[DEBATE] : Democracy not from votes alone, Susan Booysen, Star
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Mon Feb 6 05:15:45 GMT 2006
Votes alone won't bring democracy
The majority sees protest as credible and legitimate means to advance
The Star, Johannesburg, February 6, 2006
By Susan Booysen
South Africa is witnessing the emergence of a type of local-level democracy
where community protest ranks alongside voting and elections as a legitimate
means to effect representation, service delivery and accountability.
This "new political animal" accepts and uses elections, but is unlikely to
rely on mandated elected representatives to see through delivery. It will
use, or be prepared to use, protest as reminders of a pledge to serve.
This mode of local-level democracy holds advantages for the ANC. The
predominant governing party in local government across the country sustains
the allegiance of voters dissatisfied with delivery and quality of life.
They can use non-electoral pressure to ensure that representatives will
deliver their side of the bargain.
These emerging dynamics of local government and party politics have been
instigated by recent years' widespread community protests. A survey by
research company ACNielsen confirms the comfortable co-existence of
elections and protest in the minds of a majority of South Africans from the
metropolitan and urban areas, especially black voters.
The local government elections of March 1 2006 and the political and
governance processes that lead into these elections present a revealing case
study of how local democracy has changed character since the early 2000s.
An early signifier of change was the introduction, around the turn of the
century, of new local government structures, inclusive of district councils.
Restructuring fuelled expectations of effective democracy on the local
level. However, in many respects the changes had pipedream-status. The
mismatch between expectations, on the one hand, and limited skills, capacity
and commitment on the other hand, dented the dream of local democracy.
A second signifier of the changing order of local democracy was the
proliferation of protest. We now know that protest is likely to supplement
rather than replace voting. It is used as a complementary mechanism to
activate councillors and municipalities.
The trust that elected representatives and the responsible bureaucracies
would automatically advance the popular mandate that was bestowed in the
preceding election has faded.
South Africa has seen ample evidence of the spread of community protests
since the Free State N3 events of August 2004. The post-Harrismith wave of
protests testifies to an increasing practice (perhaps cyclical) of direct
action to convey messages of discontent with matters local.
A third signifier followed with de facto confirmation by the ANC that
protest works. It issued multiple warnings against corruption in the theatre
of councils, effected a virtual clean sweep of incumbent councillors, and
manipulated nominations through the benevolent formula of equal gender
Some observers have suggested that the protests were predominantly the
handiwork of rival council candidates, even manipulative activists. The
ACNielsen study, amongst others, suggests otherwise.
It shows that protest has come to occupy a central position in local
democracy, circa 2006. It demonstrates that a majority of South Africans see
protest as a credible and legitimate means to advance delivery.
This positions protest alongside elections and representation. Specifically,
the poll showed that more than half of urban and metropolitan South Africans
support protest as "an effective way to get the municipality to deliver
The survey asked respondents to rate elections and protest in terms of their
respective abilities to improve the quality of services in the local
community. A total of 54% felt that elections do help make a difference.
However 52% also supported protest against the municipality as a means to
get better services.
The findings thus point to a new reality: protest, as a form of direct
action, has become an accepted and legitimate part of political action
repertoires in democratic South Africa.
It is recognised the world over that indirect, representative democracy is
not without its lapses, especially in bringing representation to
communities. South Africa is a case in point. It has struggled to bridge the
divide between elected representatives and their communities. It has even
considered altering the electoral system.
>From 2001 on, the South African government and especially top national and
provincial government, has increasingly relied on Imbizo (presidential,
ministerial and provincial) to remain in contact with constituents.
In contrast, protest is a contact initiative that emerged from the side of
the powerless. Communities directly involved in the protests that arose from
street level witnessed affirming responses from councillors, municipal
officials, provincial executives, and even cabinet members. Not
surprisingly, they now believe that "protest works", and have incorporated
protest into their repertoire of political participation in conditions of
More than this, their belief is shared by many who have not yet participated
in local service protests.
Contrary to many perceptions, protests and its acceptance on community level
appear also to demonstrate the continuous and strong relationship between
the ANC and the electorate, and the fact that conventional notions of
multi-party democracy often do not find full application in new and
post-liberation democracies such as South Africa's.
Rather, space is required for the expression of dissent and dissatisfaction,
when these are not to be channelled into vote-switching to opposition
parties. It is also well-known that popular dissatisfaction is infrequently
channelled through the ANC's structures. Despite the ANC's hopes of
responsible branch structures, few community members get satisfaction out of
reporting service problems to branch meetings.
The ACNielsen survey powerfully demonstrates that support for the ANC does
not dwindle in the face of support of protest to supplement elections.
Loyalty to the ANC, and willingness to vote for this liberation
movement-party, remains largely unaffected by the endorsement of protest.
The survey results illustrate how the voters continue their allegiance to
the ANC, amidst support for protest action, whilst the opposition parties
continue to stagnate in their support.
Instead of switching their votes to opposition parties, South Africans
appear to combine allegiance to and electoral support for the ANC with
expression of their needs and interests through protest.
This argument of widespread acceptance of protest to supplement elections is
further substantiated through the survey findings that it is particularly
the poorest of South Africa's metro and urban income categories who are
distressed about the quality of services. It is also the poorest that are
most unrelenting in their support of the ANC. Simultaneously, the poor are
solid supporters of protest. This leaves some of the ANC's most powerful and
continuously loyal constituencies as supporters of protest.
Can this seeming contradiction simultaneously benefit the ANC, increase
delivery and strengthen democracy?
nSusan Booysen is contributing editor to The Star, and professor in the
Graduate School of Public & Development Management, Wits University.
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