. The price seems to be the denial of civil and political rights to express oneself freely, move freely and protest peacefully. How can one draw attention to your hunger and poverty without free expression, political activity and assembly? A trustworthy benevolent dictator is hard to find; and harder to keep benevolent.

Once the world’s poster-democracy (partly because of Hollywood), the US is an example of how things can fall apart. Under the banner of free speech, blatant lies about matters as serious as elections and the murder of children are spread by a sour losing president and hateful talk show hosts.

The realisation that rights can compete and must therefore be legally limited is crucial for the survival of democratic governance. Equally essential is that the reasonableness of and justification for any limitation must be closely scrutinised.

The aggressive American opposition to obviously necessary legal gun control seems to indicate ignorance about the limitation of rights. Their Constitution does not contain an explicit limitation clause, like those of Canada and South Africa. Yet they do limit rights all the time. The conservative supreme court justice, Antonin Scalia, recognised the need for limitation. So, is ignorance driving the powerful gun lobby, or the massive profitability of the fire-arm industry?

Capitalism may indeed be a deadly enemy of democracy. Stealing elections is illegal and profoundly undemocratic; buying them is legal but little better. Especially in the US, money wins elections. During long campaigns, updates on candidates’ race for funding overshadow policy statements. Paid airtime is used for banal slogans and insulting opponents. Mindless populism, fuelled by money, has resulted in disastrous choices.

Lobbyists on Capitol Hill present lawmakers with carefully prepared bills. Climate change, on which many agree, is called “a hoax” by Trump; and left to token targets and promises, even by leaders who understand the state of the planet. Oil magnates and mining multinationals dominate.

Before considering abandoning democratic constitutions, they must be taken seriously, implemented and otherwise used. When really necessary, they can be lawfully amended.

In a constitutional court judgment Justice Albie Sachs stated that democracy should not go into a deep slumber for five years between elections. Vibrant participation is crucial.

Sound economic policies are essential for the maintenance of democracy and realisation of human rights; and free democratic thinking may produce sound economic policies.

Heightened independent critical thinking helps to see through fake leaders and false promises. Sometimes a little individual madness can be good. In a story called The President’s Speech, neurosurgeon Oliver Sacks describes how a group of patients in a mental institution repeatedly burst out laughing while watching a serious presidential address. The reason is they are incapable of understanding spoken language, but their heightened sensitivity to body language enables them to detect false charm and lies.

Johann van der Westhuizen, who assisted in drafting the Constitution, is a retired justice of the constitutional court, founding director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights and a former inspecting judge of Correctional Services. The views expressed are his own.