A Second Democracy for the Second Economy?

Business Day, 6 March 2006

A Second Democracy for the Second Economy?

by Richard Pithouse

If democracy is only about contestation between political parties then the elite consensus that the recent election constitutes further maturation into a free, fair and peaceful democracy is largely valid. But if democracy is understood to include the right to express dissent outside of electoral participation, and if the freedom and fairness of electoral processes is understood to require free political activity outside of party politics, then there are less grounds for optimism.

The now pervasive de facto reduction of democracy to electoral processes has no constitutional basis and functions to structurally exclude community organisations through which the poor are often best able to express their agency. This is because all major political parties develop policy in a technocratic manner and then require voters to make choices in the way that consumers choose brands. This precludes bottom up popular engagement in shaping the local and national political imagination.

But the reduction of democracy to electoral processes is not merely an inadvertent sin of omission. In Durban the City Manager, Mike Sutcliffe, has consistently acted illegally and unconstitutionally to prevent the 20 000 strong shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo from staging protests since November last year. The movement was eventually able to garner the connections to challenge this on Monday last week and in a day of high drama won a court order interdicting the city and the police from interfering with their right to protest. With the interdict in their hands the shack dwellers were able to leave the settlements into which heavily armed police had corralled them and march into the city in triumph.

The repression faced by the shack dwellers’ movement includes widespread illegal behaviour on the part of the police. More than 80 people have been arrested on spurious charges, minors have been detained in Westville prison, and a number of people have been badly beaten by the police in and out of custody. Journalists and academics who have witnessed illegal police assaults have been threatened with violence and had cameras confiscated. All attempts to lodge complaints have failed. The Internal Complaints Directorate tells complainants that they require a police case number before they can begin an investigation. The SAPS simply refuse to open cases against their own members. The Public Protector refers people back to the Internal Complaints Directorate. So it goes.

It is not only the shack dwellers who have faced illegal attacks by the police. In recent years Treatment Action Campaign members have been savagely beaten and police have used live ammunition to kill unarmed protestors at the former University of Durban-Westville and in the township of Phoenix. On the day after last week’s election Nomthandazo Ngcobo was shot dead by the SAPS while they put down a small protest against alleged electoral fraud in Umlazi township. The police said she was shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet while throwing stones. Witnesses say she was shot in the back with live ammunition while passing the protest on her way to catch a bus to her lunch-time shift as a waitress at a waterfront restaurant. Having so often seen the police lie shamelessly I am confident that they are lying again. But the problem with the police is not only a culture of often illegal and sometimes fatal brutality.

On 12 February the shack dwellers’ movement was invited, in writing, to send one panellist and 60 supporters to take part in a live election debate on the SABC TV show Asikhulume. The same invitation had been extended to the ANC, IFP and NADECO. The shack dwellers arrived in good time to find that the SAPS were stationed at the doors of the community hall where the debate was being filmed. Each group was wearing its own t-shirts. People wearing political party t-shirts were waved through while the shack dwellers, to a person, were denied entrance to the hall. When S’bu Zikode, invited to represent the shack dwellers as a pannelist, showed his invitation to the police and asked to be let into the hall they singled him out for assault.

It is clear that the state has prevented free political activity in Durban. The general indifference to this fact in elite society is deeply disturbing. Mawethu Mosery, Chief Electoral Officer in KwaZulu-Natal, even went so far as to laud the Asikhulume show as proof of the free political climate. There appears to be an elite consensus that sees illegal repression of basic political rights by the state as unimportant when the victim is not a political party.

Most Abahlali baseMjondolo members live in shack settlements within formally Indian middle class and elite suburbs. In previous local and provincial elections ANC manifestos and victory statements have given first priority to residents of these settlements and they have been amongst the ANC’s most loyal supporters. In the suburb of Clare Estate, the middle class vote was closely contested between the ANC and the DA in the 2000 elections and the shack dwellers won the ward for the ANC. But the shack dwellers boycotted last week’s election after more than 5 000 of them marched peacefully to demand the resignation of a councillor elected by less than half that number of votes only to find themselves defamed as ‘Third Force’, beaten, repressed and under investigation. But despite the boycott the ANC councillor was returned to office after a massive swing away from the DA and towards the ANC by middle class voters. The ANC won these votes by promising that shack dwellers would be evicted from the suburbs. Shack dwellers desperately wish to avoid forced removals to housing developments on the rural periphery of the city because they need to be close to economic opportunities. Indeed for many people the shack settlement is the only potential ladder into or out of the so called ‘second economy’ because it allows close access to economic opportunities at low cost.

This particular story takes us to the heart of the general problem with our democracy. There is no credible political party which is willing to be shaped by the bottom up practice of popular democracy which so often carries the hopes of the very poor. The ANC can afford to abandon the underclass, to whom it once directed its most urgent appeals, as it cements unassailable support amongst the working and middle class. If this is the way things are going free and fair party political activity with the simultaneously illegal and often brutal repression of non-party political activity will lock people in the what this newspaper often calls the ‘second economy’ into a second democracy. This will not be accepted. There will be many more Khutsongs.