Last week the votes were counted, and there were more of them than ever before for a South African municipal election. A whole new raft of lucky elected officials are now able to draw a state salary on our behalf. Oh, and hopefully sort out all our problems and our lives for us. The rest of us can go on moaning for the next few years, right? Isn’t that the kind of freedom many people fought for? Perhaps a little history lesson can enlighten us on this.
Modern “democracy” has a distinctly unfinished ring to it. The idea of democracy is supposed to be about group decision-making by as many responsible people as possible. To the ancient Athenians who are always claimed to have invented it, this meant anyone who wasn’t female or a slave. Hmm. Athenian politicians were themselves not elected to office but chosen by lottery, like jury service in some countries today, and you only had to stay in office for a year. In a small society this all worked pretty well until Alexander the Great came and wiped them out.
Some of these ideas were taken on by Rome, most weren’t, but as Rome was much larger, some other less welcome elements of “democracy” got a look in. Annual offices were mostly appointed and seen as an opportunity, for the most part, to make as much money as possible during one’s time in office. Bribery and corruption were almost honourable. Meanwhile “populism” was also developed in the invention of the tribunes, the only part of the Roman system that still remained subject to a vote. Elected annually by the ordinary citizens of Rome – the plebeians or plebs – whoever offered the most grain etc. for the poor (“service delivery”) and delivered the most fiery speeches usually got elected. They then used their position to threaten the Senate families with the “wrath of the people”, a threat whose truth depended on the strength of the Emperor’s armies and so forth at the time. Usually the tribunes did very little as the Caesars were where the power really lay and the Senate was a sham (though a well-paying sham for its members, some of whose descendants would carry on as cardinals and bishops in the Roman Catholic church for over a millennium).
In a few Italian city-states democracy was tried again in the medieval period, where we had for the first time the emergence of “political parties” which usually pandered to a set group of voters united by cultural or genetic ties… some of them are said to have been ultimately an embryonic version of the Mafia. But democracy and consensus rule was for centuries much more easily found beyond the borders of Europe, in traditional tribal structures, small-scale enough to make “participation in government” a very practical matter.
Incidentally, Thom Hartmann (in the “Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight”) points out that the Founding Fathers of the United States created their revolutionary modern idea of democracy based on looking at the workings of the Native American Iroquois Tribal Confederacy. They didn’t take on all the tribal ideas, of course – like that ridiculous one of giving women the vote on all important issues, instead of men, imagine that! – and there were plenty of non-democrats to set the clock back again over the next centuries. We can hopefully now see that in a small tribal society like the Iroquois, with clearly defined roles for sustainable living, it was a reasonable notion that men might have more time to be most of the governmental “office-bearers”, but that women – more concerned with their children’s future than with glory – would be the voters in referendums and elections. Not that any modern state has suggested such a thing.
What has this got to with our recent “small-scale” elections – those for so-called “local government” in South Africa? Well, not as much as I would like. I sit in a city whose most “local” form of government is a council that will rule over the municipal needs of some 3 million people. When Athenians voted locally, there were probably 6 or 7 million people in the world. There are now that many in Johannesburg. And participative democracy beyond sham “tribune”-type populism is still some way off.
In these most “local” of elections, I note that I did (for the first time in a long time) know one of the five ward candidates personally, and had heard of another one. But “democracy” today is largely about who we know via the media, which of course has just about nothing to do with what people are like in real life. To get participation needs an educated and informed electorate who see the need for them to act for themselves to improve many areas of their lives. This is something no political party wants to admit, committed as they all are to the idea of “professional politicians” being our saviours, but it becomes more obvious daily. During my recent visit to the Eastern Cape it became clear that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs or NPOs) are the only people really making a difference in many areas, with at least two former government employees I spoke to sharing from experience how those working for government are actively discouraged from actually making a difference (it makes the rest look like the slackers they are). Hopefully new faces in councils will see how CSO skills and services can be supported by the government funds they themselves find it so difficult to spend. But I’m not banking on it.
I recently read of a particular African tribal practice – (which tribe was not mentioned) – which was taken with considerable success to schools in Holland. When someone had done something that was clearly “out of line”, the usual procedure was not to punish that person, but to surround them and praise them collectively for all their good qualities. The “ubuntu”-type understanding here being that, while the group’s action clearly pointed out subtly that they had committed a “crime”, the origin of that crime came in a need for attention, love, and recognition. I’m not convinced that this is why certain corrupt councillors were re-elected last week! – but it is an example of how the kind of small-scale community, group actions we take can profoundly affect the kind of society we create, with an impact from a young age.
The traditional African notion of “consensus”-based decisions rather than party political point-scoring is an honourable one (manageable in small-scale settings) that has become deeply damaged with time and with too many modern one-party African states, led by leaders who grew up isolated from the more responsible traditions of the continent. The continent’s educational institutions during the colonial period and after (and of course the apartheid period in South Africa) suggested – to the future elites that studied in them – that Africa’s ways of ruling were terribly backwards compared to the modern European-style nation state. The new elites felt themselves superior through their intellectual studies to the people they ruled. In the past in many societies the “rulers” were humble enough to wash their people’s feet, as a symbol that all were equal. Imagine that. Our modern super-sized state structures don’t allow for such a real, felt connection between leaders – whose job is to take an overall, general view of things – and those who get on with daily details.
There is enormous, positive wisdom in our melting-pot culture; but bringing that to individuals means taking steps to create really local forums that bring wisdom as widely as possible, allow as many genuine leaders to emerge as possible, cross cultural boundaries as much as possible. If we want to create a society that lasts rather than a society of hopeless people waiting for a chance to whinge after marking a cross every few years, then we will need to create thousands of little participative democracies across the land, all as “powerful” as possible - democracies that work to build local economies, and local educational institutions offering sustainable ideas for young and old. And big government’s main job will increasingly be simply to facilitate their establishment fairly across cultural lines. Do any of the politicians we are paying have the vision and courage to help make this happen, and to admit to people that they don’t have all the answers? And can “we the people” once again take on the notion of “politics” being a daily aspect of our own lives rather than merely a distant profession?
If not, we can look to more of what today’s global mega-city culture has given us. Suicide rates have risen globally 60% since 1945, mostly rising among younger people who do not feel recognised, empowered, and meaningful in their communities. In some industrialised countries suicide is the 2nd highest cause of death among teenagers and young adults. To say nothing of the social causes of crime. And here in South Africa, small businesses, which should be the lifeblood of vibrant local economies, have a 70% failure rate within their first three years. That’s the kind of social crisis “democracy” as we currently practice it has yet to engage with properly, one that will only be solved by a new kind of small-scale civic democracy that allows people to find meaning again through community support.