By Paul Whelan (Richmark Sentinel)
‘Why did people think for thousands of years that the sun revolved round the earth?’ the philosopher Wittgenstein remarked to a friend.
Perhaps surprised by the apparently easy question, the friend replied, ‘Why, because that is what it looks like. The sun seems to cross the sky from sunrise to sunset.’
‘But what would it look like if the earth revolved round the sun?’ asked Wittgenstein.
This marvellous insight into our boundless capacity to deceive ourselves, to accept the popular view or trust to authority, to misconstrue everyday experience, should warn us to think twice whenever we hear SA referred to as a ‘democracy’.
First of all, what does the word mean? If it means having the vote and a particular set of institutions, such as parliament and president, it is hard to show how Zimbabwe is less a ‘democracy’ than SA. Is it about equality? Some commentators argue that is essential while others play it down. But commentators are good at keeping their options open, which raises two more questions: who at any time is making claims about ‘democracy’, and why?
President Zuma has graduated from prophesying before the elections that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes again to testifying that God was on the ANC’s side during them. His most vocal supporters and allies do not seem to doubt it. In their view, rule by the ANC is ‘democracy’ - which at once explains Cope’s defeat at the polls and justifies overturning the DA’s victory, by making the Western Cape ungovernable. The opposition says this proves the ANC do not want ‘democracy’ at all.
The truth is the word means what people wish it to mean. It is called in to support both sides of every political argument. Visiting bigwigs are freer with it than with direct foreign investment - at least those from the west. The new SA flaunts democratic symbols: old places and new named after its struggle heroes; imposing multilateral institutions in which SA helps spread ‘democracy’ throughout Africa; a multi-ethnic national parliament that opens yearly with much pomp and circumstance, its motif James Madison’s immortal words: ‘We, the people’.
But wait. More and more of ‘the people’ have spotted that their connection with parliament is distant rather than intimate. Political parties choose MPs, not the voters, meaning in effect that the executive ‘elects’ the legislature. Parliament’s resulting lack of backbone has become a byword and SA’s citizens generally do not even know who their representatives are. As president, Mbeki was criticized for appointing provincial premiers, so Zuma has changed this. Now provinces submit three candidates – and then Zuma appoints provincial premiers. Many find it hard to see any of this as democratic, but the ANC must prefer it since they do not change it, and Cope and the DA are not together in demanding that they should. The one thing most politicians seem agreed on is that ‘the people’ cannot be trusted to know their own minds.
This is highlighted by the way SA’s president is elected. ANC supporters insist Zuma is the people’s choice when he is plainly first the party’s. And if, as loyalists argue, party and people are one and the same, Mbeki must still have been ‘the people’s choice’ when a tiny group of tripartite alliance activists ‘recalled’ him before the end of his term. The will of the people was then ignored a second time in the expedient appointment of a reluctant Kgalema Motlanthe as stand-in president. South Africans were treated throughout as bystanders in the battles of an untouchable party elite.
Academics and journalists fail to probe these democratic deficiencies and reject that SA is a ‘one-party state’. This is reasonable up to a point. With its liberal constitution, independent judiciary and free press, the new SA is of another order entirely from any to which that ill-famed term applies. But it is less than candid to say that rather SA is ‘a party-dominant democracy’, a euphemism that likes to suggest opposition has a chance of unseating the ANC and governing the country.
The harm is that words hide reality. Though the ANC’s new style since Polokwane is undeniable, in practice and mentality SA remains a monocracy. Government is still largely unaccountable - who or what can ensure that it accounts? It still lacks external stimulus to reform or to innovate - where is the penalty if it does not? And because it must forever appear to speak for everyone, its advantage still lies in lumping everyone together in an undifferentiated collective it calls 'the people'.
Ways forward cannot be found until enough real people see opposition as choice, not betrayal. No one party or era defines ‘democracy’. The sun went round the earth for two thousand years, burning truth in its path, because we let it.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
By Paul Whelan (Richmark Sentinel)