A citizens’ path to true democrcy

Posted on February 2, 2019


There is a clear lesson — amounting to a wake-up call — for every trade unionist in the allegations and evidence emerging from the Zondo Commission into state capture. It is that the perception in the labour movement that the present economic system is inherently rotten, is true.

Also clearly underlined is the validity of the comment: power tends to corrupt. However, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that political power makes individuals who take to wielding it within the existing dispensation— among them leading trade unionists — susceptible to being corrupted.

And that does not necessarily mean having fingers in the state till or being bribed by more than an inflated parliamentary salary or position of authority. South Africa is also not unique in this.

It is a problem facing all parliamentary democracies, because they only provide an illusion of popular control, a concession won over recent centuries by the often bloody and bitter struggles of working people. But that old saying that “he who pays the piper, calls the tune” remains as true today as ever.

The major difference in the recent South African context is that the examples of state capture now being investigated have been decidedly less subtle than in most other cases: smash and grab raids as opposed to long-term fraud. Parliaments, although voted into power by working class majorities, invariably end up as.the effective management structures of the existing system of exploitation.

It’s the same in parliamentary democracies the world over and can be seen in the fact that taxes — set by parliaments — increasingly favour the super rich. As the rich have become richer and economically more powerful, corporate tax rates have reduced, with the result that more of the tax burden is borne by working people.

This is the nature of a system where the economic model is based on competition, with profit as the over-riding priority. Parliaments, although voted into power by working class majorities, end up becoming the effective management structures of the existing system of exploitation. It is only at election times that there is pandering to the majority, usually in the form of promises.

Our own history of the defeat of a brutal racially exclusive parliamentary democracy provides an object lesson: the economic system remains intact, only the regulatory — the management — sector is now staffed by representatives of the majority, elected by votes won by the majority. That’s the way it works.

And we have certainly seen the seamless transition of a number of union leaders and one-time professed radicals to compliant ministerial posts and to even more lucrative positions in business. Some have gone, openly expressing the desire to bring about change from above, until providing more evidence that, in an hierarchical — top-down — structure, the position changes the person,

When rot sets in, it is not so much a case of being sucked willingly or even blindly into a swamp of corruption; it is usually more like being led down an apparently innocuous primrose path until ensnared by dependency and greed. However it happens, the results are usually the same.

Most unions correctly note that the government continues to pursue the neo-liberal economic policies it adopted in 1996, policies castigated by the SA Communist Party (SACP) as the “1996 class project”. Yet five senior SACP leaders remain ministers in the ANC government.

Twenty-two years later it seems clear that, without democratic control over, and the right to recall, elected representatives — these being the “basics” early anti-apartheid unions strove for — the corrupting minority will continue to have a relatively free hand.