Elections are important, but what should be more important is the experience of citizens between and beyond elections.
It is the quality of electoral outcomes, not an election on its own, which must feed into the broader quality of the democratic experience of ‘ordinary’ citizens. The authors of the Freedom Charter had a vision of a post-apartheid society in which “The people shall govern”. In many so-called democracies, including our own, the emphasis tends to fall quite heavily on how the people are governed. In other words, we tend to look more at the formal dimensions of how the people are governed and less at how ‘democratic’ systems, structures, processes and rules assist in helping the people to govern themselves and their lives at an individual and collective level. Our focus, therefore, tends to be on how society – the people – is organised, and what this does in turn, is to create a pseudo-democratic template into which citizens must slot their wishes and desires. This model of democracy is not that interested in outcomes. It is interested more in compliance with the formal rules of the democratic edifice. It is for this reason that many among us burst into fits of celebration when the Constitutional Court delivered a ‘landmark’ judgment in which it found that it was unconstitutional to bar independent candidates from participating in the electoral process at provincial and national level. This was a Pyrrhic victory.
The implications of this judgment will be felt more in the realm of theory than they will be manifest in reality. The participation of independent candidates in national, provincial and local government elections will have a minimal impact on the relationship between elections, on the one hand, and the quality of democratic outcomes, on the other. An American judge argued that the office of the citizen must be the highest office in a democracy. As I indicated in a previous article, Cicero opined that the health of the people – an idea that is inclusive of their social and economic well-being – must be the supreme law of the land. We must never forget that, in our case, we are talking about a people that was oppressed and was denied democracy. We are talking also of a people on whose behalf these crimes against humanity and democracy were committed. Together, they must build a common future and create a democratic space that is antithetical in democratic content to the colonial and apartheid experience of our past. Is the model of democracy we have adopted, post-apartheid, equal to the task? Is it a model that, more in practice and in reality, puts the people at the centre, or is it the sophistry of democratic language that reigns supreme?
Let me put the challenge this way: The struggle against apartheid was a struggle for the creation of a society whose moral, ethical, social, economic and political content would be antithetical to the content and experience of colonialism and apartheid. Upon the achievement of this goal will begin the work of creating a society that in its own moral, social, economic, political and democratic content will be qualitatively different from the post-apartheid reality that has become the antithesis to its precedent reality of apartheid coloniality. The implications of this understanding of the post-apartheid democratic project must lie in the realisation that the task of deepening our democratic experience is ceaseless and eternal in nature. Democracy must become a reality that, in the experience of citizens, speaks more eloquently than the beautiful words that seek to describe it. Will changes in our electoral laws deliver such a substantive reality and experience of democracy, or is change that is much more fundamental in nature and content – beyond the liberal aesthetics of our post-apartheid setting, the answer?
In part, the answer lies in another question: What constitutes a civilised and democratic society, and what should be the content of democracy development in the process of creating such a civilsed and democratic society and global order? I will come back to this question in a more substantive manner in future articles. For now, I wish to argue the following:
There are conflicting ideas about what constitutes a civilised, democratic order. There are dominant ideas about what constitutes such an order. These ideas find expression in geo-strategic and geo-political interests; class, gender and racial hegemonies, as well as, the dominant ideological impulses which govern the capitalist matrix at a global and national level. Unfortunately, capitalism and liberal democracy are Siamese twins. This means that at a global and national level two things must happen: First, we need to extricate democracy from the clutches of capitalism. Second, we need to liberate humanity from the idea that the grand idea of democracy is reducible only to the narrow incarnation of liberal democracy. The creation of a truly democratic and civilised society must begin with endeavours that include these two critical steps. The implications of this will differ from country to country but this should not blind us to the imperative of acting both locally and globally. In South Africa the implications are tied also to the need to grapple with coloniality, the imposition of the decolonial to crush coloniality and, ultimately, the transition from counter-hegemonic to auto-hegemonic discourses that are not rooted only, or mainly, in the imperative to counter the manifestations of coloniality in our post-apartheid and neo-colonial reality. To this end, we, as South Africans, must examine the things which continue to divide us quite closely because these extend, also to our conception of a civilised society, democracy and constitutionalism. At the centre of our national ‘quarrel’ lies western modernity and the pretense that ubiquity and universality are synonymous. Furthermore, what lies at the centre of this national quarrel is what the Latin American scholar, Walter Mignolo, refers to as “the darker side of western modernity, that is; coloniality – something that, in South Africa, has outlived colonialism.
In the book, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options, Mignolo argues that, “ “modernity” is a complex narrative whose point of origination was Europe; a narrative that builds Western civilization by celebrating its achievements while hiding at the same time its darker side, “coloniality”.” One of these ‘achievements’ is liberal democracy. There are many reasons why in the ‘post-colony’ liberal democracy has become the dominant democratic model, chief among which, is epistemic racism and the epistemic servility of the former liberation movement and our political class in general. In the book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them, Joshua Greene argues that, those like us South Africans, who engage in national quarrels, “fight not because they are fundamentally selfish but because they have incompatible visions of what a moral society should be.” In South Africa, the problem is deeper though: In the conflict over what should constitute a moral order, the proponents and purveyors of western modernity, driven in the main by coloniality at both a conscious and unconscious level, believe in the superiority of their conception of a moral and civilised order, democracy and constitutionalism to the exclusion, for instance, of indigenous knowledge. In my view, our understanding of democracy would be much richer, and our democratic experience qualitatively better, if we did not limit ourselves only to those options imposed upon us by western modernity. Indigenous knowledge systems, among other things, foreground the centrality of the communal but are based also on the understanding that individuals who are healthy spiritually, morally, physically and psychologically are the foundation of a healthy society. In turn, a healthy society is the foundation of healthy individuals but both the individual and the community are healthy only to the extent that the community, the collective or the people occupy the central position in all that seeks to cure the human condition of the things that ill humanity. Indigenous knowledge systems teach us to embrace uncertainty because, in the universe, things are always fluid. We are taught to embrace the understanding that there is chaos in order and order in chaos.
This fluidity, coupled with the need to embrace uncertainty, teaches us something else – knowing is not a destination. Knowing is ceaseless motion towards the unknown. Perhaps, two of the most important things indigenous knowledge systems teach us are the centrality of connectedness and humility. Imagine what the world would be like if humanity suffered from a pandemic of humility. We would be open to be guided by others. We would be open to learning from others. We, as a result, would know much more, and ways of knowing and forms of knowledge which block true knowledge would be less debilitating and knowledge production would be truly democratic. Coloniality has no room for the imperative of democratising thought and knowledge production. It relies on its echo-chambers and the fact that, in them, learning is thoughtless. What indigenous knowledge systems teach us, however, is the fact that knowledge production is a collective enterprise and that knowledge must, therefore, be shared. This, however, cannot happen unless we are connected to others and to nature and the universe. This level of connection dictates that we love our neighbors more than we love ourselves. In such a world, in such a country, it will be difficult to live side by side with inequality, poverty and unemployment while we, at the same time, celebrate ours as the best constitution in the world. In such a a country, it would be difficult to live with current gaps between elections and democratic outcomes, that is; the quality of the lives of citizens and the quality of their democratic experience.
Western modernity and its democratic aesthetics will, on their own, not deliver a social, economic and political order that is truly substantive and democratic in its impact on the lives of ‘ordinary’ citizens. Indigenous knowledge and other knowledge systems – systems other than western ways of knowing – must move from the periphery to the centre of the democratic process. This will require some level of freedom from the known – the liberal democratic aesthetic which, like capitalism, is one of the pillars of western modernity. To the extent that liberal democracy must remain part of our democratic edifice, it must be but one option among many, and discarding it as an option must never be outside the realm of what is possible, desirable or both. The alternative is, in perpetuity, to remain victims of Post-politics, an idea according to which neo-liberalism is the only way in which society and the economy can be organised.
Therefore, forgive me for being a bit on the lukewarm side about the fact that independent candidates will contest parliamentary seats in the 2024 general election. This, to me, will amount to nothing more than a new dimension of our liberal democratic aesthetic. We need to ask deeper questions about this Constitutional Court judgment and its implications. We must ask deeper questions about the relationship between our liberal democracy and a better life for all. Is our electoral process not an exercise in narrow electoralism? Have elections become a mere ritual? As we think about these questions, we must remember that about 18 million South Africans did not vote in the 2019 general election. Half of them did not even bother to register. Of course, there may be a plethora of reasons why these South Africans stayed at home. But, I believe it is quite reasonable to surmise that many of them do not see the link between elections and the capacity to deliver on the promise of a better life for all. Perhaps, the first democratic thing to do is to grant them narrative dignity by allowing (I could not think of a non-paternalistic word) them to tell the nation themselves why they do not regard elections as a beneficial exercise. In the words of Atilio Boron, a Latin American scholar whose words have inspired me to be less uncritical about liberal or what he calls capitalist democracy, “Not long ago the celebration of capitalist democracies, as if they constituted the crowning achievement of every democratic aspiration, found legions of adepts in Latin America, where the phrase was pronounced with a solemnity usually reserved for the greater achievements of mankind. But now that more than a quarter of a century has elapsed since the beginnings of the process of re-democratization in Latin America, the time seems appropriate to look at its shortcomings and unfulfilled promises. Do capitalist democracies deserve the respect so widely accorded them?”
We must ask the same questions about our own capitalist democracy.