Democracy and hearing different narratives (2)

In Part One of this series we defined ‘democracy’. We saw that the system of representative, multi-party democracy that we adopted in 1994, is a particular type of democracy.  Managed democracy. We also juxtaposed this with an ideal of direct democracy where the people don’t just vote periodically but also rule in-between elections.

We noted that over the past four decades popular democratic rights have eroded within the managed democracy of the US. This has developed to an extent that some call the system in the US, inverted totalitarianism.

We regard our South African political system as democratic. Yet six aspects of our democracy reflect strong themes of inverted totalitarianism.

 Inverted totalitarian tendencies in South Africa.

No economic democracy

First, there is economic deregulation. This means privatisation of previous state-provided services. (Through Public-Private-Partnerships [PPPs]). This privatisation intends to turn society totally into one big market. And also to remove protections for workers and the vulnerable. As a result, there are fewer spaces not commodified. That means that almost everything in society now has a price. (Hear Mandela justify this in between minutes 32 and 36 of this linked video).

  • In the process referred to above, private companies are the providers of goods and services. And the bigger corporates usually dominate. Furthermore, government processes themselves are corporatised. To the extent that the government has registered ‘South Africa Incorporated’ on the New York Stock Exchange. In this way the corporate sector influences the state’s policies and practices. It does so through funding political parties and higher education. There is also concentrated corporate ownership of the media. Taken together these constitute corporate influence and power over the development of ideologies about how the ‘real world’ functions.

Welfare and poverty

Second, the state minimises welfare payments, reducing these year-on-year (below-inflation increases). This reflects the cutback on social welfare, amidst continuing subsidisation and facilitation of private interests.

South African Democracy Household Income

Source: SARS 2011 Census

Third, the poor of South African society – 57% of households earned less than R3500 monthly in 2011 – find themselves pushed to the economic limit. Many survive on taking loans to bridge the final week of each month. Deborah James’ ‘Money from Nothing’ shows the precariousness of the indebted poor in our country. Additionally, they live in high crime incidence spaces. These factors reflect – and contribute to – a fragmented citizenry, unable to become a demos for itself.

Electoral democracy, no dictatorship

Four, the South African political system is no dictatorship. It is a managed democracy with ‘leadership changes’. (Ramaphosa ousted Zuma who ousted Mbeki). These changes result from elite in-fighting rather than a politically empowered demos.

Fifth, a further reflection of the disempowered demos is voter apathy. For example, 83% of eligible voters have registered to vote. But in the 2004 general elections only 58% of eligible voters voted, 60% in 2009 and 57% in 2014. Furthermore, only 48% – less than half – of eligible voters participated in the 2016 local government elections. (58% of registered voters voted = 48% of eligible voters). Therefore a small minority of people voted the ruling party into power. How democratic is that?

Suppressing other democracy stories

Sixth, police brutally suppress selected political protest. For example, militarised police massacred striking mineworkers at Marikana (2012). And they killed Andries Tatane, a prominent activist in Ficksburg. Many suspected criminals have died in police detention. This is further evidence of police militarisation.

From the above we could trace the emergence of ‘othering’ of ‘foreign Africans’. We have seen how othering plays an important role in the inverted totalitarianism of the US. Across Europe we see the othering of mainly Muslims (through Islamophobia). And we also see the rise of parties opposed to accepting migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. In South Africa xenophobia is the brutal consequence of this othering.

Here no political party has organised this xenophobia. Instead, it is the outcome of resentment against our elites. Xenophobes organise to channel this against perceived scapegoats. But the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has incorporated ‘othering’ into its story. It’s leader suggested killing ‘whites’ as a future possibility. And that ‘Indians’ exploit Africans. Additionally, Black First Land First (BFLF) leader Andile  Mnxgitima has been inciting supporters with hate speech against white South Africans. Othering might well emerge as a conscious political platform. Certainly, there might be widespread electoral support for such political programs.


At the same time, since 2004, there have been onging ‘service delivery’ protests in South Africa’s poorer and marginalised townships. These should not be conflated with xenophobia. Persistent South African civil society protests are not indicative of a passive citizenry. They reflect collective action aimed at forcing the authorities to address popular grievances. As such they signify potential for the emergence of a demos.

  • We saw signs of this in the revolt against the Toll Roads (2012), the wave of strikes across the Platinum Belt (2012), Western Cape farmworkers uprising (2012-2013) and the student uprising (2015-2016). This is an important point that we should not overlook. These actions could plant the seeds for the next collective, regional (or national) uprising.  Moeletsi Mbeki predicts that South Africa will have its Tahrir Square event in about 2020.

Mob versus demotic politics

But, there are disturbing signs of mob activity. For Hannah Arendt (referred to in Part One) a mob is a mass of atomised individuals. Rather than a rationally conscious political organisation. An example of mob action in South Africa are vigilante killings of criminals. Another example is xenophobic attacks on foreign African nationals and other vigilante activities in townships. The most horrific of which was the burning of a Mozambiquean citizen.

South African Democracy goes up in flames

The SAPS attempt to extinguish flames on a man set alight during mob attacks in Ramaphosa squatter camp, Reiger Park on East Rand (2008).
Picture: Halden Krog

Yet our representative democratic system displays strong tendencies of inverted totalitarianism. It is therefore unlikely that we will transform our society by working within this system. Consequently, our focus should be on the emerging, extra-parliamentary, demotic politics. This means that we need to ‘think global’ but ‘act local’. In other words, we need to bring together global analysis and local action. And this is no simple task. Because inverted totalitarianism has an impact on the everyday lives of citizens. In Part Three I describe how this inpact manifests in Stellenbosch. And in part Four I show how this impact plays out in Onderpapegaaiberg. And I also think of what opportunities there might be to change this.

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