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The people our national debate does not see or hear

Do our public commentators know nothing about the lives of grassroots South Africans? Or do we simply not care?

One of the more important plusses of our democracy is that we still have a loud and vigorous national debate. Despite worrying signs that politicians might want to reign in the media, we are often able to know what dirt there is (or is alleged to be) on our political leaders. And commentators are free to say what they like — even if it is what our leaders don’t like.

But some recent evidence seems to confirm something this particular commentator has been worried about for quite a while — that our lively and raucous debate is often entirely blind to the lives of grassroots South Africans. In particular, it does not seem at all interested in whether democracy is working for the people who need it most: the poor and the weak.

Over the past few weeks, those of us who report, analyse and comment have been poring over all manner of issues that are important to democracy’s future: the ANC succession race, National Director of Public Prosecutions Vusi Pikoli’s suspension, the case against Jackie Selebi, claims that the editor of the Sunday Times is to be charged with theft of medical records. We have been arguing about the likely effect of all of this on the rights of citizens and the health of our democracy.

At the same time, we have been ignoring claims that citizens have been subjected to a far more immediate threat to their rights that any of those we have been debating — more specifically, that they were subject to an unprovoked and violent attack by police while they were peacefully protesting. If the claim is true, police prevented them from exercising the most basic right of any citizen of a democracy: to tell the government peacefully what we want it to do.

Claims that police use violence to put down demonstrations and strikes have been made constantly since the current wave of urban protests began. Even before then, social movements claimed that police were victimising their activists. But, when the authorities reacted, they insisted, among other points, that it is the protesters who are responsible for the violence. President Mbeki, for example, recently condemned demonstrators for expressing themselves in violent ways.

Because the accounts were conflicting, it was unclear whether the police or the protesters were responsible for the violence.

It seems a whole lot clearer now after a recent march on municipal offices in the Durban area by members of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo. This time, a Sunday newspaper report said that its reporter had witnessed police attack the marchers without warning. And a statement by 11 church leaders, including Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip, also based on witness accounts, insisted that the marchers were victims of “a completely unprovoked violent attack [by police] on people gathered to submit their demands to the mayor of our city”. The clergy insisted that none of the marchers threatened violence and that police did not order them to disperse.

The statement is important because it is the clearest indication yet by an independent source that, in some cases at least, police are, as they did under apartheid, using force to suppress citizens exercising their essential democratic right to get their elected government to listen to them.

If our national debate and the commentators that make it happen care about protecting our freedoms, the church leaders’ statement should have prompted urgent demands for a full government explanation. We should also have been loudly debating how to ensure that everyone enjoys the right to tell the government what they want from it as long as they act peacefully.

Instead, the church leaders’ statement and reports of the police violence have been greeted with silence. While the incident was reported in local newspapers, it has not featured in the newspaper op-ed pages or radio and television talk shows in which we discuss our national concerns.

This should trigger serious soul searching among all of us who try to influence the national debate. Have we become so intrigued by the manoeuvrings of politicians ahead of the ANC’s December conference that we do not notice when credible sources claim that police launched an unprovoked attacks on citizens?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we should ignore what our political leaders are doing. I spend much of my time poring over the meaning of the latest government action or the newest twist in the presidential race. These issues are important — all of them can, in different ways, decide whether our leaders remain subject to the law and accountable to us. The lives of all of us will be affected by all these issues which commentators discuss and we need as much discussion of these questions as possible.

But that cannot be all we discuss. We need also to remember that the freedoms protected by our Constitution are real only if they are enjoyed by all of us. Unless grassroots people enjoy the same rights as everyone else, democracy can never be complete. In fact, since the people who tend to get left out of our national debate are the majority, we could say that, unless their rights are respected, we do not have a democracy at all. And that means that our national debate must take a lively interest in whether grassroots people are able to exercise their democratic rights.

There is an irony in our failure to take seriously allegations of police violence against demonstrators. During a radio discussion of threats to media freedom, an ANC representative argued that media were out of touch with most South Africans. The majority, he said, were concerned about their daily battle for a better life, not the issues that interested journalists and analysts.

His message, of course, was that media should not worry all that much about protecting our freedoms. “Ordinary people”, he implied, do not care about alleged abuses of power, only about what the government is doing to better their lives.

Although his complaint was meant to suppress debate on whether government acts in the interests of citizens, we should take up his challenge to reflect the experiences of most South Africans — ironically, if we do, we will more than likely discover far more claims of abuse of power than we have heard until now.

Of course grassroots people care about whether their lives are improved — we all do. But the distinction between concentrating on abuses of power and the concerns of the majority is false because, unless power serves all the people, the majority’s lives will not improve: if grassroots people do not enjoy the freedom to express themselves to the government, their lives will never change.

We do need a national debate that reflects the concerns and experiences of the majority. It needs to start not by ignoring abuses of power, but by highlighting them when they affect the poorest and weakest among us.