A few days ago we had gathered in Athens, Greece, for a conference on participatory democracy. The conference organisers had certainly chosen an appropriate city — the city where democracy started. On a free conference day some of us made our way to the Acropolis to visit the memory of Socrates and actual council square where democracy had literally started — where the Athenians had gathered to take part in the very first process of participatory governance. How historic and significant, and how proud Athenians must be, I thought. On a “democracy high” I returned to my hotel to be met by an agitated and visibly emotional receptionist. He was warning guests not to go to a certain part of the city because there was a serious stand-off between the police and a group of immigrants. “These Muslims are asking for some rights again,” he said in a keen attempt at English. The receptionist’s comments came just as I was thinking that in the land of Plato and Socrates, the world’s great political philosophers, all would be well politically.
Clearly, this was not the case and we shouldn’t expect all to be perfect politically just because the ideas of political philosophy were first deliberated upon close to where the police where having a stand-off with protestors. In addition, in recent weeks, there have been a range of other stand-offs between police and the youth. The clashes have often been violent and many Greek youth have been attracted to the first mass anarchist movement since the Spanish civil war. The key issues have been extremely high youth unemployment, police repression and general hostility by right-wingers to immigrants, especially those from Pakistan, North Africa and Albania.
It must be said, however, that some Muslims were able to seek refuge from the right-wingers in a Greek Orthodox Church — the priest here put his life on the line to protect the vulnerable from xenophobic violence. And just a block away, one was able to see poverty in this historic city — the city that had given the world philosophy and democracy also had a poverty rate of 25%. In some ways, we are driven to think that Athenians would have a superior understanding of the dynamics of citizenship and democracy and thus not too much would go wrong politically and developmentally.
Clearly, this is a flawed argument and we should not expect more from this society, or should we? Similarly in South Africa we are respected as the “nation of Mandela”, the miracle nation. The notions of a rainbow society, peace and tolerance are often associated with us. But, ironically how violent and intolerant we were when dealing with immigrants last year. How we had forgotten what many of the countries in Africa had done for us during our dark days. How we had quickly forgotten that the world looks to us as that miracle, diverse nation — the nation that had moved from apartheid brutality to a peaceful post-apartheid setting with relative ease. And it’s not just our intolerance to “foreigners” that has shamed us. This column has often remarked on the intolerance and rank illegality with which local governments have responded to poor people’s movements across the country. And then there has been the appalling sexism with which some have responded to the legitimate election of Helen Zille to the premiership of the Western Cape.
This shameful behaviour indicates very clearly that there are elements among our politicians that only embrace democracy for as long as it delivers them to power. So, just as we shouldn’t expect Greece to get it all right, we should be weary about our democracy and world reputation in SA also. We need to do some collective growing up and to recognise that, in the words first used by Peter Vale, we are just an “ordinary country”.
We cannot, in good faith, simply accept that our liberation movement, our leaders, our institutions and our civil society is necessarily progressive or even decent. In 1994 no one would have imagined the destruction of the Warwick Triangle market in favour of a corporate mall. Anyone suggesting this would have been thought mad.
In 1994 no one would have imagined that a new minister of transport would even have to enquire about the appropriateness of accepting a luxury vehicle from a consortium of businesspeople invested in road building. But here we are in 2009 and all of this, and more, is real. Greeks are not always progressive just because democracy was invented in Greece. We South Africans are not always humane and progressive just because a mass people’s movement triumphed here against the madness of apartheid. It is time for us to grow up and face up to just how far we have strayed from the ideals that legitimate the power of our elites. We need to face up to the hard slog ahead. Hopefully, our president will be pointing us in the right direction when he delivers his State of the Nation address today.