Understanding democracy

Understanding democracy

It was Election Day in our surrounding neighbour state last week, and the ruling party won by a significant margin in eight of the nine provinces. The masses once again pledged their loyalty to the African National Congress, a party that led the first democratically led regime in 1994.
At the helm of the movement into democracy was the unforgettable stalwart, Nelson Mandela, leading the most influential country on the African continent in its first steps into the age of freedom after a long walk out of apartheid. This was the year in which women attended a conference with regard to their rights in Beijing.

It was also the year in which the Rwandan genocide occurred, leaving more than a million dead. All the citizens of Africa south of the Sahara were rejoicing with the South Africans, happy that the largest economy in the region was finally free from the clutches of the system of racial segregation and subjugation of the majority on the basis of skin colour and ethnicity.

The basic thought back then was that the newly-found freedom would spell prosperity for all in the region, but looking back 25 years later reveals a different picture. South Africa will soon fall into the category of the once-has-beens of the world that were once great if the basic misunderstanding of what true democracy goes on unchecked as it does at this point in time.

To one who does not understand the whole idea of what true democracy means, the injustices that go on unchecked carry no significant meaning. Ignored, people go on to vote in the name of democracy despite glaring errors in the management of the democracy they speak about ad infinitum at political rallies.
The decisions the masses make define who we are in more ways than one, and if one were to define the kind of life we live this day, one would understand that to live fully is to know in depth what meanings are attached to those aspects we live with in the everyday. It would not make sense to think that one is right if their views are not contrasted with the deeds of the masses.

There is therefore the need for one to present their case against the light of the actions of the masses, for example, the support of the ANC in the recent poll. It proves that the masses are still in love with the party despite glaring questions as to the efficiency of its rule.
The polls were preceded by mass protests over service delivery, and the same protesters still went on and voted for the ANC: it shows faith in the party and dogged loyalty in a movement that led South Africa out of Apartheid.

An attempt to define those terms and events relevant to us these ‘politically correct’ days will lead to the understanding of whether we really know what democracy means. At the moment, the focus is on accepting that democracy is understood in Africa, but I hold a view to the contrary. We do not understand what democracy is as much as we should and those notions we hold of it are often misconstrued.

Democracy does not mean that we should have more than 20 political parties in a country of 2 million. It does not mean that every idea should form the basis of a political party manifesto; there should be a guiding ideology, a philosophy which is not self-contradictory. An example can be made of the presence of political parties whose guiding philosophies are in direct opposition to the founding philosophy of a non-racial society envisioned in the South Africa of 1994.

There were parties in the recent polls that for example spoke against the inclusion of white South Africans in the decisions of state. I find such views racist and to be obtuse, the notion of a society that survived racism when there was no democracy only to condone it when such democracy has been attained sounds like utter nonsense.
The commonest terms of day include democracy (which is little understood in my view), ‘rights’ (in parentheses because it is the most misunderstood aspect of our daily lives), the ideal (models of excellence), reality (known as ‘real-life’ issues), progress, basic needs, and the management of all of these aspects of our daily life.

We do not understand democracy if we do not respect the rights of others, and we do not understand it well enough if we think it is driven by political populism. Politics is not the only system of governance available to us as the human race, there are other primary alternatives that may actually prove more efficient if applied when it comes to the issue of governance. The type of democracy practised in Africa is of the sort that will lead the continent into decay rather than nurture it into progress.

There is a misunderstanding that democracy means that living is a free-for-all affair that should be carried out without limits, that everyone can do what everyone can do what everyone wishes to do; this miseducation is often propounded by the political class who start and split from parties as they wish. The very entity that is supposed to protect the ideal of democracy is the one seen leading the desecration of what true democracy is. There is therefore the need to redefine its essence.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in his Essence and Being puts forward the proposition that existence has to have a certain level of essence attached to it for being (to be) to be complete. He states solidly:
Essence is found in a second way in created intellectual substances. Their being is other than their essence, though their essence is without matter. Hence their being is not separate but received, and therefore it is limited and restricted to the capacity of the recipient nature. But their nature or quiddity (uniqueness) is not received in matter.

Intelligence is not limited at the lower levels, but such intelligence has to be controlled from above, that is one of the reasons why there are laws and acts, rules and regulations that ensure that the harmony of the social strata is maintained. One is not prevented from having ideas on the progress of humanity, but such ideas should not infringe on the well-being of the earthly society as a whole. It is good to see the possibility for change, and it is not wrong to present one’s ideas about what changes can be made, but such ideas should first be presented to relevant governing authorities to discuss the possible outcomes if such ideas were to be manifested in the real life sphere where the rest of human and earthly society lives. This is due to the fact that ideas have the potential to improve human and earthly lives if they are executed with the full consideration of their impact on other beings on earth.

However, such ideas uncontrolled could also have adverse effects on the harmony of the world if their execution is an uncontrolled affair. Governance was created as a control measure to the promulgation of human ideas in the public sphere, because at the end of it all, one aspect of the human race is universally paramount and appropriate: we should always be in pursuit of the ideal elements that make harmony a part of our daily living. As seems to be main reason democracy was adopted as a tool of righteous governance in the world.
John Dewey (1859-1952) deems democracy a political form and method of conducting government and administration that is much broader and deeper than it is usually conceived of as; it is a way of life adopted for:

…the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.

Democracy grants all the individuals in society equal rights and freedoms which should be used to promote the harmonious living of all individuals living within society. One of the basic rights the mature individual has is the right to be involved in the decision-making processes that affect him or her and the community within which they live. They in my opinion have this right by virtue of being citizens in a state where the decisions of the government they voted or did not vote into office have a direct or indirect effect on their lives. Attached to these rights, therefore, are responsibilities attached; like the responsibility to ensure and to value the safety and well-being of other members of society and their property as much as one would value their own.

Democracy does not just grant the rights and freedoms without responsibility being attached, because if it were not, it would in my view be one sided, it would be a wheel without an axle that would spin out of control. The post-independence view in many states across Africa is that the masses have rights and the freedoms to take action where they feel their rights are being infringed, but the question remains: should the exercise of such a freedom to ensure that the rights are respected lead to revolt, mass violent protest, and total chaos? One is led to believe that many acts of demonstration (disguised under the mask of expression of ‘freedom’) often have no regulations governing their execution.

That freedom of expression is a basic right does not mean that one should resort to violent protest, to burning and looting public and private property, to inciting violence amongst lesser concerned members of society who may or may not have vested interest in the activities related to the expression of interest.
Recent developments have seen schools and private property burned in the name of education which is a basic right. The weak defence has always been, ‘this is a democratic state’; what democracy is that which considers only the needs of one side and not the whole society? What then happens to the equality which forms the basis of the legal and the political aspects that govern society?

Democracy was conceived as a form that promotes the ideal, and the idealists of our time have used it to benefit whole societies, and their ideas have gone on to become models for proper governance.
Think of King Moshoeshoe I whose ideals of forgiveness, and of a sense of unity ignorant of tribe or clan formed the Basotho nation, think of Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi whose ideal of passive resistance (Satyagraha) got India her independence, think of Nelson Mandela’s ideal of racial equality, Botho/Ubuntu, and reconciliation; think of these icons and their impact on the world and you will begin to understand what the idealistic really means.

It is ideal that we should live together in harmony, because it is necessary for the progress of all individuals in terms of both talent and endowment. Where there is chaos due to lack of legal or political administration, the wealthy cannot make their lucre due to the violence, and the poor cannot make use of the means of subsistence they have at their disposal to eke livelihoods.

What is ideal in a democracy is what is beneficial to the whole society and not just some sector of society, because where it is limited only to the ‘superior’ few, the human race loses the basic ideal tenant in the basic principles of democracy: democracy holds a strong sense of faith in human intelligence and always strives to pool it so that life can become a ‘cooperative’ experience. Without cooperation, whatever realities we want to change and to achieve in our lives as a society become fantasies that will contribute nothing to the harmonious progress of the human race.
In a cooperative democracy the basic needs are of paramount importance and their management is a shared affair.

Where the democracy is non-cooperative, supplementary wants are presented as core and the decisions are impractical, it is just like demanding a seat of power and then inciting violence in the process of its attainment, like burning a school and looting while demanding free education, in short; being unrealistic and impractical.
What counts is clear understanding by all individuals concerned (and unconcerned) that democracy should be geared towards the attainment of progress and not regress. Believing that autocracy exists only at the top is sheer fantasy, it can also exist at the bottom where those ruled believe that their word counts far more than that of the elected government, that their citizenship grants them the right to rule the government, when the inverse is true and logical.

Universal peace in a democracy is attained by us all understanding our limits and our responsibilities. Expectations we should have, it is true and good, but they should not sour the present moment to the extent that the future becomes an uncertainty.
What is happening in Marquard is a clear sign that South Africa never actually progressed into democracy, rather, it is becoming a self-serving entity that does not understand what true democracy means.

Tsépiso S. Mothibi

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