livefrompolo.gifWe say we want democracy — but we don’t seem to like it much when we see it. How else to interpret the breast-beating from commentators and some delegates here at Polokwane after the opening day of the ANC conference?

Most of us no doubt know by now that day one of Polokwane was a lively affair. Jacob Zuma supporters loudly sang and danced in his support, prompting more muted songs from Thabo Mbeki’s backers. Zuma delegates booed and heckled leadership figures they do not like, and they gave ANC chair Mosiuoa Lekota a particularly hard time, challenging several of his rulings and unsubtly suggesting that he be replaced by making the sign that football fans on the terraces use when they want an under-performing player replaced. They also demanded that the votes for ANC office be counted manually rather then electronically because, presumably, they worried that a computer count was particularly prone to error.

All of this has prompted a veritable wave of breast-beating from some ANC high-ups, but also from earnest representatives of the analysing classes, about the plague of disrespect and ill-discipline that has beset the ANC and which may well doom its future. Most seem agreed that we are dealing with a nasty new form of thuggery that comes pretty close to mob rule.

Really? I was watching carefully yesterday, either from the live feed or on the congress floor, and I saw nothing that even resembled mob rule. Yes, things were a little rough at times, but no more so than at any vigorous, democratic meeting where a great deal is at stake.

A little booing and heckling is fine at democratic meetings, as long as you let everyone speak. I saw no attempt to shut anyone up — on the contrary, President Thabo Mbeki was allowed to read his very long political report in almost total silence despite the fact that a chunk of it accused the Zuma delegates of threatening the soul and survival of the ANC.

And there is certainly nothing wrong at any democratic meeting with singing songs in support of your candidate, as long as, again, you do not do this to deny others their rights. I saw no sign that people were trying to shut others up.

Most importantly, not only are challenges from the floor allowed at democratic meetings, they are often a key sign of how democratic a meeting really is. An organisation whose members let their leaders decide entirely how meetings are run is not one in which members are holding their leaders to account and ensuring that they serve them. The fact that this is the first ANC conference since its unbanning in 1990 where delegates challenged decisions from the floor does not show what is at wrong at Polokwane — it shows what has been wrong at all the other meetings.

I was not horrified about the challenges to leaders from the floor — on the contrary, I was impressed by the degree to which those who made them were eager to honour the base principles of democracy, that everyone is entitled to a say, and that all sides should be heard and disputes settled by majority vote. They were not trying to get round democratic rules — they were insisting on making them work.

This was not mob rule. In the main, it was active, democratic participation, precisely what the ANC’s preoccupation with public displays of unity has denied its conferences for the past 17 years. If the Zuma delegates are now in the majority in the ANC, and this is how they intend to act at future meetings, the ANC may well be in better democratic health than it has been for a very long time.

It is not hard to see why the ANC old guard did not like what they saw on day one. They are used to conferences where people keep their differences out of the public eye, when they air them at all, and where leaders are treated with great deference, whether they deserve it or not. They are horrified at the possible birth of a new ANC in which members insist on making their leaders serve them, rather than publicly doffing their caps to those in charge.

But why do our commentators fall for the illusion that democracy in action is threatening? Two radio analysts this morning literally fell to bemoaning the future of the ANC because, they told us in horror, the Mbeki people were so horrified by the songs of the Zuma people that, horrors, they were planning to sing back!

We probably haven’t seen enough real democracy to know what it looks like. People who continually wring their hands at the unseemliness of it all seem to think that democracy is a system in which high-minded people elegantly exchange polite opinions about matters of real substance. Most of the time, democracy is not that at all — it is a system in which normal people get off their chests whatever they feel strongly about at the time in a way that respects the rights of others to do the same. When people feel strongly, they are bound to express themselves strongly — which is fine, as long as they stick by the rules that give everyone a change to say and decide.

And democracy remains by far the best system of government because, while allowing normal people to express what is on their minds is often loud and messy, it is a great deal better than forcing people to suppress what they feel — until it bursts out in violence.

Another reason for the negative comment may be that, for all our democratic rhetoric, most of us still see leaders as people to be honoured and deferred to, not as our servants who we are meant to hold to account. The sooner we see people who contradict their leaders as the advance guard of democracy, not as uncouth louts, the quicker will we prepare ourselves to live in a real democracy.

Polokwane’s opening day confirmed that a new ANC is being born. We don’t know what it will look like — we don’t even know whether the democratic enthusiasm we saw there was a sign that people want to govern their own movement or whether they want to hand over their future to a new charismatic leader.

But, if the new ANC is going to look something like Polokwane’s day one — a movement in which members set the agenda and leaders serve them, in which people who feel strongly can express themselves, and in which differences are thrashed out in open debate and contest for votes, rather than in dark rooms or not at all, then it could yet go down as the day when democracy in the ANC really came of age.

And, since the ANC may well dominate our politics for a while yet, whatever happens here at Polokwane, it is not impossible that December 16 2007 could be remembered as the day when our democracy became deeper and more real.


  • Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality is the study of democracy. He wrote Building Tomorrow Today, a study of the trade-union movement, and edited two studies of the South African transition.


Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality...

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