A lot’s been made of the downgrade in the investment rating awarded to South Africa. It’s clear the international business community has lost faith in our leadership. But there are also strong voices at home speaking out to warn us against the path we’re on. When a patriot of the stature of Bishop Rubin Phillip says we are witnessing “the dimming of our democratic dawn” it’s time to sit up and take notice.

We’ve been moving away from our democratic commitments for some time now. Repression of grassroots movements in many parts of the country is one sign.

Then there were a whole slew of anti-democratic legislative measures. There was the Slums Act, the attempt to roll back press freedom and then the attempt to return to the apartheid model in which millions would be subjects of traditional leadership rather than citizens. And of course the appointment of a deeply conservative and anti-intellectual judge to the head of the Constitutional Court was a major setback. This was followed up with a general attack on the judiciary.

Most middle-class activists were silent when grassroots activists were facing repression. Now that repression is coming the way of the middle class via measures like the secrecy bill many activists are trying to mobilise but are finding they don’t enjoy the respect of grassroots activists. In fact many middle-class activists, be they nationalists, on the left or liberals, have been reduced to watching popular protest unfold on their televisions. The recent failure of various attempts by middle-class activists to mobilise poor people behind their projects while self-organised poor people’s protest continues at a mass scale is revealing. We need to take this fact seriously.

We live in a divided country. Social cohesion is a wonderful idea but it’s not a reality. And while the middle classes natter on endlessly about race, class is the central divide in our society. Certainly race is an important issue but its class not race that determines people’s life chances.

The Marikana massacre has brought this reality home to many. It has blown our political discourse apart. How can we talk so easily about race as the central issue in our society when the mine at Marikana has made Cyril Ramaphosa a billionaire? Or when Khulubuse Zuma grows fat off the Aurora mine while workers at the mine, of all races, began to starve after months without pay? How can we talk so easily about trade unions as the defenders of the workers when workers at Marikana are just as angry with the National Union of Mineworkers as they are with the bosses? Our old certainties are breaking down.

None of us really know what the future holds. But two things are clear. One is that the poor no longer trust the organisations that claim to represent them and are representing themselves. Wildcat strikes are spreading across our economy. And of course the rebellion of the poor has been raging in our shack settlements for many years now. The other is that the state is responding to self-organisation with brutal repression. The Daily Maverick reported that since the massacre at Marikana, municipalities have been trying to ban protests across the country, including in Durban. It seems the de facto state of emergency in Rustenburg is echoing across the country.

These are dangerous times. If we allow new norms to set we won’t be able to undo them. We need to remember what happened to India after the Naxalbari massacre or Zimbabwe after the massacres in Matabeleland. It’s essential we all stand up to defend democracy. If we don’t authoritarian norms will become set in stone. And it’s not just states that find that authoritarianism is habit forming. Sometimes people living in an authoritarian state lose confidence in democratic institutions and turn to popular authoritarianism to make their voices heard. We’ve seen this in India. We are already seeing the beginnings of this in our own country. Strikes are now more or less routinely accompanied by violence.

Standing up for democracy doesn’t mean we should rally behind NGOs running campaigns in support of democracy. It means we should rally behind people on the ground who are facing repression.

In the 1980s middle-class activists took it for granted that supporting democracy meant supporting the rights of communities and workers to organise on the ground. The drift into NGO politics has taken many middle-class activists, and the resources they can sometimes access, far away from the struggles of people on the ground. We are now paying the price for this major miscalculation. It’s time to forget “civil society” and the NGOs that dominate it and return to the people. It’s here that our future will be decided.

Imraan Buccus is a research fellow in the school of social sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and academic director of a study-abroad programme on political transformation.


  • Imraan Buccus is a university-based researcher in Durban. He is also a PhD Research Fellow at the Centre for International Development Issues, Radboud University, Nijmegen in The Netherlands. Imraan is the editor of Critical Dialogue, a journal on public participation in governance, and his academic interests include issues around civil society and poverty, participatory democracy, social accountability and local governance.


Imraan Buccus

Imraan Buccus is a university-based researcher in Durban. He is also a PhD Research Fellow at the Centre for International Development Issues, Radboud University, Nijmegen in The Netherlands. Imraan is...

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