Standing in the glare of a media contingent that almost overshadowed the collected delegates to the 'Operation Recapture Conference', Sipho Pityana, the leader of the Save South Africa organisation and corporate executive, breathed fire, as he called on all South Africans to stand up to the evil force of corruption. He noted that Members of Parliament would be asked to vote on the 8th of August and that this conference would have to come up with strategies to pressure MP's into voting in the interest of the people of South Africa.
He spoke of how the conference would have to break the nexus between big business and politicians in order to overcome the corruption which was now apparently so inherent in the current administration. Even though we are from different ideological and material backgrounds, he shouted from the podium, we needed to make common cause in order to ensure that we redefine power relationships and that we build people's power to advance the people's agenda.
This is why his living mantra that puts him to bed every day is "Zuma Must Go!" Wonderful stuff! And the gathered delegates ate it up, like manna from heaven. This was what they had come to hear. The Save South Africa grouping, led quite obviously by those who have access to vast resources, as evidenced by the glossy folders and extensive printed materials and corporate executive leadership, had spun a narrative to the media and the public that our democracy was under threat.
As South African citizens, deeply concerned by the narrative of blatant state corruption and the Guptarisation of the ANC, it is hard to disagree with this concern. It is real and immediate. But the real question was who was to recapture what? While the immediate threat is certainly evident, the common cause Mr Pityana alludes to is unfortunately not that evident.
Despite, or maybe even because of, the resounding populist rhetorical flow of the opening addresses, the underlying integrity of the call by Sipho Pityana and others at the conference for a common cause was undermined by an event that had gone almost unnoticed in the South African media. In April this year the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) released the results of survey they had undertaken among individuals and organisations who had participated in parliamentary processes.
Among a host of red flags and indicators of democratic decay, the survey found that while "public participation is at the heart of the work of Parliament" and while "South Africa occupies a unique position in that public participation is constitutionally entrenched" the South African Parliament, between 2014 and 2015, during which time the Portfolio Committees met a total of 1,134 times, had heard submissions from the public in only 39 meetings or 3 percent of the time. In short, what we believe to be our glorious democracy is, in fact, a shadow of what it was envisaged to be in the Constitution.
Parliament has become a small elite engaging with another small elite to decide our collective futures.
Mr Pityana was thus calling on us to defend our dying democracy by supporting the old elite against the new elite, the very same condition that got us to this point in the first place. Of more concern, the survey pointed to a trend of elite control of our democracy and referenced other surveys, such as the one conducted by the Dullah Omar Institute, NOT IN THE HOUSE; The extent of and responsiveness to public input in South Africa's legislatures 2009 – 2015, which had previously pointed out the danger of the "shift away" from participatory processes and warned that "as the ANC majority is gradually eroded and contestation within Parliament increases, the committees show greater resistance to critical civil society input."
Of yet even greater concern than the denial of citizen's rights to participate and the exclusion of ordinary citizens from the processes of democratic decision making and oversight of the executive is the narrowing of those who are able to engage with and in parliament. In other words, parliament has become a small elite engaging with another small elite to decide our collective futures. The survey found that a remarkably small group of organisations and individuals appear to be able to access Parliamentary processes on a regular basis with a significant portion of those advocating to Parliament, emanating from the business sector.
Even among this small group of consistent participants (a total of 177 organisations and individuals during 2014-2015), they pointed out that participation was hamstrung by a range of factors. The survey respondents indicated that "the core problem with lack of funds, resources and capacity is that the public participation space in Parliament becomes exclusive to the well-resourced, funded and capacitated." Recently I wrote about the MPRDA Amendment Bill and the difficulty of participation experienced by affected communities. If those who are most directly affected by legislation do not have the opportunity to decide on their own futures, then dictatorship rather than democracy is a much more apt description.
In our own surveys, conducted in over 100 affected communities and interviewing 565 respondents, we found that 88 percent did not know what the MPRDA legislation entailed and 79 percent felt that the current legislation was not fair to communities in general. The fact that our media (with the sole exception of one cynical report by the Mail & Guardian on the survey) and organisations such as Save South Africa, continues to champion an agenda that suggests our democracy is under threat, yet ignores a very real and imminent threat to our democracy, raises deep questions of motive, objectives and shared values.
One argument about the current bout of state capture anxiety is, to paraphrase Steven Friedman, not that an elite controls the society but that the wrong elite does. This was echoed by Peter Richer, a member of the infamous SARS Rogue Unit, who warned during his talk at the conference, that large corporate businesses, such as the Tobacco Industry, has for some time now been creeping deeper and deeper into the state and that the Gupta's were just a small player in the bigger scheme of things.
The Marikana Support campaign also reminds us that the massacre at Marikana "can accurately be described as the most brazen incident where corporate power was used to capture the state", yet most of the current voices denouncing state capture were silent then. Even the Anglican Archbishop Makgoba, in his message to delegates at the conference inadvertently qualified his rejection of corruption and patronage as being reserved for those "under this administration". I am sure this is not what he meant but the broad societal blind spot is evident in this innocent comment.
How then shall our society be able to tackle the scourge of corruption and patronage if we are not able to accept its true cause... A democracy for the elite, by the elite.
Our public discourse is peppered with grand sounding rhetorical allusions to public participation and people's power, but in reality, our media and civil society leaders are not prepared to face up to the reality that our society is run by the elite, for the elite. This is in no small measure why we were able to adopt policies and legislation over the last 23 years that has not only served to deepen and entrench poverty and inequality among the masses but has also allowed corruption and patronage to emerge as a real social force. In short, a society where private interests dominate public ones.
How then shall our society be able to tackle the scourge of corruption and patronage if we are not able to accept its true cause... A democracy for the elite, by the elite. Our democracy is in terminal decline while the elites squabble over the spoils of the state... and so it is left to us to rage against the dying of the light.