How the people could really govern By Terry Bell

10 February 2019 — Terry Bell Writes

A version of this item appeared in the City Press on February 10

The people shall govern. So says the Freedom Charter. And so they do, says the ANC along with all the parties represented in parliament.

But this is a lie. And awareness of this fact is what has caused such widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics and political parties. In our party list electoral system this is particularly pertinent: every five years we go to the polls to vote for a party where a president and perhaps the party elite, usual decide on the representatives over whom we have no control. Yet a universal franchise — one person, one vote — is a concession won after many bloody and bitter battles in recent centuries by working people deprived of even the slightest influence over those who governed them.

But that concession was made within the same inherently corrupt framework that existed before: a framework that enables the monied minority to bribe, bully, flatter and otherwise manipulate those elected to represent the majority. Nothing has changed from the times when only the monied and propertied minority had the vote; although the regulatory — managerial — structure of society is elected by the majority it remains captured by the minority who own and control the means of production, distribution and exchange.

In South Africa, we lagged behind many countries. The majority, defined by “race” had been deprived of, or never attained, even the concession of a vote. We caught up after 1994, joining other parliamentary democracies in granting all citizens over the age of 18 the right to vote for the structures that lay down the regulations that govern our lives.

But we are also in a possibly unique position: we have a Bill of Rights that amounts to an egalitarian political programme, granting equal rights to education, health care, housing and welfare to all citizens. Crudely put, what it advocates is that all citizens should have the right to do exactly as they please, provided that, in the exercise of such right, they do not impinge on the rights of any other citizens.

This is a programme — built on the basis of the 1955 Freedom Charter — that calls for an end to exploiters and exploited; for co-operative governance rather than competitive anarchy, obviously something that cannot be achieved overnight. What it requires is that citizens who agree with the programme outlined in the Bill of Rights be marshalled to support its implementation.

The only question is how this could be done; how the majority, with whom power, through democratic decision making, should ultimately rest, can be organised, informed and brought into action. The answer seems quite simple: use modern, communications technology to link individuals, in groups throughout the country, to a central database as voting members of a collective of citizens. The database should be administered by people who have no political influence or control and who would act only as a “switchboard” for the transfer of information.

Trade union locals, religious institutions, clubs of various kinds — even political movements — and neighbourhood groups already meet on a regular, at least weekly, basis. Unorganised people should be encouraged to set up units of a Citizens’ Coalition, perhaps with a minimum of ten voting members. Each unit would, in turn, be one element in a branch structure that could meet monthly and be made up of perhaps one delegate for every ten unit members and so on up to regional or even provincial level if thought necessary.

Since each citizen has a unique ID number, there can be no duplicate voting with every CC member registered according to the unit which they have joined. So a factory worker where a unit exists could either be a member of the factory unit or of a neighbourhood, club, church, mosque, temple unit and so on. Such members of a “citizens’ coalition” should debate and decide upon all matters relating to themselves nationally, provincially and locally, with all information, debates and decisions being relayed throughout the network.

Ideally members in each putative constituency should have the say over who should represent them in parliament. However, while we still operate on a list system, without defined constituencies, MPs may be allocated, in accordance with the numbers of votes cast, to constituencies defined according to votes gained in any region or province, with the number of candidates determined according to the populations of each province.

For the 400 seats in the national parliament, for example, there should be 96 candidates (24% of national population) for Gauteng, followed by 80 for KZN (20%) while there would be only eight for the Northern Cape (2%). All candidates for office should be women and men who live in and are widely known, respected, and supported in the provinces to which they are nominated.

All such candidates should also sign a legally binding undertaking that, after being allocated to a constituency, they will be answerable to — and recallable by — that constituency, with constituency boundaries determined by where votes were cast. The incomes of all such “citizen” parliamentarians should also be decided by the vote of the citizens’ coalition members with all and any surpluses from parliamentary salaries and allowances going to constituency and communications expenses.

Communication is the essence, allowing decisions to be made after informed debate and within the boundaries set by the Bill of Rights. On this basis there can be no populist clamour for the death penalty or to prohibit a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy. Individual rights, within a truly democratic society would be protected. However, informed decisions can only be made by people who are in possession of all available information, and who are prepared to accept the egalitarian principles spelled out in the Bill of Rights.

MPs and representatives at various governmental levels would, in such circumstances act as the true voices of their constituencies: tribunes of the majority. Like Winning the right to a vote, it would be a major — perhaps the major — reform to fight for on the way to the full, democratic transformation of society. It could happen in South Africa and provide an example to an increasingly alienated and impoverished global majority.

This certainly seems preferable to anything else that we have at present as more than 200 parties prepare to enter the 2019 election on the same corrupt and corrupting basis as before.

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