Forward to a Citzens’ Coalition?

Posted on April 26, 2016


Placing a cross on a ballot paper every five years in order to hand over political control to a party bureaucracy is democratic only in that voters willingly forgo the potential power they, collectively, have. As such, what we have is, in effect, something of a fraud.

A constituency system with a proportional element is marginally better, but unless authority is vested, on an ongoing basis, with the majority of citizens, what we have, at best, is limited or partial democracy. In all these cases, democracy extends to being allowed to decide every five years to whom we hand over authority.

We do so while, for the most part, being aware that the interests of politicians lie not with the voters, but with party bureaucracies that rely for much of their funding on the financial elites whose fundamental interests are diametrically opposed to those of the majority. These are the pipers who usually call the tune and they are joined all too often by men and women who move seamlessly from political office to the boardrooms of big business.

So, in order to have the best chance of achieving egalitarian goals such as those set out in the South African Bill of Rights, democracy should be realised to its fullest extent: rule by the people, the definition of the term given to the world by Athenian Greece, should be implemented. In simple terms: let the people decide within an agreed and egalitarian framework.

What does seem certain is that without a radical move towards a new political dispensation and the emergence of a new and more democratic formation, the social fabric of the country will continue to fray and tear, causing further moves towards repression. Because it is only through repression that political parties and the governments they control in the present dispensation can keep eruptions of popular dissent in check.

The only questions that then arise, are: is direct democracy — popular control within an agreed framework — possible and, if so, how can it be achieved? An egalitarian — democratic — framework already exists in the Bill of Rights and evidence exists that systems of direct democracy have existed in the past.
Historically, co-operative governance, without chiefs, professional politicians or hereditary rulers, has been practised in areas as diverse as the Eastern Cape and Iceland. Regular assemblies, in many cases admittedly only of men, would be called to discuss and decide, as equals, policies to be implemented and on actions to be taken by the community and for the community.

Where necessary, representatives, wholly accountable to, and recallable by, the community would be elected to carry out specific functions. Their rewards and conditions of employment would also be decided by the community.
This is real democracy in action and should be the goal aimed at by every person laying claim to be a democrat. Obviously, regular communication is the essence here and it is readily pointed out that millions of people can hardly be gathered together on a regular basis to discuss and make decisions.

On a simplistic level, this is true. However, courtesy of the very technology that has made increasing millions of men and women redundant as workers, rather than freeing them from drudgery, it is perfectly feasible for every citizen to be kept informed, to discuss all issues and to decide and vote on appropriate actions. As we are constantly reminded: we live in a world village.

But it is a village in ongoing crisis where the management structures – the governments – of a system based on competition and the pursuit of profit as an end in itself, pay little more than lip service to democratic principles.
And putative alternative parties promote only variations of economic and social policy within the same basic political structure. But without changing the political framework, this amounts only to variations on a theme that has now outlived its usefulness to humanity.

In many ways it is a case of back to the future: back to an ideal — without gender distortions — of ancient Athens but where the slaves that liberate us are the products of the massive technological advances of recent decades.

Many of the technological advances that are now proving harmful to humanity could equally be immensely beneficial. And modern communications technology provides us with the means to make a city, a region, a country and more an effective village for decision making. Cellphones and the internet connect even the most remote communities – and South Africa is no exception.

Surveys have revealed that more than 12 million South African adults regularly access the internet. These are people who are members of various organisations such as trade unions, religious communities, stokvels and other groups – even political parties – that come together regularly. There is also, especially in the Eastern Cape, a move toward community “hubs” in the form of community schools.

So units large and small of what could be a coalition of citizens already exist, along with the technology to link them.
What is required is organisation within an agreed framework and on the basis of a set of goals and code of conduct. The goals and the principles of conduct – effectively a political programme – exist in the Bill of Rights. Using existing social structures or setting up new ones in neighbourhoods or wherever, citizens can come together as members of a coalition of equals to debate and decide on all matters concerning them.

This will require that elected representatives of such groups, at all levels, should be both accountable to, and recallable by, their constituencies. In the case of parliament, for example, this would mean each nominated candidate signing a legal agreement to accept the conditions imposed by the constituency.

Ideally, constituencies should be clearly defined and candidates for office should be selected by coalition members in each constituency. However, because we are constrained by the present list system at national and provincial levels, with constituencies arbitrarily defined by political parties after the event, it will be necessary to adapt to this until change can be introduced.

This means a “citizens’ coalition” putting up candidates for office who are broadly acceptable to voters in different regions and who are prepared to sign “constituency agreements” whereby they agree to be wholly accountable to, and recallable by, the constituents to whom they are allocated.

The proportion of votes for such a citizens’ coalition in various regions should determine the boundaries of “constituencies” and who should represent them. Because every citizen has a unique ID number, there can be little chance of duplicate membership or voting.

A trade unionist, for example, may choose to be a member of a trade union unit of the coalition or of a religious, community or other grouping. Only in the unit where the coalition member is registered may that vote be recorded.

To get such a system underway in the present conditions would perhaps require representatives from major social organisations such as trade unions, religious groups and community structures to come together to finalise the details.
The basic structure would probably require a computerised “hub” that would have no political authority and would collect and collate the membership details of those subscribing to the coalition. It would also act as a “switchboard”, passing on debates, requests and arguments from various regional groupings to every coalition unit and member using perhaps a specially tailored social media platform.

It does appear vital that a start be made on establishing such a citizens’ coalition. It may be the only way of avoiding further suffering as the present, fundamentally undemocratic, polity attempts to claw itself and the crisis-wracked economic system back to stability.

Posted in: Commentary