Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
23 July 2007

On Robert McBride and democracy

My comment on Robert McBride last week elicited quite harsh comment from some readers. I bemoaned the fact that McBride was not being held accountable as one would expect in a democracy but some readers took issue with this on the ground that we do not live in a democracy.

That, of course, was before the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) announced that McBride is to be charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, defeating the ends of justice and fraud. Nevertheless, the comments of the readers was perplexing because it seems rather obvious to me that we live in a relatively healthy democracy.

Really, the Economist (not a left wing or PC magazine by any strech of the imagination) placed South Africa 29th out of 165 countries on its democracy Index in 2007. (Zimbabwe was placed 147th on the list, two places ahead of Angola.)

There are perhaps three interrelated reasons why some people are so dissatisfied with what is happening in South Africa that they can claim we do not live in a democracy.

First, because South Africa never was a democracy in the past, some people fundamentally misunderstand the nature of democracy. In the past, most white people more or less saw their views reflected in government policy and actions, but they now often find themselves in violent disagreement with government policies. Because the government does not reflect their views, they claim the government is evil and undemocratic, instead of merely arguing that the government is unwise or wrong like a true democrat would have.

Second, some people have a “look-at-Zimbabwe” attitude and see signs everywhere of the imminent demise of South Africa into banana republic status. What in another country would be seen as a sign of the stupidity of a politician or political party, is often seen in South Africa as the end of democracy if not the world. When Tony Blair stupidly decided to help the USA to invade Iraq, few people in Britain saw this as the end of democracy in the UK. Conversely, in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki’s handling of Zimbabwe is seen as proof that our government is anti-democratic and Stalinist.

Lastly, people are just plain uninformed, perhaps because they believe the things that bigots whine on about on talk radio. Thus a reader rails against the Constitutional Court for endorsing legislation that only allows individuals to vote if they are present in South Africa. Only problem is, the Constitutional Court has never ruled on this issue.

Thing is, the wonder of a democracy is that we do not always (or ever!) have to agree with the government or with the judgments of the Constitutional Court and we can say so loudly and clearly. This is exactly what democracy is about. Even if one is a permanent minority (like gay men and lesbians in SA or black people in the USA) and always feel the government is not representing one’s interest, it does not mean that one is not living in a democracy.

Of course, democratic governments should adhere to some basic principles and we the people should make sure they do (because give even the most democratic government half a chance and they will cut corners). This is why I criticized McBride for failure to be held accountable.

But today I am very happy that the NPA has done the right thing and has affirmed the respect that everyone is equal before the law by charging McBride. I am eagerly looking forward to the cross examination because Mr. McBride looks like a guy who is going to make Schabir Shaik look believable and coherent under cross examination.

Such are the joys of living in a democracy under the Rule of Law.

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