South Africa, a democracy only in form

This appeared originally on Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader blog.

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I’ve come to despise elections because they’ve been used to warp democracy. Invariably, each time I’ve said this, one of you lot has had a conniption because you’ve misinterpreted this as me saying people should not vote. Don’t assume. Read — and exercise your atrophied comprehension muscle.

There’s an accounting principle known as substance over form. It can curtly be summarised as cutting through the bullshit to get to what’s really going on. The principle calls for discerning the true nature of an arrangement by piercing its façade. It’s a kind of X-ray vision and I’d like to turn it on our democracy.

To find the substance of a democracy over its form, you must follow the money. In South Africa, money flows through the institutions of democracy, political parties and the media to weave the illusion that we have a government by the will of the people. You don’t have to look too hard to realise that simply is not true.

But instead of it being said the real problem is that we have a democracy in form, not in substance, and figuring out how to fix it, we’re told the problem is the internal failings of the party elected to government. It’s also said we must look critically at that party’s internal democratic processes and question angrily how its 4 500 voting delegates could consider re-electing their current leader, as they’re set to do in December.

Who those delegates elect, my friends, is their prerogative and that party’s internal democratic process is theirs alone to administer as they see fit. If you’re really that aggrieved at their decisions, the most effective way to have a say is to fill out a membership application, though that would be the same as attempting to put out a runaway fire with a flamethrower.

For a more effective, and correct, solution I suggest you consider the democratic mechanisms available to you: voting, participating in oversight and law-making, and the work done by the Chapter 9 and 10 institutions that strengthen democracy and assist in governing public administration.

Mmm? What’s that you say? You don’t really know much about what the latter two are about or entail? All you know is the first, voting, and some of you that other form of democratic expression: protest. That’s no coincidence. Everything has been twisted to make it seem that voting is democracy when in actual fact it’s a mere sliver of a larger, truly beautiful form of governance.

Following the money will tell you that our political parties spent close to R650 million to get you into the voting booth for the 2009 election, according to the Open Society Foundation’s money and politics project. About 85% of this was recalculated based on the difference between the total spent and what the parties disclosed publicly, because they had to, because it came out of your wallet.

It had to be recalculated because parties are under no obligation to disclose the money they raise from private sources, nor is funding from this source regulated. Private funding of political parties is the Wild West of politics, as I’ve heard said. There, gun-toting, beer-swilling, ill-mannered cowboys buy a wild night, or five years, with a political party of their choosing, but it’s your democracy that gets screwed.

Add to this R650 million what the Independent Electoral Commission spent on posters, advertisements, personnel and such to get you into the voting booth and to deliver a free and fair election, and you’ll come to a cool R1.7 billion — just to have you vote. At the going rate, that’s eight and a half Nkandla security systems.

Contrast this with the almost R1.4 billion over five years Parliament has been allocated for its public participation and constituency office programmes and you’ll see that per year, at least six times as much is spent on getting you interested in an election year than on keeping you interested in democracy during the five years thereafter. In addition there exists no comprehensive democracy education programme to ensure that every South African, or even, at least, those eligible to vote, know how to participate in supervising government’s work and law-making, and why these matter as much if not more than voting.

And poor Thuli Madonsela. Like the Chapter 9 and 10 institutions, her communications budget is laughable, which is why she’s forced to rely so heavily on the scandal generated from her investigations to get media coverage for what her institution does. Thankfully, for her, there’s been no shortage of scandal.

Which brings me to the media, which is caught between enabling “citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the time” as the press code says, and remaining viable businesses. In other words: chasing money. These are often competing and contradictory actions, but only one is in the official job description of the press. But in these dire global economic times, the allure of money is coming up trumps.

Which is why, as I’ve said, I’ve come to loathe elections as in them I see proof that money does indeed make the world go round and, unchecked, it brings us to our knees.

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