Ideological battle over meaning of democracy

Alex | Jul 17, 2013
James Myburgh reflects on the rivalry between political Jacobins and liberals in South Africa.

Summary - South Africa is celebrating ten years of democracy this year, but there has been little discussion about what is meant by the word. In fact, two distinct understandings of democracy are current in South Africa and they are ultimately incompatible. There is, firstly, the liberal democratic meaning, which counterbalances the principle of majority rule with minority rights. How this works in practice is best described by Philippe Schmitter’s concepts of ‘contingent consent’ and ‘bounded uncertainty’. The former means that parties contest elections on the understanding that the winning party will not undermine the losing party’s ability to contest future elections, while the losing party will respect the right of the majority to rule. The latter means that the outcome of the election should be uncertain, and that once the winning party assumes power it cannot do whatever it wants but must abide by established rules. The second meaning of democracy in South Africa is the majoritarian one, and in this sense South Africa is clearly democratic. The ANC’s particular understanding of majoritarian democracy has its origins in the Jacobin idea of the general will: the people (meaning the black majority) have a common interest, which is represented by, and embodied in, the ANC, and thus democracy and ANC rule are synonymous. Racial minorities are seen as standing outside of, and in opposition to, the popular will. For the ANC, true democracy means, firstly, expanding the political, social and economic control of the ruling party (transferring power to the people), and secondly, fulfilling the aspirations of the black majority by redressing the inequalities caused by colonialism and apartheid. Since the former is necessary to achieve the latter, the limitations on power required by the liberal meaning of democracy are deeply undemocratic in the ANC’s view. Mbeki rejects the notion that democracy is an ‘endless struggle’ for supremacy between two opposing political factions – the opposition is welcome to contest the elections but once the people have spoken, there should be unity in action and the minority should submit to the majority. For the time being, the two meanings of democracy co-exist in public discourse. The ANC has yet to face a serious electoral challenge, and the polls are generally fairly conducted. But the ANC’s ideological hostility to any alternation in government, and the collapse of the distinction between party and state, provides both motive and means for the ANC to subvert the democratic process if its majority is ever seriously threatened. If that happens, we may find, as Zimbabweans did, that ours is a democracy that never was.

Since South Africa is celebrating "ten years of democracy" it is rather odd that there has been little discussion of what is understood by that word. For, as George Orwell noted fifty years ago, almost every kind of regime claims to be democratic because "it is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it".

In South Africa, as in Orwell's time, there is a general reluctance to have the word tied down to any one meaning, because then one side or another would have to stop using it. Yet although they are often obscured, there are two cogent and distinct understandings of the word current in South Africa - with many shades in between - and while they may overlap for the moment, they are ultimately quite incompatible. This year we can celebrate the one, or the other, but not both.

In the sense that the African National Congress (ANC) government enjoys the support of a majority of the governed, South Africa is clearly a democracy. It is true as well that our democracy enjoys a patina of liberalism. And yet beneath this apparent consensus there are very different views of the meaning of democracy.

The one meaning of the word is the liberal democratic one, with its careful counterbalancing of the principle of majority rule with minority rights. The great concern of liberal theorists - from James Madison to John Stuart Mill - was how was one to divide, limit and contain the power of the majority, while ensuring that institutions still derived their authority from society. As Madison wrote, a republic must not only guard against the tyranny of the rulers over the ruled, but also protect one part of society against the injustices perpetrated by the other. Part of the solution lay in ensuring that society was divided into "so many parts, interests and classes" that the rights of the minority would be under little threat from the "interested combinations" of the majority.

The actual operation of liberal democracy is perhaps best captured by Philippe Schmitter's concepts of "contingent consent" and "bounded uncertainty". According to the former principle, parties compete in elections on the understanding that those who win office will not use their newly acquired powers to undermine the ability of the losing minority to contest, and win, elections in the future. Equally, the losing party will respect the right of the majority to make binding decisions, in the expectation that they have a chance of winning over a section of the majority and forming a government at the next election. "Bounded uncertainty" means that, while the outcome of elections should be uncertain, the winning party cannot govern as it sees fit once it has assumed power. It has to operate within circumscribed boundaries and obey established rules of the game. The judiciary, most state institutions, and civil society are fenced off from political control.

The other meaning of democracy in South Africa is the majoritarian one. Democracy, as understood by the ANC and others, means black majority rule. The health of democracy is measured by the degree to which the government enjoys the support of, and fulfils the interests and aspirations of, the dominant (and historically deprived) racial majority. This might not be particularly liberal, but it is by no means undemocratic. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted: "The very essence of democracy consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority; for there is nothing in democratic states that is capable of resisting it."

The ANC's particular understanding of democracy has its origins in the Jacobin idea of the "general will". Far from "the people" being a divided entity, made up of a multitude of conflicting and shifting interests and aspirations, as the liberal theorists had argued, for the Jacobins the people were one, possessing a single "right" will. Two important consequences flowed from this idea.

Firstly, the classically liberal notions of dividing and limiting power were submerged beneath the demand that since the people were regaining their sovereignty, their authority and power should be concentrated, and unfettered by constraints.

Secondly, those who stood outside of, or in opposition to, the "general will" were seen as entitled to none of the rights and protections accorded to the people. As Robert Darnton has noted, "If the general will is organic and indivisible, anyone who expresses it speaks for the entire sovereign people, and anyone who opposes him must be an enemy of the people".

Since ANC regards itself as synonymous with "the people" (meaning the black majority) democracy is seen as indistinct from ANC rule. The people are possessed of a single composite will and common interest, interpreted by, and embodied in, the ANC. This is a status earned through the long struggle against apartheid, and expressed through the party's overwhelming victories at the ballot box.

Racial minorities, and the white minority in particular, are seen as standing outside of, and in opposition to, the popular will. The prosperity of the white minority was, for Thabo Mbeki, acquired through the exploitation and oppression of the black majority. Consequently the desire to preserve privileges supposedly acquired under apartheid, means that the interests of the white minority remain objectively opposed to that of the deprived black majority.

True democracy then, for the ANC, has two crucial components. The first lies in widening popular power. As Joel Netshitenzhe put it, "(the ANC) seeks the transfer of power to the people. When we talk of power we mean political, social and economic control". The deepening of democracy is seen as inseparable from the widening and expansion of the control, or influence, of the ruling party. The second lies in fulfilling the aspirations of the racial majority - through eradicating the "legacy of colonialism and apartheid". For the ANC the imbalances of attainment - between black and white - are the pre-eminent reminder of the "national grievance", and of all the humiliations of decades of powerlessness.

What helps to obscure the divide between them is the tendency in our political debate for words to be used for their emotional associations, rather than their meaning. Liberal phrases - which recently acquired positive connotations for the ruling party - are employed, but without any real appreciation of their value. Thus, to cite one example, while the ANC understands the value of being seen to have an independent judiciary, it does not really accept the importance of an independent judiciary. Thus, the Constitutional Court has been filled with judges most of whom are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the objectives of the ruling party. The court for its part sees its role not as protecting political or racial minorities, but merely ensuring the government remains true to its compact with the black majority. (It will act to ensure that pregnant women receive Nevirapine, but is unlikely to ever intervene to protect members of the white minority from escalating racial discrimination.)

Yet these two meanings are irreconcilable, as can be illustrated by their contrasting views of the proper role of the political opposition in a democracy, and the appropriate limitations on the power of the majority.

For the ANC the role of minority-based parties is as much to control as to represent their constituencies. They should not seek to mobilise against racial transformation, even though it may harm the immediate interests of their supporters. And, most of all, they should not seek to win over a section of the majority, in order to displace the ruling party from power.

Much of the animosity between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA) can be ascribed to their different views of what the role of opposition should be. Although the DA feels bound by the laws adopted by parliament, it criticises the government of the day, and asserts its (hypothetical) right to displace the ANC in power - alone or in coalition - should it ever win over a majority of the votes.

For the ANC, though, the DA's oppositional stance is a threat to unity and transformation. In an internet column published the week before the election, Thabo Mbeki rejected the view that the essence of democracy lay in "two opposing political factions" engaging in an "endless struggle to gain supremacy one over the other". For Mbeki the opposition were welcome to participate in the elections, but once the will of the people had been freely expressed and the ANC returned to power, there should be unity in action, and the minority should submit to the majority.

Under the ANC view, democracy is inseparable from the concentration of power in the hands of the ruling party, in order to allow it to give effect to the interests and aspirations of the black majority. For this reason the limitations on power demanded by the liberal meaning of the word are deeply undemocratic. Were they to be respected important centres of power would remain outside of the control of the black majority, and in the hands of the white minority.

From the liberal viewpoint however, this accumulation of power obviously oversteps the boundaries appropriate to liberal democracy. Apart from its many other deleterious effects, the steady encroachment of the ruling party into state and society, undermines the ability of opposition parties to effectively contest the elections.

Although the blurring of party and state had a marginal effect on the 2004 election outcome, it was nonetheless quite evident in the way the ANC conducted its campaign. The ruling party campaigned as government, as much as it did the ANC. There was widespread use of partisan government advertising, state priorities were re-ordered to suit the election timetable of the ruling party, and there was an extensive use of state resources. Moreover, most of big business was reluctant to fund those opposition parties that the ANC had taken a disliking to. The continual dismissal of minority concerns will eventually lead to their alienation from the system - though this is likely to be manifested in emigration rather than extremism.

At the moment, these two meanings co-exist in South African public discourse, for the simple reason that the ruling party has yet to face a serious electoral challenge. While the outcome of the elections is preordained, there is little incentive for the ANC to obviously interfere in the conduct of the poll, or start seriously biffing the opposition. And while polls are generally fairly conducted, the opposition can only dream of winning majority support.

According to the liberal meaning of the word - no matter how popular a ruling party may be - unless the electorate has the power to change the government, that country is a dictatorship not a democracy. It may be a popular dictatorship, but it is a dictatorship nonetheless. And whatever its other merits, the ANC's version of democracy (to the extent to which it is actually implemented) is unlikely to be an enduring one. Apart from the ideological hostility to any alternation in government, the collapse of the distinction between party and state provides both motive and means for the ANC to subvert the democratic process, were their majority ever to be seriously threatened.

If one day South Africans try and change their government through the ballot box, and find they can't (as the Zimbabweans did) they will realise that ours was a democracy which never was.