Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.
By Chris Maxon
We grew up being taught and believing that the ANC is the “leader of society” – it being committed to participatory democracy: the involvement of citizens in decisions about issues that affect their lives.
The history of the ANC and the people’s struggle is one of popular participation. Also, the ANC’s very identity as a mass movement is rooted in the notion that it exists as a political vanguard (read: leader of society). Associated with the ideas of Vladimir Lenin, the vanguard party is a vehicle led by an enlightened, revolutionary leadership. Vanguardism proposes that a dedicated movement – or party – needs to give ideological, moral and intellectual leadership. A vanguard views itself as a true representative, able to interpret the popular will.
The people must not only see the vanguard’s objectives as in their best interests. They must also see leadership by that vanguard as essential for those interests to be secured. It implies a fundamental connection between the people’s collective needs and the leadership of their vanguard organisation. An active role for the people is a critical component of vanguardism.
Fast forward to the current period, and we have reached a critical point in our democracy. Popular disillusionment with the ANC, failures in government performance, and the rise of popular protest are evident.
The “leader of society” (the ANC) has been found wanting as a leader of society. Rampant corruption and abuse of office have marred its claim to the rightful leadership of South Africa’s people. Inevitably, the citizens have lost faith in formal political processes.
Writing in the Sunday Independent five years ago (October 11, 2015), Kuseni Dlamini prophesied: “…the ANC… risks alienating itself from the very people whose votes are indispensable to it… being ‘leader of society’.”
Attempting to explain this is Professor Mohamed Salih of the University of Leiden. He argues: “Some liberation movement governments failed to implement the democratic values that kindled their struggle…”.
Professor Christopher Clapman suggests that “the very movement from struggle to government potentially opens up sources of difference and dissent that were previously suppressed or obscured”.
If this is true, we must answer another important question: what has happened to the principle of “the people shall govern”?
Let’s be honest, the ANC cannot claim to be the “leader of society” or the vanguard. To do so may only be because it is haunted by ghosts of those who paid the highest price for freedom and nightmares from the images of millions of people who continue to suffer poverty and marginalisation while the elite lounges in the largesse of ill-gotten riches.
Phindile Kunene, writing in Amandla Magazine (September 7, 2017) suggests “the debate about whether vanguard parties are the ideal political instruments for our times is championed only by marginal sections within left political circles in South Africa”.
We need to look at the role of political parties, their relationship with the citizens, and whether democracy exists only when there are political parties. This is more urgent than ever before to understand how democracy works and assess how well it performs the functions imputed to it, such as responsiveness, representation, accountability, and realisation of the public good.
Originally, parties were bound to the passions and prejudices of public opinion; but in some recent conceptions, we see political parties as being loyal to their conception of the good and unperturbed by public opinion.
Maxon is the deputy manager at the Department of Health in KZN.