/ 17 December 2023

Democracy sold down the river

Roger Jardine (1)
Businessman Roger Jardine is the leader of the new political party Change Starts Now, which is allegedly funded by a small group of very rich people. Photo supplied

This year, two important political anniversaries were marked. The first, in January, was the 50th anniversary of the Durban strikes. The second, in August, was the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF). 

The trade union movement that was built after the Durban strikes and the UDF became important spaces for popular participation in politics and, at their best, popular democracy. 

In his speech from the dock in 1962, Nelson Mandela had spoken of a revolutionary democracy understood to be participatory and committed to ensuring that “poverty, want and insecurity shall be no more”. But it was in the 1970s and 1980s that popular democracy and popular power came to be widely seen as both modes of struggle and an aspiration for the future.

Official commemoration of both anniversaries elided this commitment to building popular democratic power and simultaneously incorporated the trade union movement and the UDF into the authority of the ANC. 

The UDF was presented in the contemporary language of “civil society” with its limited “role” of oversight in the interests of accountability and participation via official channels. 

The potentially emancipatory ideas and practices of the politics of the past were eviscerated to incorporate it into the failed politics of the present. The same people who spoke the language of the UDF in the 1980s now spoke the language of contemporary liberalism, a language in which both popular power and its wider social and economic projects were forgotten.

It has been common for national liberation movements to open political contestation to popular participation when elite strategies are failing and then, after victory against colonialism, “send the people back to their caves”. The phrase comes from Frantz Fanon, whose scathing attack on the national bourgeoisie that came to power after colonialism was political as well as economic.

In South Africa, this process of restoring elite control over politics took a very different form to other African countries. 

Here, the reduction of political contestation to intra-elite competition was, in part, mediated through the “democracy promotion” project backed by US funders such as the US Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Ford Foundation and so on. 

Similar work had been carried out in countries such as Haiti and the Philippines where, as in South Africa, the US moved from supporting dictatorships to encouraging and supporting liberal opposition. 

The aim was to reduce demands for deep transformation of political and economic power to limited liberal transitions that posed no challenge to economic elites. 

The Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa was a key actor in this project. 

Building and supporting “civil society” was central to the strategy of ensuring liberal outcomes during transitions from authoritarian societies. “Civil society” was presented as a popular and democratic voice but was, in most cases, a network of donor-funded and professionally staffed NGOs with no democratic mandate or constituency. 

NGO directors are not elected and account to boards that, in turn, account to funders. 

To accept the idea that they have some sort of democratically authorised claim to represent society, or a constituency within society, is to abandon any serious commitment to democratic practices and ideals. 

Despite the scale and intensity of the experiments in popular democracy in the 1970s and 1980s, the substitution of popular democratic power for “civil society” was largely accepted. 

But, although the once expansive ideas of democracy were rapidly contained during the transition from apartheid, elections were still taken seriously and it was understood that the ANC was a popular movement with a mass constituency and a clear and legitimate claim to represent it. 

The credibility of the ANC and the process through which it came to power also meant that the state was generally seen as a credible actor with democratic legitimacy.

That is no longer the case in the elite public sphere. The ANC’s collapse into a violently predatory force has not only delegitimated the party, it has also delegitimated the idea that the state can play a productive role in society. There has been a simultaneous slide away from basic democratic principles.

We see this delegitimation of the state when opposition to the way in which the shift to renewable energy is mediated through the privatisation of energy is automatically dismissed as a mask for corruption or the coal lobby. We see it when it is argued that “civil society” should take on state functions, such as providing healthcare. 

The idea that the elected governors of the state should give way to unelected “civil society” is also a retreat from democracy. 

This delegitimation of the state and turn from basic democratic principles has been actively driven by the monomaniacal focus of much media reporting and analysis on corruption that often presents a serious problem in a way that crowds out other important concerns. 

Corruption is theft from the people and must be vigorously exposed and opposed. But a politics that has no real content beyond opposition to corruption can open the way for dangerous forces promising to “drain the swamp”. In Brazil, relentless, and often bogus, allegations of corruption against the Workers’ Party opened the way for the election of Jair Bolsonaro. 

It is frequently the right, with its desire to shrink the state and roll back its social commitments, that benefits from the sort of hysteria about corruption that centres it as the fundamental or exclusive problem, overlooks the parts of the state that work well and ignores both the struggle to make the state work better and discussions on how to achieve this. 

Reductive forms of anti-corruption politics, without any sort of positive social programme or links to progressive popular organisations, do not only risk enabling hard-right buffoons like Bolsonaro. They can also be effective at winning legitimacy for technocratic forms of rule and the neoliberal fantasy of an effective end to meaningful political disputation as technocratic authority and the rule of the market are normalised. 

These kinds of assumptions are now very common in the liberal public sphere in South Africa, a public sphere in which many former activists have been incorporated into an elite common sense via business, “civil society” or both.

The entry of Roger Jardine on the political stage has turbo-charged the retreat from democratic ideals. 

Initial reports said “funders”, who were unhappy with Democratic Party leader John Steenhuisen as the presidential candidate for the Multi-Party Charter, had chosen Roger Jardine to take on that role and had invested R1 billion to back their project to win political influence.

These reports should be seen as provisional and more detail will emerge. 

Jardine has denied there is R1 billion backing him. Hopefully, ongoing reporting will reveal who these “funders” are, what their political histories, ideas and aspirations are, what the process of forming the project has been and how its policy positions will be prepared and by whom. 

But the general lack of critique in much of the initial coverage of the idea that a group of “funders” — rumoured to be a set of very rich white men — can decide who should lead a political project is a disturbing indication of the ongoing retreat from democratic commitments.

This is, after all, a brazen attempt by a small group of very rich people to buy political influence. When a group of wealthy people fund a banker to be a political candidate questions need to be asked about the character of the economic and political influence they are seeking to buy.

Jardine kicked off his campaign by declaring an intention to “centre communities on [sic] their struggles and their voices”. That sounds like UDF-lite but Jardine has moved from banking to politics, and is a former chairman of the economically right-wing think-tank the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE). 

Anthony Ball, rumoured to be among his funders, is a board member and funder of the CDE. Its executive director, Ann Bernstein, is also rumoured to be part of the Jardine project. Murphy Morobe, a former UDF militant, sits on its board and is a confirmed part of the project. 

No firm conclusions can yet be drawn about what this may or may not mean but it does raise questions that require clear answers.

If, as rumoured, the funders are all white, another set of urgent questions arise. Moreover, it may be noted that Bernstein has held a position on the board of The Brenthurst Foundation, which includes Richard Myers the former chairman: joint chiefs of staff, US, who led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a war crime that cost more than a million lives. 

It is difficult to see people not outraged by this being motivated by anything other than the racist assumption that Arab lives are disposable. 

A credible alternative to the ANC, one that could enrich our democracy, would have to be built from below, via democratic processes, and be owned and directed by its members. 

It would have to link vigorous opposition to corruption to issues such as political repression and develop a social programme in the interests of the impoverished and working-class majority. It would have to build relations with trade unions and popular organisations grounded in mutuality and respect for their autonomy.

The project in which Jardine has accepted the lead role will have to test itself in the election next year. In that sense it has a democratic aspect. But in other respects it and its reception in much of the media is one more step in our ongoing retreat from democratic commitments.

Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut in the US.