I sometimes wonder if the constitutional notion of “participative democracy” is not just an impossible, idealistic dream. We are eighteen years down the road since our 1994 elections and the only hard evidence I have of my participation in our new democracy has been making my mark on a few ballot papers. The countless thousands of citizen-hours contributed at the hundreds of local RDP, IDP, SDF, LED, and PBS (Pointless Bureaucratic Stuff) meetings which I have attended since then have produced no real democratic change at all.

Based on this experience I put the evident failure of truly participative democracy down to having three institutional causes: 1) party politicians still rule the local council according to their orthodox agenda of political expediency; 2) municipal officials still rule the local administration according to their orthodox agenda of utilitarian expediency; and 3) the leaders of commerce still rule the local economy according to their orthodox agenda of profit-making expediency.

The fundamental problem in all three cases is that they are inherently hierarchical institutions which just cannot accommodate either the collective decision-making process or the implied, mandating sanction of real democracy. For them to function properly at all they must, by default, be ruled by a top-down ‘control’ system which works according to a tunnel-vision agenda within a cost-limited budget. In other words, there is just no vision or time or budget to allow open citizens’ democracy into their closed hierarchical worlds.

The burning question for us all right now is: What can be done to change the expedient orthodoxy of all three towards the innovation of what the marginalised majority of ‘the democracy’ in South Africa actually needs – integrated and coherent socio-economic progress? Quite frankly I don’t believe these hierarchical institutions can be changed much at all because, through strategic and logistical necessity, that’s the only way they can function.

But what I think can be done is to add a new legal entity onto the two existing institutions of local government which would enable a higher form of democratic compliance to be achieved for all three institutions – a legal entity which is already defined in Section 2 (b)(ii) of the Municipal Systems Act as being “the community of the municipality”.

In two different municipalities I have witnessed the formation of such an entity in that – and under just one rule of “strictly no politics” – both communities self-organised representative citizens’ forums, and elected executive committees to represent their common democratic interests in the single-issue practical matters of local government. In both cases, however, local politicians and municipal officials would not recognise their status or constitutional right to participate, and (in that most infuriating bureaucratic manner) blandly ignored their efforts. Likewise, local business leaders’ eyes just glazed over in boredom at the mere mention of the word “committee”.

The obvious explanation needed here is just how could this entity of “the community” affect the vitally necessary shift from orthodoxy to innovation? The answer, somewhat paradoxically, could be for the democratic community to establish its own hierarchy of business structures and do the required innovation itself. These structures could, I believe, be established in terms of the DTI’s Co-operatives Handbook 2010 (based on the legislative frameworks of the Co-operatives Act of 2005 and the Co-operatives Bank Act of 2007) which provided the definitions below for three tiers of co-operatives.

“A (primary) co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations, through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.”

“A secondary co-operative is a co-operative formed by two or more primary co-operatives to provide services to its members. The purpose of a secondary co-operative is to help primary enterprises serve their members more effectively and comprehensively. They provide services such as auditing, training, bookkeeping and advisory support” (and, I would add, project management).

“Primary and/or secondary co-operatives may form a tertiary co-operative representing a specific sector or regional area.”

By reversing the formative DTI order of these types of co-operatives, and establishing them as the innovation structures for each ward of local government, a real purpose and output could be identified for meaningful participation in the single-issue matters of local government as well as vitally needed local economy development. For the uninitiated this may seem complex, but it is a well-understood organisational model already discussed and planned for here, for example, in rural Botrivier where I live. There is a three-step process for how I see it could pan out.

Step 1 – The local ward community establishes a representative citizens forum and elects an executive committee. This citizens’ committee would become the democratic oversight executive that represents ward-citizen interests in all matters of local government, and which is mandated by the forum to establish the primary executive co-operative (tertiary DTI) to oversee the subsequent co-operative structures, as follows.

[In effect this democratically-elected citizens’ committee would supersede the existing, politically-managed (and thereby democratically dysfunctional) ward committee; and the ward chairpersons of every citizens’ committee in the municipality would together form the new, community-based legal entity in local municipal government.]

Step 2 – This executive co-operative is tasked with two objectives. 1) Setting up the secondary, logistical co-operatives for supporting objective 2), which is establishing the tertiary project co-operatives (primary DTI) which each design and implement a project (or projects) according a single-issue matter of local need, such as health, education, security, arts and culture, youth development, the environment, and – through strategic project partnerships with local commerce – local economy development.

Step 3 – Once the logistical support co-operatives and the single-issue project co-operatives are mandated by the citizens’ forum to go ahead with implementation; and their plans are approved by all three executive entities of local government, planned action could then commence.

In this way, orthodox institutional expediency could be elevated to full democratic compliance through the inclusion of the democratic community’s own expediency to address its own needs – which would be manifested in a mandated, businesslike and projects-based manner by their own, hierarchical but democratically accountable, local structure of innovative change agencies. It’s as expediently simple as that.

So, no, hierarchical democracy is not an oxymoron; it’s a practical and constitutional necessity.


  • Ian is an ardent optimist about constitutional change underway in South Africa. At heart he is a ‘hands-on’ engineer with experience across the research, construction, yacht-building and film industries. Ian currently works in rural obscurity on designing the bricks-and-mortar infrastructure projects required to implement Local Economy Development; the cloud-based IT systems required to connect communities with their local governments and the global knowledge economy; and the eco-efficient technology required to establish 'the green economy'.


Ian Dewar

Ian is an ardent optimist about constitutional change underway in South Africa. At heart he is a ‘hands-on’ engineer with experience across the research, construction, yacht-building and film industries....

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