Steven Friedman
Steven Friedman

The people shall govern? Perish the thought!

More than 50 years ago, in Kliptown, thousands of people adopted a Freedom Charter which proclaimed that “the people shall govern”. How might they have felt if they could imagine a day when the leadership of the African National Congress would insist instead that the people are not ready to govern?

An interesting aspect of the Scorpions saga is that it shows that, while most of us insist we support democracy, some of us — including many in high places — have ideas of what it means which must be challenged, and which contradict our Constitution.

The new ANC leadership insists that, if it wants something to happen, in this case the end of the Scorpions, democracy requires that it should happen. Those of us who insist it should not happen unless the people want it are dismissed as enemies of democracy.

Whatever their motives, they are advancing a view of democracy which many people believe, here and in other parts of the world. In fact, those who insist that the ruling party has the right to get rid of the Scorpions whatever the public thinks are advancing the view of democracy which wields most influence in the world today. The fact that it is usually advanced by conservatives in Europe and America is a nice irony, but does not alter the fact that it is believed strongly by many in South Africa.

In essence, the argument is that democracy is a system in which people elect their leaders. Those who are elected have a mandate to govern on behalf of the majority and must get on with doing that. If the majority don’t like what they do, it can turf them out at the next election.

In academic language, this theory is known as “democratic elitism”. It argues that the people cannot and should not govern themselves — only leadership groups can govern.

The best the people can hope for is to choose who governs them — which is why we have elections. In between them, those who govern must be allowed to get on with the job.

Translated into South African terms, it means this. At the last election, the people chose the African National Congress. That means that they recognise that it represents their interests and want it to decide on their behalf. Those who believe it should consult the people before it takes a decision are simply looking for excuses to undermine leaders chosen by the majority.

The problem with this view is that it ignores the key element of democracy, that which sets it apart from all other systems of government.

“Democracy” is a term drawn from two Greek words meaning “rule by the people”. It differs from other forms of government in its insistence that, in principle, every adult has a right to a say in decisions. Unlike monarchy (rule by one leader) or oligarchy (rule by a few) it assumes that no-one is better equipped to decide what is good for society than anyone else and so everyone must have a say. Democracy is, therefore, a system in which the people, all of them, rule.

The people cannot literally rule because there is no way of daily polling millions to find out what they want (and because most sensible people are busy getting on with their lives anyway). And so we choose people to govern on our behalf. But, in a democracy, those who govern are merely agents, carrying out the will of the majority: ideally, in a democracy, every decision should enjoy the support of most citizens.

There is one (big) exception. If the majority could do whatever it wanted, democracy would not last because they could then prevent the minority from participating: rule by the people would quickly become rule by only a few. And so, to remain a democracy, a political system must protect the rights of minorities to speak, to organise, to vote, to do all that is required to participate. That is why the rights in our Constitution cannot be overturned by a simple majority — because the majority cannot take away the minority’s basic rights. But ordinary laws — such as that setting up the Scorpions — should, in a democracy, be passed only if most people support them.

That people vote for a party does not automatically mean that they support everything it does — we all tend to vote for parties not because we like all their policies and decisions but because we like most of them. And so a vote for a party cannot signal agreement with any particular decision or policy: it could be that most people voted for that party despite the fact that they disagreed with the policy in question. Because democracy means that the people decide, this means that the people’s opinions must be tested before the government decides.

The Scorpions debate may confirm that people can vote for the ANC and yet disagree with its decisions. Where broadcasters whose audiences are overwhelmingly drawn from the black majority, and in which it can safely be assumed that most people vote for the ANC, have polled people, massive majorities are being recorded for keeping the Scorpions. A poll taken by a broadcaster is not necessarily a reliable guide to public opinion. But if even some people who support the ANC don’t support its leaders on the fate of the Scorpions, then the claim that voters support everything a party does just because they voted for it cannot be true.

The Freedom Charter clearly understood this — that is why it demanded that the people should govern. So does our Constitution — that is why it insists that the national assembly must “facilitate public involvement in the legislative and other processes of the Assembly and its committees”. Before a law is passed or changed, the assembly must hold hearings at which the public can express themselves on the proposed change. And, if it becomes clear that the people do not want the change, Parliament must abandon it.

Those of us who believe Parliament cannot scrap the Scorpions unless there is a public consultation process — and that, if the public says it wants them to stay, they must stay — are not demanding special favours. We are insisting on normal democratic practice — if winning an election means you don’t have to ask the people, why does Parliament hold hearings to find out what the people think? And what is the point of asking what people think if you are not willing to wait for the answer and to take it seriously when it comes?

By insisting that the Scorpions must go, whatever the people think, politicians and some officials are saying that the people are not fit to govern. That is a view held by many conservatives around the world. But it is not one for which so many South Africans fought and died.

If the people are not fit to govern, most South Africans are not yet ready for democracy. That is what apartheid’s supporters insisted. We should expect a different attitude from a leadership which fought for majority rule.