SAR, Vol 14 No 3, May 1999
Some of you folks out there may remember the name V. I. Lenin. "Parliamentary cretinism" - this was his phrase for epitomizing the institutions of "bourgeois democracy." Multi-party elections, parliamentarism: these he saw as serving primarily to divert the attention of the mass of the population and to preempt their pressing forward with demands for genuine empowerment and equality.
Here Lenin echoed the critique of his mentor, Karl Marx. In his political writings ("On the Jewish Question," for example) Marx expressed the fear that the abstract or formal equality represented by the granting of purely political rights might come to substitute for the no less important substance of social and economic equality. By disarming the workers and making them feel more represented than they actually were they would be less likely to mobilize themselves to confront the bastions of capital where true power lay.
Of course, once in power many self-proclaimed Marxists used such plausible critiques of emerging liberal democratic practices elsewhere as merely an excuse for having no democracy at all, substituting instead the dictatorship of the state and of the vanguard party. As a result the democratic political institutions of effective socialist practice remain largely to be discovered. Moreover, any renewed socialist democracy would probably have to involve, among other things, elections, genuinely representative institutions, political rights - even if these latter were now to be re-positioned on a new social and economic basis.
In the meantime, however, what we have in most parts of the world that can lay any claim at all to being democratic is "bourgeois democracy," settings in which money and power speak more loudly than votes, whatever their formal constitutions may say. And this is all the more true of a world in which the presumed imperatives of globalization (read: global capital) are argued to preempt the possibility of any independent decision-making on major questions of socio-economic choice in every territorial jurisdiction throughout the world.
What does this mean for southern Africa, not least for South Africa itself as it moves towards its second full-franchise election in June of this year? Inevitably, we must hesitate to qualify our enthusiasm for what has been achieved in South Africa. Who could have imagined a decade ago that 1994 would witness the successful (and, in the end, surprisingly peaceful) transition from apartheid to a freely-elected ANC government under the presidency of Nelson Mandela? And what of those doom-sayers who prophesied trouble for the further consolidation of parliamentary democracy in the wake of the transition? Isn't the holding of the "Second Election" in 1999 an equally impressive achievement?
The answer, as various articles in the present issue suggest, must be a resolute yes ... and no. True, some kind of racial reconciliation has been achieved and other possible sources of tension (for example, in KwaZulu-Natal) have at least been contained. And South Africa is a far more open society than ever it was under the despicable apartheid system. But whatever happened to efforts to democratize the social and economic structures of South Africa, still so redolent of the extreme polarization of rich and poor, in really meaningful ways?
Read for yourself. Carolyn Bassett views the election through the prism of the trade union movement - so important in providing the foot-soldiers for ensuring the ANC's electoral success in 1994 and again this time - and argues that labour's interests are far more likely to be further side-tracked than advanced through the current workings of the electoral process. Indeed, Gerhard Mare suggests (in his article on pre-electoral developments in KwaZulu-Natal) that Thabo Mbeki - presumptive President of South Africa in the wake of the ANC's likely victory - seems much more preoccupied with swinging a (morally dicey) deal with the venomous Gatsha Buthelezi and his IFP than reaffirming and/or advancing a genuinely popular agenda.
More generally, Roger Southall tracks the dizzying round of "electoral prostitution" that has carried opportunist politicians from one party to another in search of a better positioning on the party rolls that determine the prospects of personal electoral success under the PR (proportional representation) system that exists in South Africa. And Shireen Hassim also sees PR, and the extensive powers it gives to top party leaders in drawing up the lists, as one of the factors constraining women's efforts to advance a strong gender agenda in the last parliament. And yet, significantly, she sees the drying up of a powerful women's movement outside parliament as having been even more important in undermining such efforts inside. Parliamentary cretinism indeed, if this is so.
Small wonder, under such circumstances, that many ordinary (and still desperately impoverished) South Africans have begun to lose interest in a "democratic" process that does not really touch their lives. The registration process has failed to enroll large numbers and predictions are that no overwhelming proportion of those who are registered will bother to vote.
Perhaps some will see in this and other trends the benign "normalization" of South African politics, merely bringing South Africa into line with the spiritless democratic politics of all too many western countries these days. And isn't this far better, in any case, than any and all of the various overt authoritarianisms that are on offer, in Africa and elsewhere?
No doubt. And yet it's hard to believe that, under South African circumstances, such "depoliticization" can really hold much promise for the country in the long run. Where will the effective political pressure to stem global capitalist imposition and "non-racial" ruling-class formation come from in South Africa if not from below? Somehow, somewhere, within the ANC or without, the voice of the marginalized in that society will eventually have to make itself heard more effectively.
Do other articles in this issue offer more promise? Not that by Larry Swatuk on Botswana certainly, an account that registers the self-destructive path taken by opposition leaders who once seemed to offer the rudiments of a progressive alternative to those ensconced in power in that country.
But what of Zimbabwe in this respect? South Africans do not like to draw parallels between Mugabe's malign political dispensation and that of Nelson Mandela. And it is true there are real differences. Still, such differences can probably be overstated. Consider the progressive Zimbabwean, recently emigrated to South Africa, who was asked to compare the two experiences. Highlighting what he saw to be the post-liberation scramble for power and perks in each case, he emphasized the similarities, noting only a difference in scale and significance. "Zimbabwe was the trailer," he said wryly. "South Africa is the movie."
What precedent, then, in another current, but quite different, Zimbabwean development, one chronicled in this issue by Patrick Bond? For Bond finds promise in the possible emergence there of a new left-oppositional party under the sponsorship of the trade unions and other popular organizations: "What is crucial," Bond has written, "is that the opposition's political orientation is potentially both post-nationalist and post-neoliberal, perhaps for the first time in African history." A real alternative in the region to parliamentary cretinism? Let us see.
Southern Africa Report
Contents - Vol 14 No 3
"The Second Election - South Africa June 2, 1999"
Editorial: "Parliamentary Cretinism" - 1
The South African Elections:
Electoral Illusion: COSATU and the ANC - 3
by Carolyn Bassett
Makin' Nice with Buthelezi - 9
by Gerhard Maré
Electoral Prostitution - 14
by Roger Southall
Gendering Parliament - 19
by Shireen Hassim
Zimbabwe: A Post Neoliberal Politics - 23
by Patrick Bond
Botswana: The Opposition Implodes - 27
by Larry A Swatuk
Reviews: Tracking the Transition - 30
review by Marlea Clarke
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