The Value Of Democracy: Why People Choose The Streets And Not The Ballot?

By Musa Mdunge

On 08 May 2018, South Africans across all the walks of life will participate in the 6th democratic elections since the advent of democracy on 27 April 1994. Given that this is South Africa’s 25th year as a liberal democracy, it is prudent for us to exam not only state of South Africa’s democracy but also the value of democracy as a viable political system. 

I deposit that given the fact that of late I have heard some people in private and public statements attack democracy as firstly un-African and secondly, as a system that has not yielded economic fruits for the majority of South Africans. The frustrations of the most marginalized of our people are creating conditions where the masses are slowly but surely becoming despondent with the kind of liberation that was won after the fall of the apartheid system. 

As a result, many people have questioned the importance of their involvement in putting a cross next to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mmusi Maimane, Julius Malema or any of the other contesting small parties. Some of these people are my closest friends, who have taken the decision to not even bother waking up to go cast their vote, choosing rather host braais (South African term for Barbeques/cookouts), sleep the whole day or do any other thing than stand in line in order to support a system they cannot identify too. 

This, of course, is more prevalent in the age group of 18-29, the group of voters, who have the most to lose depending on how the elections go yet have shown little interest in voting in the upcoming elections. However, this lack of interest in the democratic process should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in democracy or politics! All you must do it look at the #FeesMustFall movement as a sign of how passionate young people are when it comes to the pressing national interests. So, the question we must ask is what would make the same student raise placards, take to the streets and yet not even bother going to the nearest voting station?

The #FeesMustFall movement protests

Perhaps it could that young people, like many in South Africa have concluded that the streets and not the voting box, is how they will best grab the attention of their politicians. It could be that they hold the view that the streets and not the cross behind ANC or IFP, is a better us of their voice and provides the best guarantee of the principle of “government by the people.”

Some will say, Musa how can the streets provide greater power to the people than a voting box? Isn’t the latter the highest symbol of democracy? 

Well, I would say yes, it is. That is if we want to understand democracy through the lens of liberalism, which asserts that the people shall government directly or indirectly through elected representatives who will make decisions for them. In that case yes, elections are then the glue that holds the system together. However, the latter presents a problem. If democracy, is the governance by the majority, then how is it that we can view elections as the ultimate sign of the people’s political involvement and will? Surely there must be more to the people’s role as equal partners in the democratic social project? 

It cannot be that all we do is vote for the party and for the next 5 years our role slips into the abbey of indifference until we are called upon at the end of the 5th year. I say this because, if we can get any lessons from the Zuma years, it is that silent expectation yields no good. We languished hopelessly and powerlessly, as we watched a party keep a president in power even though he and his alliance continued to run South Africa for personal interests and not the national interest for which they were elected and sworn into power. In many ways the oath they made to South Africa and its constitution matter little, as they the powers are given to them by the constitution to break South Africa’s democracy by established a pseudo-dictatorship in our democracy. 

So, is the prevailing cry against democracy as misjudged outcry? Should anger not be directed to poor governance, that in and within itself erodes the very core of democracy. For democracy in its finest form, should lead to an environment where the needs of the electorate are met by politicians or else, should be removed. However, there is no such system that is perfect, for as long as human beings remain the central nerve system of democracy. 

So, where must our attention be? Well, the constitutional framework that defines the system must have its checks and balances against the human stronghold of power, which when unchecked can be abused. As a result, while elections offer a way in which people can have a say in who governance, elections tell us little about how a politician will govern or should govern. This answer lies in the constitution that gives life to the political system and prescribes the reach and use of political power. 

In many ways, Zuma’s election was not crisis, but the crisis lied in how he could use political power to advance private interests of those who gave him and members of his family financial support, with little political push back. The failure of parliament to offer a check and balance to the president, led to a political crisis, where for all intents and purposes the last bastion of the constitution, the courts had to intervene in various cases, almost to the point of blurring the lines of separation of power, which along the principle of the rule of law, is a pivotal principle of any constitutional democracy. 

So again, I argue that our irritation and frustration with democracy may just lie in a frustration towards the occupants of public office and not so much with the system. However, giving people the right to decide who gets to represent them is an honourable thing, but it is not enough, if we are to not build into our democracy checks and balance that circumvent the abuse of power. 

So perhaps the reason streets and the use of burnt tyres is a desirable form of public participation in politics than elections, is because the former may be a better “stop nonsense” than elections. 

However, if so, we should be worried, as this means that little or no avenues exist to address the people’s grievances and so the people really shall govern by violent protest than the constitutional tools and instruments determined by the social contract. We should be worried and rethink the direction we are going.


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