||The Freedom Charter’s first substantive clause declares that “The People Shall Govern!” It is followed by four inter-related demands – the franchise for all men and women and the right to stand as public representatives for legislative bodies; the right of all to “take part in the administration of the country”; equal rights for all, regardless of “race, colour or sex”; and, perhaps the boldest of all, “democratic organs of self-government”. We should be cautious of scriptural debates around the precise wording of the Freedom Charter, it is an inspiring and visionary document not an academic treatise. It is, nevertheless, possible to discern in this clause of the Charter at least three strands of thinking about democracy – democracy as representative democracy; democracy as the enjoyment of rights within a constitutional, rights-based dispensation; and democracy as popular, collective self-empowerment.
The case for finding this third strand within the Freedom Charter can be made not just on a textual reading, but also and rather more on the basis of the Charter’s struggle context. The 1955 Congress of the People emerged from a decade of heightened popular and working class mobilisation in the latter part of the 1940s and early 1950s. In preparation for the Congress, volunteers moved throughout South Africa collecting demands for a popular charter. In their door-to-door work they asked ordinary South Africans basic questions like: “What would you do if YOU were the government?”. It was a simple enough question, but when posed in a lunch-hour meeting in a factory canteen, or in a remote rural village in the reserves, or to a road construction gang, the question itself had a subversive and liberating edge. The idea of self-government was beginning to be pre-figured in the manner of the Charter’s making itself.
In the 1980s, in the midst of the rolling waves of semi-insurrectionary struggle, the “People Shall Govern!” vision was once more invoked. It was also enriched with deeper meaning in a thousand sites of struggle, in civics, in rural women’s organisations, in shop steward councils, in school classrooms, in the mushrooming of local newsletters, in liberation theology, in poetry, song and graphic design. In struggle, popular forces pitched against the apartheid regime increasingly fought not just against oppression, but also for something - for an alternative, if still rudimentary, popular power, “democratic organs of self-government”. People’s courts and self-governing street committees emerged in the township vacuum as black local authorities were chased away and the apartheid police retreated. In schools and universities alternative people’s education days and courses were run. In the early 1990s, with the regime’s counter-revolutionary violence escalating, communities constituted self-defence units.
And now? Fifty years after the Congress of the People, eleven years into our new democratic dispensation, what can we say of the vision of popular participation in self-government? The participatory traditions of the 1950s and the people’s power traditions of the 1980s have left an important legacy that continues to resonate . A number of notable participatory practices and institutions have emerged more or less directly out of the pre-1994 popular struggle. These include community policing forums; school governing bodies; and ward committees in which, at least in terms of the law, councils are obliged to submit budgetary proposals and integrated development plans to popular local assemblies. Government has also increasingly instituted the practice of izimbizo – open-ended community meetings in church halls and township meeting places in which the president or ministers listen to community concerns and engage with their interlocutors, explaining policies, promising interventions and assigning officials to effect follow-up. Running through all of these realities is an implicit broadening of the meaning of government – that it is a matter of collective engagement and popular participation, and not something for elected representatives or state functionaries alone.
Of course, we need to examine in detail the actual experience of, for instance, izimbizo. Participatory democracy may be more honoured in form than in substance on occasion. Some of these institutions may also be more readily captured by middle strata and used, not for democratic inclusion, but to preserve and reproduce suburban privileges – the experience with some school governing bodies is a case in point. There is also evidence, for instance, that the majority of ward committees, those that are actually convened, are not functioning as dynamically as envisaged. Nevertheless, there are also many positive examples of the traditions of popular democratic participation, forged in struggle, and actively carried through into the new democratic dispensation.
But, while these traditions survive, we need to admit that this legacy of popular power has been considerably overwhelmed and displaced in our post-1994 reality, with the other two paradigms of democracy prevailing – representative democracy, and democracy as the exercise of rights. I should immediately emphasise that, like the Freedom Charter itself, I do not see these three strands as inherently in opposition to each other, but I do believe that they all need to be consolidated as complementary features of a vibrant and progressive democracy. The relative displacement of popular power democracy is not a class neutral fact. Where this marginalisation occurs, where there is not a powerful counter-balancing of the power of legislatures, or courts, or the executive by organs of self-government, a technocratic and, in our conditions, capitalist-oriented content invariably begins to hegemonise both the representative structures, and the interpretation of rights. But, since there are not technocratic capitalist-oriented solutions to our challenges of underdevelopment, many popular aspirations and energies then invariably burst out as oppositionist, sectoral, spasmodic and grievance-driven. And these, in turn, tend to provoke another round of earnest managerial attempts to speed up “delivery”, or denialism, defensivism and a bureaucratic closing of ranks from elected representatives and functionaries. How have we got here?