Saturday, 8 April 2017

Building Active Citizenry: The Key to a Participatory Democracy

Protesters marching from District 6 to Parliament in Cape Town

Yesterday, on Friday 7 April 2017, South Africans took to the streets in their tens of thousands to protest against the presidency of Jacob Zuma and the failure of the ANC to hold him to account for reckless decision-making that has sent shock waves through the economy and threatened the livelihoods and household budgets of the bulk of society. They took to the streets amidst a background of intimidation and the threat of state violence and the ANC Youth League and recently formed veterans association who effectively positioned themselves as the ANC’s extra-state militia.

The International Workers Vanguard Party cut a lonely figure

The marches were most notable for the absence of organised labour, and that middle and lower middle class marchers made up the bulk of the protest actions across the country. Yet this is nothing new in the tradition of protest in South Africa. In contrast to the nostalgia impregnated versions of South African history, citizen-based anti-Apartheid protest actions were largely constituted of middle and lower middle class pockets in different communities. Organised labour usually took to the streets under their own banners and with their own demands. 

The romantic visions of the working class rising up from their homes and workplaces to hit the streets is an obfuscation of historical fact; indeed, their vulnerability often precluded them from being able to take such action. It is mainly within organised labour that they found their expression. In the 1980s working class youth did engage in riotous activities in the quest to “make the country ungovernable” but it was not organised in the same way as labour organisations, the churches and the United Democratic Front (UDF). 

The reality of protest action in South Africa under Apartheid was that the middle classes, in particular black and brown middle classes, played a huge role in mobilising the resources, people and leadership within society to facilitate citizen-based action. What is different about yesterday’s marches is that the white middle classes came out in greater numbers than they ever have before.

This has drawn a fair amount of criticism. “Where were they during Apartheid?” the critiques go. “Where were they when Marikana happened, when the Esidemeni deaths occurred … where were they when services were failing in black townships across the country?” The debates around the legitimacy of protest action have largely revolved around the racial and class dimensions of the protests.

It is true that for many years the white middle classes have been apathetic about the state of politics and the plight of poor black citizenry in South Africa, preferring to dwell exclusively on issues that affect them directly such as black economic empowerment, transformation and land reclamations. Yet the profound irony is that the black middle classes were also largely absent from the streets when all the aforementioned events and issues arose in South Africa. Apart from social media exhortations of solidarity with the working classes, cross-class unity between the black and working classes has largely proved mythical.

Moreover, there is a paradoxical reaction to white middle class politicisation that appears to have escaped the many cynics that have raised their voices. It is this; that the white middle classes have long been the subject of criticism for their inaction in the political realm, yet now that they have taken to the streets to express their political dissent they are criticised for taking action. It appears that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Finally, white South Africans may begin to understand one of the greatest difficulties of being black in white dominated organisations, institutions and the like; that you are actively delegitimised no matter what you do or say.  

You have to fight for your place, and yesterday’s showing from the white middle class was a declaration of intent to do just that. For the first time in my life I heard white people chanting the anti-Apartheid slogan “Amandla Awethu!” with vigour. It is still too early to tell exactly where it will lead, and what kind of politics they will rally around, but it is a good first step. Multi-racial middle class unity was also on display, and that is a profoundly positive step in the right direction for South Africa, as it is precisely that kind of unity – with all its contradictions and fraught interactions – that is needed to build the foundation for longer term political contestation of key top-down decisions and governance failures.

There was also a sense that middle class South Africans – who for the past twenty years have largely been sold on the rainbow nation narrative – were displaying what it means to them; that they do inhabit spaces in which their understanding of non-racialism is put into practise. They clearly do not interrogate its shortcomings and contradictions adequately, and are largely in denial about the systemic and structural racisms that inhabit South African society, but what they were displaying was their understanding of the political project that the new South Africa embarked on under the now-hallowed leadership of Nelson Mandela in 1994.

Slogans chanted from the balcony were echoed by the crowds below
To underestimate the strength and power of the rainbow nation narrative is politically na├»ve and strategically inept. It is still a powerful driving force behind middle class South African society identity. Indeed, it is precisely the narrative that the official opposition party in South Africa – the Democratic Alliance – has successfully wrested away from the ANC, whose politics now revolves around racial polarisation and divisiveness. The DA, however, is not without its race politics challenges as some members and the former leader – Helen Zille – have increasingly exhibited precisely the systemic and structural racism that its new black leader – Mmusi Maimane – is working furiously against (this has brought him into conflict with the outspoken ex-leader of the party).

Yet drawing the middle classes in the new South Africa out onto the streets – whether white, brown or black – is an incredible achievement. Moreover, the protests drew people out locally, that is; they took to the streets in their various neighbourhoods and areas across the country, in addition to converging upon major state venues such as parliament in Cape Town, as well as Church Square and the Union Buildings in Pretoria. It is from this that the seeds of active, local citizenry can be built in South Africa, especially within middle and lower middle class neighbourhoods and areas.

The absence of a coherent ideological or political project that they can articulate or motivate for, at this stage, should come as no surprise. The protest actions of yesterday are but a starting point. They are not yet a movement or set of movements of any recognisable description. They are largely united by a joint frustration with corruption, the lack of political accountability and the inaction of politicians and the ruling classes (one might also add traditional activists and left intellectuals to this). So what is the plan moving forward? What can actors within society draw upon to keep the momentum of mobilisation and protest action?

Often overlooked, but fundamental to building active citizenry, is the experience of power that citizen-based action engenders in people. People who are ordinarily atomised and have retreated into the personal realm, becoming focused on the day-to-day affairs that occupy their personal lives and ambitions, are rendered powerless under political structures and leaderships. When they come together and act in concert, especially in large numbers, their feelings of frustration with the status quo is exorcised and legitimised. It is a liberation of sorts, that is; a liberation from the sense of one’s personal inadequacy and powerlessness in the face of political power. They begin to understand that only by acting together can they bring significant pressure on prevailing systems of power, and bend them to their will. Their politics then becomes meaningful, as it is no longer constituted only of a collection of personal frustrations. Indeed, they are less likely – in the South African context – to make plans to emigrate when they make the realisation that they do in fact possess the capacity to take action and exert political pressure on the matters that they find agreement around.

Indeed, it is not ideology that brings people together in the political sphere. Most ordinary people in liberal democracies are largely unaware of the ideological frameworks that govern their political lives, whether tacit or explicit. Rather, as the political theorist Hannah Arendt intuited from her observations of the political realm, it is the experience of power derived through “acting in concert” that awakens people and societies to their political power.

So what is the way forward for middle and lower middle class society in South Africa? How do they continue to build momentum so that a more active and engaging polis is actualised? Well, it is rather simple in theory, but requires great practical effort at grassroots levels. Mobilising beyond protest at the local level is key. Protest action is critical, but the key to awakening a dead polis is to get active engagement going between local citizenries.

First, gathering in town-hall meetings to discuss and debate what kind of society they want to live in and how to actualise it, as well as their priority actions and the reasoning behind them, is critical to building active citizenry. That is, both protest and sincere engagement is required. Leaders, experts and respected individuals and groups can also visit and occasionally participate, sit on panels and field questions from the citizenry, and engage them on their terms, taking time to flesh out and explain their differing perspectives, allowing the citizens to make more informed political choices.

Second, citizens can also take initiative to constitute their own forums, where they can discuss and organise around particular issues, interests and ideological perspectives. They can then represent these issues, interests and ideological perspectives more effectively when gathered with the larger community, as well as when gathered in large formations (e.g. when embarking upon mass action in major cities and locations). Indeed, large protests around the world, and in anti-Apartheid protests, usually brought together a wide range of local, regional and national groups (e.g. labour, political, religious, interest based, issue based, etc.); they often marched under their banners.

Third, planning and mounting large and small civil disobedience and other protest campaigns. These need not always be confrontational; they can be creative and enjoyable, and can bring people together in the public sphere in such a manner that they leave better informed and inspired to take action themselves. It can serve to induce a multiplier effect in society. What is critical about protest, however, is that while it does not always have to be confrontational, it should always contest power i.e. it must not merely amount to a pointless gathering of people with no clear demands.

Fourth, it takes concerted action from individuals and groups who are motivated to gather people and prepare all the logistical and organisational criteria that is critical to successful attendance and engagement. Literally this means getting on the phone and calling up each neighbourhood member and asking them to attend. It also means going door-to-door in neighbourhoods to engage with citizens directly and rally support. Nowadays there is also social media and a range of other mechanisms through which to organise, but person-to-person interaction should never be underestimated for its power to bring people together. It takes time and effort, and a lot of the organisational tasks are mundane, but it is key to facilitating successful and broad engagement.

To recap; gathering as a neighbourhood or community, gathering in smaller focus groups or forums, mounting civil disobedience campaigns, and paying careful attention to logistical and organisation criteria, are key to activating local citizenry in the political sphere. There are other factors that may prove important in different local and other contexts, and it is certain that a lot of learning-by-doing will be required. The important thing is to get on with it. In order for political action to be successful and relevant it requires sustained, long-term engagement and protest activities. It needs to recognise that there is no end to the pursuit of an accountable and robust democracy, it is an ongoing one.

South Africa effectively requires a reformation of its political sphere, one in which ordinary everyday citizens begin to make their voices heard and can exert their political will on its leadership and within society at large. This can only lead to positive and healthy outcomes for democracy in the long term. There will no doubt be problems and differences, but an active citizenry is without doubt the foundation of a healthy democracy. The very first step has been taken by the middle classes, and despite the detractors, it is a necessary and immensely positive step in the right direction. 

What happens after this, is up to society itself. It has tasted its political power, and we can only hope that its appetite will grow, as only through active engagement can South African society overcome the deep polarisation that its politicians have subjected it to and which it has become infected with. It cannot, and will never be overcome through retreating into individualism, or splitting into self-reinforcing groups; it can only be overcome through direct interaction with one another.

To focus on whether Jacob Zuma is ultimately removed from power (and who he is replaced with in the short term) by these protest actions is to miss the point of these protests, and constitutes an overly reductionist understanding of why citizen engagement and action is necessary. Indeed, it renders one immobilised by hypothetical considerations that go back and forth and offer no hope of change. By now, the vulnerability of government and the state in South Africa cannot be solved by short term actions; the rot has gone too deep and has spread too wide to simply be removed by getting rid of the president. It will take sustained action from broad cross-sections of society to rectify. The removal of the president, if it is achieved, will merely be a symbolic show of the power of the citizenry (although an important one at that no doubt, and with significant political implications). Sustained long-term action will prove necessary to reconstitute the integrity of government and the state in South Africa.

In this respect, picture a society that discusses its priorities, interests and issues with their neighbours regularly, and can mobilise within a week or two to get massive numbers out onto the streets, and you begin to grasp what South Africa could be if it can build on the momentum that has gathered in previous weeks. Will there be challenges, and are there risks? Indeed, but the risk of not building the base for active citizen engagement is orders of magnitude greater, as the past twenty-two years has proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Like our bodies, the polis - or the body politic - is only ever healthy if it is regularly exercised.

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