South Africa is currently experiencing a very tumultuous time with political battles, state capture reports, court battles between politicians, political parties actively threatening minorities, and the list goes on.

I sense with many of my fellow citizens a feeling of powerlessness. We stand on the sidelines and watch politicians fighting in the courts, Parliament, and in speeches. We see the government causing great harm to the country and economy, and yet we can only stand and watch. Why?

If we are truly a democracy (from the Greek demos and kratos, meaning “people” and “power”) why can’t we the people do anything about it? Has our foundation of democracy cracked?

playing-card-842037_960_720No, it has not. The unfortunate reality is that South Africa’s democratic house of cards has been unstable since the beginning.

Democracy is a voluptuous concept that incorporates not only political principles, but moral principles as well. Democracy means that the people must govern and they must have the power to govern their own lives, realise their own potential, and strive for the good life. This was the vision of the Athenian democracy, described by Aristotle, where the function of the polis (the city-state) was to promote eudaimonia (Greek for “the good life”) by fostering virtue among the citizens to reach his goals in life, called his or her telos (Greek for “purpose). It is for this reason that we see democracy as a moral system of organising society, as it is founded upon the “live and let live” principle. So, why do we not have this just society? The answer is that we do not have true and honest democracy. He has a dumbed-down version of it.

Here are my reasons for this statement.

Democracy has become a procedure

Instead of democracy being a moral way of organising society, it has become a tool establishing the legitimacy of the State.

The modern idea of democracy is that it only insures that the State becomes the legitimate representative of the people. Think about it. If you ask someone “why are we a democracy?” they will most probably say; “well, I can vote, I can stand for office and all votes are equal.” All of which is true, but that is but a drop in the ocean of what democracy really means.

The equality of votes, control over that state, freedom of choosing a political party, and the principle of majority rule, have become a checklist for the legitimacy of the State. It is said that if a State complies with these principles, then there is a democratic state, and the State is regarded as being representative and legitimate. This completely disregards the principle of democracy where the people rule, and we do not realise that.

Take for example societal accountability of the State. How can citizens hold the State accountable? The best way is to vote them out of power, but we only have that power every five years. One can go as far as to say that if you are part of the constant political minority, you never have the power to do so. We can take the State to court, except the fact that it is very expensive, it only tries to remedy the damage done, not to limit the power of those who govern. There is no real way we as citizens can do anything against the State.

Freedom to choose a political party does not even testify to the people having any power. We cannot decide public policy and government we must rely on political parties to create policy and make decisions about our lives, we have no say in it. If a party does not represent your views, you either vote for the closest one or don’t vote at all. Does that seem like people having power?

Rather than giving you exhaustive examples I will show the contradiction in principle and you can apply it to any possible example. Equating democracy with the legitimacy of the State is a contradiction within itself. Democracy in its etymological meaning promotes the view that people must govern their lives and futures, but democracy is used only to decide who controls the State governing the people.

It is not that democracy has failed us, but that we did not have it to begin with, or, at least, not the real version of it.

What is democracy then?

Alexis de Tocqueville was very critical about the modern democratic paradigm by arguing that the blatant uncritical reliance on majority rule and equality of votes will give rise to democratic despotism, where the minority in the citizenry will be made subservient to the power of the majority. In doing so, not keeping true to the democratic idea that all people shall govern.

Radical equality thus turns into a new form of despotism and the masses becomes the ruling class. Professor Koos Malan of the University of Pretoria created a very apt name for this phenomenon called “precariocracy”. Of course, society cannot function without majority rule, as we need some way to make decisions, but as de Tocqueville and Malan argue, the majority principle in a true democracy is limited by two important political ideas: Political equality, and minority self-governance.

By establishing a balance between these principles in a modern democracy, we keep true to the moral worth of the idea itself. The minority and majority are regarded as equal by allowing the majority to rule in public policy, provided they still respect the self-governance of the minority. In such a system every citizen truly governs his or her own life.

We must remember that democracy is a political organisation of society, and to achieve the goals of true democracy, we need to keep true to other mechanisms that advance the ideas of the liberty we thirst for in our society. These mechanisms range from the separation of powers, the rule of law, free markets, and, of course, fundamental human rights. However, a very big caveat exists: We must view these mechanisms through the prism of the power of the citizen, not the workings of the State.

Take, for example, our Bill of Rights.

The freedoms guaranteed by it are made subordinate to the power of the State to limit it. It does not consider the fundamental nature of rights and liberty as the primary goal. Our gaze and thought on these matters do not stem from the ideas of liberty, but the ideas of State. A democratic dispensation which only focussed on the powers and functions of the State, instead of the freedom and power of the citizenry, is a contradiction in terms. You cannot alienate the kratos from the demos – and if you do, you are not engaging in the ideas of democracy, and, I dare say, perverting the idea itself.

What then can we do?

Well, we must start rationally and honestly engaging with our conceptions of democracy and statehood and determine whether or not the State model we are using is viable for the future. This, however, is not only a problem here but across the world! Not one democracy in the world remained true to the original model, and we must evaluate this phenomenon. Is our political society structured in a practical, moral way for every citizen? This is a serious question that needs a lot of attention.

For those who are fascinated by the ideas of de Tocqueville, here is some of his wisdom:

“It is above all in the present democratic age that the true friends of liberty and human grandeur must remain constantly vigilant and ready to prevent the social power from lightly sacrificing the particular rights of a few individuals to the general execution of its designs. In such times there is no citizen so obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed, and there are no individual rights so unimportant that they can be sacrificed to arbitrariness with impunity.”

― Alexis de Tocqueville

Johan van der Merwe is a final year law student at the University of Pretoria. He will practice law, but also pursue a master’s research degree on the topic of constitutional interpretation and the rule of law.