How ‘the people’ can capture the state

Posted on April 9, 2017


“The people shall govern.” It is a South African Freedom Charter slogan that has been heard loudly around the country in the wake of the latest political turmoil. It is a legitimate demand and one that implies direct democracy, a system where the citizens as a whole have control over their lives and welfare.

Such systems where political and economic power rest with the community, have existed in the past, usually on a village level, in Africa and elsewhere. Co-operative governance, without chiefs 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 pay and conditions of employment would also be decided by the community. This is real democracy in action and should be the goal of every person laying claim to be a democrat.

The only question is whether such a system can be applied in the South Africa of today. And, if it can be, how best should it be implemented. Communication is obviously 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; that the partial democracy we now see around the world, in one form or other, is the only answer.

It is not. Courtesy of aspects 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. But this would also have to be on the basis of a broadly agreed set of principles, a political programme.

In South Africa, such a programme already exists in the Bill of Rights that “enshrines the rights of all people… and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”. We also possess in modern communications technology – everything from the internet to cell phones, radio and television – the means to discuss issues and make decisions as a society. All that is required here is organisation.

People throughout the country tend to be members of various organisations such as trade unions, religious communities, sports clubs, stokvels and other groups – even political parties – that come together regularly. Or they are part of neighbourhoods. Together, these are units large and small of what could be a coalition of citizens that could be linked with the technology that already exists. And each citizen has a unique identity number that, as in the present electoral system, protects against duplicate 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.

Such votes could instruct representatives to, for example, support labour intensive requirements for all state contracts (so creating jobs). We do not require money grubbing small bsuiness enterprises; we need to liberate the enormous potential of ordinary people and create an environment that encourages confidence and co-operation.

A citizens’ coalition could also decide to introduce a universal “living wage” social security net and show how it could be financed by additional corporate taxes or taxes on individuals paid more than, say, R3 million a year. Or perhaps by a “Tobin” or financial transactions tax.

On the job creation front, most South Africans might also oppose the dumping on the local market of everything from subsidised chicken portions and canned tomatoes to chocolate bars. These and other issues could be debated and decided upon on the basis of what is best for the people as a whole.

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 aswell as political structures to come together to finalise the organisational details. These would probably require the establishment of a computerised “hub” that would have no political authority; it would be responsible primarily to 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 member using perhaps a specially tailored social media platform.

Such a coalition would initially have to operate within the present electoral dispensation, certainly in the coming 2019 elections. This would mean candidates, selected after the widest possible consultation, being nominated in proportion to the voters in each province or region. Every candidate should also be required to sign a “constituency agreement” that binds them 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. This would finally place the long neglected horse of democratic politics before the now stalled cart of general wellbeing that still continues to be dominated by an elite minority.

This idea of “peoples’ power” is now being promoted — and claimed — by all manner of groups. But much of this is mere rhetoric, sometimes mouthed by individuals who for years have been part of the problem. However, if the citizenry can take practical steps to implement such direct democracy, this country may again provide an example to the world.

Posted in: Commentary