It began as a thought experiment. “Who would you take with you to a desert island or Armageddon?” asked a friend. “Not my sister, “I said. “She would forget to feed the chickens … and not yours either. She’s not particularly nic … um, community-orientated.”
What followed was a deathly silence and then some hasty backtracking. We eventually settled on the premise that all those involved must prove their worth on an ongoing basis. That I, too, could be “voted off the island”. This uneasy truce and a few drinks later got us thinking about community and our country.
Leading from behind
According to Taoist Lao Tzu, in the Dao de jing, “The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.” They lead from behind. There is something to be said for the leader being a quiet servant of the people rather than a rambunctious figurehead. What would it be like to have someone who quietly got on with the job of governance?
My limited experience in owning a flat is that only the loudest, most difficult people want to serve on the body corporate. The rest of us are only too happy to keep our heads down, work the week and have a beer on a Friday. That is, if the buck will stretch that far. But as a society, we need people to show up, get the job done and play nice. So how do you get people to be willing participants in their own lives and get the quiet, competent folk to serve?
Too busy to bother
In 2021, media outlets (SABC News, IOL and Bloomberg, among others) reported that voter turnout was at an all-time low. Professor Joleen Steyn-Knotze, of the Human Sciences Research Council, attributes this to voter dissatisfaction. Research by The Conversation concurs and puts low voter turnout down to “individual and administrative barriers, followed by complaints about service delivery and corruption, uninterest or disillusionment, and a lack of political alignment”.
But it appears that low voter turnout is a global trend. Elections, as David van Reybrouck explains in Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, were, after all, designed to keep power in the hands of the elite. Thus it would seem we, as a society, have lost faith in the political process. But what does this mean? In effect, we, the people, are just a few people — the rest, a bit busy to be bothered.
The social contract
In recent times elections, once considered the foundation of democracy, have in certain academic circles come under attack. There are problems with democracy and social decision-making. No system is perfect.
In The Social Contract, philosopher Rousseau wrote of an implicit agreement between a people and their elected state. Citizens give up a portion of their earnings and liberties that they may live in a civilised society and have their more pressing needs taken care of. But what happens when your government breaks the social contract? How do you prevent boundless corruption, empire-building and limitless bureaucratic inefficiency?
It’s called sortition, and it is not a new concept.
The ancient Greeks used election by lot (sortition) to avoid electoral races and posturing and provide a regular turnover of public officials. Sortition functioned in the Athenian democracy for more than two centuries. Last century, Australian philosopher John Burnheim described the term “demarchy” to explain a political system sans political parties. In its place are randomly selected groups of decision-makers.
Burnheim’s sortition or demarchy offers several advantages to electoral politics: the dissolution of huge state bureaucracies, increased agile thinking or cognitive diversity, population representation, fairness, anti-corruption, empowerment, allegiance to principles rather than a political party and of course, avoiding the formation of a new social elite.
I propose taking it a step further.
Imagine if we threw conscription into the mix. Yup, for four years of your life, you would be required to serve your country to the best of your ability, using all your skills. Perhaps a year in each of the decades of your 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Not only do I imagine drawing on a pool of eligible individuals for public office but all forms of public service. I imagine a smaller, leaner, more agile government driven by competence and ability.
As a street sweeper, you serve as a street sweeper. As a doctor or psychologist, well, you serve as that. And, if qualified as an executive, perhaps as a senior decision-maker. No glory, no fanfare, no car cavalcades. Instead, you just get to do what you do best in the service of your country. There would be an incoming and outgoing year in positions where legacy was essential. The presidency, for instance, would be a three-member team. Voting would not be a choice but a requirement of citizenship, performed regularly, via cellphone on any pertinent matter.
Rights mean responsibilities
Sortition is not a new government strategy, but perhaps a better question is that given our unique history, progressive legislation and current national mindset, is it the best strategy? I think, yes. The concept of rights without responsibilities is just wishful thinking. On the one hand, sortition offers inclusiveness and creates a diverse, non-partisan government, and, on the other, it asks citizens to take responsibility for their governance. We are responsible for our world: you and me, we co-create it together, all of us.