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
9 December 2009

Ruling elite not interested in democracy or the Rule of Law?

When EP Thompson, the Marxist historian considered by many to be the greatest British historian of his time, wrote that the Rule of Law was “an unqualified human good”, he created quite a stir. It was an article of faith among Marxists that the law was always used by the ruling class to legitimise its oppression of the working class.Thompson was heavily criticised by fellow Marxists who argued that the Rule of Law was a deeply oppressive concept as it masked the inherent violence deployed by the ruling class to protect their own interests.

But Thompson, it seems to me, was on to something. Although the law is often used to promote and legitimise the interests of the ruling elite and although the law is thus often unjust, the law can also be used as a mechanism to restrain the unbridled and unprincipled exercise of power by the ruling elite.

In South Africa, the Rule of Law is often mentioned by members of the chattering classes who bemoan the fact that some members of the ANC government and some ANC “deployees” to constitutional institutions (such as the NPA and the JSC) show an utter disregard for the law. Yet, the erosion of the Rule of Law affects all of us who do not form part of the ruling elite, a ruling elite which is composed of apartheid era big business, ANC leaders, BEE and other tender millionaires, the Black Lawyers Association and Black Management Forum and other elite institutions with close, mutually beneficial, ties to the government.

In a deeply divided society, in which economic injustice is deeply embedded and a few elites benefit from a parasitic capitalist system to the detriment of the majority of citizens, a semblance of social stability often seems to depend on the ability of the ANC government to paper over the “class contradictions” by deploying a kind of race-nationalism in which the same white big business and its beneficiaries who shared in the spoils of apartheid are held up as the villains against whom all black South Africans had to unite.

In this context, poor, marginalised black citizens do not always buy into the idea that an erosion of the Rule of Law represents a fundamental threat to their potential well-being. However, recent events have reminded us that the Rule of Law is not only to the benefit of the rich. Without it, it will be difficult for real democracy (as opposed to the watered-down Parliamentary version enacted for our benefit by the ANC and the DA) to flourish.

It seems to me real democracy will flourish only if social movements and grassroots activism (in opposition to policies and practices of the ruling elite) can flourish. No wonder some ANC leaders are fearful of social movements and have taken unlawful and dictatorial action to try and blunt the power of such movements. A prime example of such undemocratic, anti-Rule of Law action, is the recent harassment of leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo in KwaZulu-Natal.

I was reminded of this when I received a press release from the inestimable Prof Stephen Friedman of the Centre for the Study of Democracy who recently hosted a discussion on this topic. The Centre had called the meeting out of a concern that the violence, directed at leaders and members of the Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) shackdwellers’ movement, was politically motivated and designed to drive the movement out of the informal settlement because it was seen as a rival to the African National Congress (ANC) in the area, and because it had launched a Constitutional Court challenge to provincial legislation which gives the provincial government wide powers to force landowners and municipalities to evict informal occupiers.

Part of this statement reads as follows:

The Centre is particularly concerned that the attacks on an independent and peaceful citizens’ organisation have been effectively endorsed by the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Community Safety, Mr Willies Mchunu, and by senior officials of the provincial government. This reinforces the impression that a provincial government is attempting to silence a critical voice in violation of core democratic values.

Discussion at the meeting heightened this concern. The president of AbM, Mr Sbu Zikode, and other leaders of the movement, described how they had been driven into hiding and were now forced to conduct their entirely lawful activities in Kennedy Road in secrecy. AbM leaders told the meeting that they were now forced to operate much as underground anti-apartheid activists had been forced to do before South Africa became a democracy. While our Constitution guarantees every citizen freedom of speech and association and the right to use the courts, AbM appears to have been denied the first and to have been punished for exercising the second. Further, AbM argued that those who have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the attacks and denied bail, are actually victims and are, in effect, political prisoners.

Academic analysts who delivered presentations pointed out that democracy is meant for all citizens, not simply for those who are well-heeled and well-connected. If basic democratic rights are denied to shackdwellers, they warned, South African democracy is in great danger.  If citizens in the suburbs are allowed to speak their mind and criticise government actions and policies but those in the shack settlements are not, our country will, they suggested, lapse back into what it was pre-1994, a state in which some enjoy the right to speak but others do not. The allegations raised about the Kennedy Road violence are therefore extremely serious because they suggest that the democracy which so many fought so hard to achieve is now in danger because some political power-holders are not prepared to tolerate peaceful and legal citizen action if they feel threatened by it.

Participants were obviously aware that the allegations about events at Kennedy Roadremain untested. But all agreed that, given their seriousness, they need urgently to be tested. They added that that the best way to ensure that this happened would be support AbM’s call for an independent and neutral inquiry into the events. At present, a Task Team comprising those who are alleged to be complicit in the attacks has been given the official mandate to investigate. This is obviously unacceptable. The inquiry must be entirely independent and its impartiality should be beyond reproach.

We therefore urge the State President to demonstrate his and government’s commitment to democracy and concern to protect the rights of citizens by urgently appointing such an inquiry.

If President Zuma was a true democrat who respected the Rule of Law, he would agree to the request to institute an inquiry into the events that lead to the Kennedy Road tragedy. If the President fails to do so, one will be hard pressed not to conclude that the narrow economic self-interest of the party elite (in cahoots with big capital and the champions of a kind of middle class transformation), trumps concerns for the plight of the poor. The failure of opposition parties, including the DA, to highlight the plight of social movement leaders also suggests that they do not have the interest of the majority of South Africans at heart.

The ANC always talks about its concern for the poor. Maybe this is true in its own way. The ANC leaders are just MORE concerned about their own fancy cars and lavish lifestyles and the benefits flowing from the BEE tenders for their wives and cousins, than they are for the plight of the poor. In such circumstances, the last thing they would want or encourage is real grassroots democracy.

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