Elections 2014: the democratic disconnect in SA

GRAEME ADDISON reflects on the gap between the demands of protestors and the choices made by voters. Media are torn between reporting the upsurge of violence – and perhaps advancing non-democratic causes – while struggling to maintain trust in the legitimacy of a state badly corrupted under current leadership.

In different parts of the world people are taking to the streets aiming to bring down their governments. Today in Ukraine the elected president has effectively been removed. In Thailand and Venezuela crowds rally around symbols of resistance, shaking governments to their foundations.

In Egypt President Morsi was ousted barely a year after being elected by popular vote; and that was after Mubarak had been forced out of office by mass demonstrations. In Syria the protests turned into a deadly civil war as Bashar al-Assad cracked down on those he terms terrorists and the latter responded with force of arms.

In South Africa we have protests too along with the use of deadly force by police. But there seems to be a difference. The very people who hurl stones, burn tyres and set community centres alight are those who have voted the ANC government into power and (if the voter polls are to be believed) will return the ANC at the May elections with around 60% of the vote.

In this context the media experience their own kind of schizophrenia. They report the mayhem and tend to identify with the underdogs who are the real victims of corrupt governance. A free press is supposed to be a watchdog on government. Yet, as democratic institutions themselves, media are challenged as part of the system.

At a two-day workshop on Election Reporting, held in Johannesburg at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, we brainstormed how the media should approach the divide between protestors and voters.

What is happening here and can we learn anything from the example of other countries? There is clearly what political analysts call a democratic deficit in which people have lost faith in their own government. The institutions of democracy are failing to deliver what elected officials have promised.

People are frustrated and angry after 20 years of a democracy that has left many of them feeling they are worse off than they were before apartheid ended.

I don’t think the term democratic deficit is the right one in this situation. I think it’s a disconnect – the mind of the demonstrator and the mind of the voter (often same person) is schizophrenic. There is a democratic disconnect between thought and action, not just a deficit suggesting a shortfall in delivery.

People are suffering from what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. They hold two opposing views of reality at the same time. To support the ruling party and at the same time protest against its failure to deliver services by destroying community facilities reveals a strangely contradictory attitude towards the democratic process.

The media have to report whatever is going on but should try to get at  the causes rather than just the demands, burnings and killings. Ultimately it is the role of media in a democratic dispensation to support the Constitution and the framework of the State (not the party-political incumbents) and to emphasise that the rule of law includes the right to freedom of expression.

The problem with the democratic disconnect is that practical experience and principles collide. Wants, needs and ideals seem to be in conflict. While protestors have legitimate issues these are not readily translated into policy platforms designed use the institutions of state to bring about a fairer, more just and properly governed society.

The Economic Freedom Fighters under rabble-rouser Julius Malema are milking the protest spirit for all its worth and (my prediction) will do a lot better in the coming elections than current polls indicate. The sea of red-berets and golf shirts at their launch over the past weekend shows there is more than a groundswell – more likely a tsunami – coming the way of the ruling party.

Other parties are watching developments not with heightened expectations around the decline of the ANC but with misgivings about what the future holds. Maybe in time to come the old South African adage that liberals voted Progressive but thanked God for the Nats will come back to haunt the new South Africa: opposition and government will unite in spirit against the radical threat.

If and when the red cohorts enter Parliament along with the provincial and local councils, their mission will be to disrupt proceedings by demanding immediate and sweeping action on land repossession;  the nationalisation of mines, banks and other assets; and the doubling of social grants. That’s their policy and they are unlikely to play politely by the rules of procedure in debate or the rule of law on the streets.

The democratic disconnect has been long in coming but now has burst into full view. The ANC appeals to its voters to reject EFF recklessness but seems to offer no more than the dubious promises of jobs and a better life for all that have sustained the party till now. The ANC’s appeal today rests far more on giving jobs to cadres in return for loyalty, than sticking by its social democratic principles.

It is the party of the corrupt and the self-interested. People are not fools and they can see that. Historical ties still bind many to the ANC but the bonds are weakening as truth-tellers like Malema (on the one hand) and the Public Protector (on the other) unmask the alarming decline of a once-proud movement under its current venal leadership.

Will people carry on voting ANC while barricading their communities and hurling rocks at the police? It is eminently possible to do so: to exercise one’s vote to retain the corrupt system because it serves self-interest, yet upset the applecart because councillors and national politicians are cheaters and liars. It remains to be seen whether voters will turn against the ANC, abstain out of protest, actively support the radicals, or see the DA and its allies as a solid alternative.

In all of this, South Africans are not exceptional. There are in fact great commonalities between what we are seeing in here and demonstrations elsewhere in the world.

Street protests may be effective in bringing down a regime but no good at posing alternatives. Apparently leaderless street demonstrations make demands but do not offer policies; they reject government but have only vague plans themselves to take over and govern through  democratic institutions.

As Egypt showed, after the revolution the underlying, often opposing, ideologies emerged and parties split the once-united mass movements. Parties are structured to devise policies and take power to carry them out but demonstrations are not.

The state is now all too obviously corrupted by powerful elites – not just in SA but in many countries across the globe. Democracy is managed to serve entrenched elites. Disillusionment runs rife. Meanwhile the media are torn between reporting the upsurge of violence – and perhaps advancing non-democratic causes – while struggling to maintain trust in the legitimate state with its necessary balance of powers, now increasingly disabled by patronage and bribery.

Out on the streets violence breeds contempt for democracy with all its Constitutional paraphernalia. Why not just demand change, opt for crash and burn, and hope for better days at the gift of a populist?

The crowds are desperate for change but should be careful what they wish for. The destruction of a once promising democracy bodes ill for everyone.


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