Monday, 21 August 2017

Re-Drawing the Lines of Democracy

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
‘As a child, you tend to look on the lines drawn as the inevitable nature of things; for a long time, I did. But along somewhere in boyhood, I came to see that lines once drawn might have been drawn otherwise,’ said Haywood Burns, a leader of the civil rights movement in the USA. We think that the lines drawn of democracy are inescapable.  But are they?
Democracy is not only a system of government of the people, by the people for the people, typically through elected representatives. It is the privilege of freedom, and this is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. In many countries around the world, democracy was gained through the efforts of those who passionately fought and died for it.

Today we find that democracy is not seen with the same eye as it was during the dark days when many did not have the privilege of enjoying it.  The government of the people, by the people, for the people – the power of the people – is undermined and threatened today, above all, by those with artificial power.  This is how:
People are prioritised over issues.  Democracy is a good mechanism for arranging a society for its good, because elected representatives come from the grass roots.  Yet paradoxically, it gets bogged down in the weaknesses encouraged by the personalities involved.  In the words of philosophy writer Thomas Scarborough, it is compromised by personal loyalties, fleeting fears, populism, short-sightedness, and vested interests, among other things.

Groups are prioritised over consensus.  In spite of democracy, many leaders fail to encourage compromise, as a means to obtain group consensus and government which serves the weak and the strong in a fair way.  Mahatma Gandhi wrote, ‘I understand democracy as something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong’.  But elections are mostly fictitious, wrote revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and ‘managed by rich landowners and professional politicians’.

Bureaucracy is prioritised over democracy.  We perceive that democracy provides every citizen with the right to decide what the general matters of concern are.  Yet, through the years, democracy has been overtaken by bureaucracy – now the driver of democracy in many states.  People have no difficulty with this illusion, while true democracy is lost.

Appearance is prioritised over content.  We argue that those who endorse the principles of democracy represent democracy, as opposed to those who do not.  To some extent, this distinction may be true.  But all too often, both sides are in bondage to class rule.  One side makes this rule overt, while the other is able to disguise it.  Yet little really separates the two.
How then do we judge that democracy is fair and not fictitious?  In answering this question, we should consider two things:
If we seclude democracy from the rule of law, we are preparing for calamity, and

If we fail to respect the fact that nations are diverse, we lose the essence of democracy, which is the power of people.


  1. Thank you, Sifiso. I know that many people are rethinking democracy in Southern Africa. I think this helps. It seems to me, as I read your essay, that democracy is like a person who has a memory. The rule of law is democracy’s memory, while government is its present consciousness?

    I would suggest a fifth point: • Individuals are prioritised over the whole. Behaviours which are devastating for their effects on the whole may be treated merely as isolated cases, with less than the seriousness they deserve: damage to the national infrastructure, for instance, the poaching of endangered wildlife, or government corruption. Even (I am being provocative) earning capacity, freedom of movement, lifestyle preferences.

    1. Thank you Thomas for that great point. In each point there's a sub-point(s) which need to be discussed in detail. The consciousness of democracy in most African nations is Tyranny not in the same manner as it was in the dark days. A well know fellow once said imagination has its own form of courage. If all of us can imagine a just democracy it will flourish because integrity will be the driver instead of bureaucracy.

  2. You have august company, Sifiso, in those sentiments about democracy; the wariness surrounding democracy famously dates back many years. Ancient Greek philosophers — including the heady likes of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, among others — were critical of democracy. Uncharitably conjuring a parallel to mob rule. They veered toward pigeonholing the public as ignorant, unskilled, ill-informed, lacking in self-discipline, corruptible, devoid of virtue, and easily swayed by blandishments.

    A pretty harsh indictment, even adjusting for historical context.

    Fast forward a couple of millennia, and we find that some among America’s Founding Fathers, as scholars of all that was ancient Greek — gotta love the classics, right? — reflected on and debated some of those Greeks’ qualms. Serving as a bit of a blueprint for the Founding Fathers’ views.

    Following is James Madison’s summary, from thirty thousand feet, of their unease. The comment reveals the fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in a pure democracy; it also expresses faith in why a republic — braced by a constitution that limits and decentralizes government, with checks and balances — seemed to be the fix:

    ‘Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. . . . A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.’ — Federalist Papers No. 10

    Madison et al. got their wish: neither America’s Declaration of Independence nor its Constitution includes the word ‘democracy’. Rather, Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution expressly says, ‘The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government’.

    Of course, there is Aristotle’s sobering, even dystopian, reductionism: ‘Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms’. And Plato’s: ‘Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy’. Again, pretty harsh indictments — and arguably not applicable, or at least not inevitable, in today’s world.

    However, I doubt ‘philosopher-kings’ offer a realistic alternative — a risible notion in a twenty-first-century world. Alternatively, one might find solace in Winston Churchill’s whimsical cut to the chase, saying on the heels of the Second World War, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that been tried’.

    If democracy — whether in republican or other guise — is not the solution, and if all the other tried-and-‘untrue’ forms of government have already seriously underperformed, I wonder what is the solution. Might there be an as-yet-undiscovered, tacit form of government — with implications to society, from enduring institutions to citizens’ wellbeing to all the rest — capable of better serving people? And in such a case, how might one define ‘better’? Whose interests get served, and whose ox gets gored?

    1. Keith, thank you for that comment. I personally at this moment do not think there is another way to govern rather than in a Democratic way. However we need to rethink how democracy looks like to better serve everyone. Our democracy is operating at a hierarchy and we need it to work in a form of a circle whereby everyone is equal. The only difference should be on which side of the circle one is operating at.

    2. A brief note to complement the debate rather than engage with it. I'm wondering how particular forms of government influence the world around them, beyond their borders.

    3. Good question, Thomas. Here’s my necessarily simplistic take . . .

      My sense is that the more that governments are autocratic, the more they operate as bubbles, in which the same one-dimensional ideas are regurgitated and ricochet. It’s a self-reinforcing (survivalist) model of government, subject to a great deal of inelasticity. All the easier to rule and be ruled. Such forms of government have few ties to, and thus influences on, the larger world — all to their liking. Outside influences, especially enlightened influences, are distrusted, not uncommonly seen as threats to a regime that may be looking over its shoulder. As a result, such paternalistic forms of government tend to function in an isolationist manner — or at most, if they are militarily and economically strong enough, as regional forces. Their influences likely don’t extend, if beyond their borders at all, farther than their so-called ‘near-abroad’ countries. Very much a buffered, fortress mentality.

      On the other hand, liberal democracies, which see themselves as having farther-ranging interests and enthusiastically seek to engage with the world at large, are inclined to have global influences. Without question they have self-interests they want to nurture too; that's a given within the arena of realpolitik. But they also have values and aspirations and over-the-horizon vision that connect them with other people, communities, and cultures. Those values, and by extension global influences, are myriad and complex: ranging from human rights to economic development to foreign assistance (healthcare, educational opportunities, food security) to models for self-governance to the offshoots of science and technology to trade to finances to start-up entrepreneurship — and much more, of course. Unlike the ricocheting of weary ideas within a bubble, enlightened governments see the advantages of inventiveness, imagination, and originality, where ideas churn. The result is benefits both to themselves and, to the degree practical (circumscribed by things as banal as budgets), to communities around the globe.

  3. I've a sense that we're all quite sceptical about the idealistic claims made for 'democracy' - while noting Winston Churchill's well-worn dictum about it being however, the 'least bad' form of government..

    I do agree with those three 'points of concern' however. "Groups are prioritised over consensus....leaders fail to encourage compromise". Truly we see this with the recent exercise in 'direct democarcy' in Britain where 52% voted for the UK to leave the Euroean Union - an organisation it has been in for 40 years or so, and was entered by a far more substantial vote in favour. Indeed, the vote sets the old against the young, the educated against the uneducated, and the constituent nations of the UK against each other. Scotaland and Northern Ireland both voted by substantial margins to stay in the European Union.

    So the theoretical limitations of a single vote counted in a simple way are shown in a very real way. For South Africa, surely, a more subtle and inclusive mechanism should have been created than that allowing one group 'majority' or no, to take decisions at the expense of the various minorities.

    1. It was very difficult for those negotiating to propose such a form of governance at that time in South Africa. Power was the driver and a compromise as big as that would have made the efforts of those who fought and died futile.

      The 'least bad' form of government needs to be rethought and structured.