Democracy and the importance of criticism, dissent and public dialogue

William Mervin Gumede

(Visiting Research Fellow, School of Public & Development Management, Witwatersrand University)

paper presented at the Harold Wolpe Lecture Series

University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 18 April 2005



Amartya Sen , when making the case for democracy as a universal value, suggests three characteristics of the democratic process. One, an intrinsic value, in the form of social and political participation in decision-making. To be barred from such participation is a major deprivation. Secondly, he sees an instrumental value in democracy, as it offers people a hearing and helps direct political attention to their claims and needs. This is done through communicating people’s demands effectively to political leaders. Thirdly, he posits that democracy has a constructive value, where its necessary dialogue allows citizens to learn from each other and thus helps society to develop. The constructive impact of democracy depends on the quality of dialogue that citizens engage in among themselves and with the agencies of the state, and together form society’s values and priorities.


Public Participation in Decision-making

Ten years into democracy many South Africans increasingly worry that public participation in policy making and identifying priorities have plunged dramatically. The South African constitution, commits the country to open and democratic forms of governance. Moreover, the democratic constitution commits the country to both a representative and participatory democracy – on all levels, national, provincial and local. Participation in democratic life is critical for a number of reasons. Involvement in political and economic decision-making gives the participants a stake in the system. Indeed, it has the effect of transforming an individual from a mere recipient of government decisions to a player, however modest the role may be, in the formulation and evaluation of these decisions.

The struggle of many new democracies has been to reconcile effective policy formulation with democratic norms of political participation. Indeed, the particular patterns of public decision-making that emerge within formal constitutional parameters not only affect the sustainability of the democracy; they also help define the quality of the democracy. Typically pressures brought to bear on newly democratised countries – for open economies and sound finance – increasingly meant that governments are restricting key economic policies to experts and insulating key public institutions, such as central banks, fiscal authorities and finance ministries from democratic scrutiny. National authorities increasingly become more responsive to financial markets than to their fledgling democratic institutions, such as legislatures, and to their citizens. But the core issues of economic policy reform – fiscal stability, debt repayment, privatization, and liberalization – often require hard choices as they affect social groups, communities and institutions differently. It is never obvious that there is only one right way of approaching these issues or that technocrats are better placed than anyone else to make the right choices.

The particular patterns of public decision-making that emerge within formal constitutional parameters not only affect the sustainability of democracy, they also help to define the quality of democracy. In a recent study of the democratic transition in five Andean countries (Bolivia, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela), Francisco Gutierrez Sarin shows how early optimism for democracy gave way to a general weakening of democratic institutions. He argues that although none of them has slipped into open dictatorships, all these countries have seen a gradual installation of a strong presidential executive, “over which controls have been weakened; weaker parliamentary organisations; and traditional parties supplanted by anti-political outsiders.” If citizens believe that newly democratic institutions are being ignored or downgraded in the making of decisions in their lives, they may seek solutions outside of these institutions. This may in the end have negative consequences for political stability and economic development on the whole.

South Africa’s first democratic government, in 1994, used as its policy platform, the welfarist Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), which in the new democratic spirit of the times, asserted: “Democracy requires that all South Africans have access to power and the right to exercise that power”. The RDP was drawn up after ANC leaders barnstormed the whole country for more than a year, asking ordinary citizens about their concerns, and cobbling them into a policy document. However, since then, ordinary South Africans are increasingly feeling anxious – shown in repeated national surveys - about not being part of the new democratic deal. Indeed, the challenge has been how to make the new South African democracy a participatory one – or how to secure the active involvement of citizens in the policymaking processes on all levels.

For some, things already went downhill when Nelson Mandela’s government adopted the market friendly Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR) in 1996, to replace the RDP. As the then former deputy president Thabo Mbeki argued, the RDP did not inspire market confidence, as it was seen by investors as too welfarist. The GEAR policy was drawn up largely by a carefully selected group of economists and under great secrecy, before released, as ‘non-negotiable’, to quote Mandela. The GEAR policy was not debated in parliament or any other representative institution. Some ANC leaders and MPs who questioned the policy were often portrayed as ‘loony’. The end result is that GEAR does not have the same kind of grassroots ‘ownership’ – Mbeki called it ‘Biblical’ - the RDP had. Gear is now seen, rightly or wrongly as ‘against’ the ‘people’.

Moreover, the alarm bells are sounding at that fact that major policies in the new democracy are increasingly drawn up by the select few – similar to the way in which GEAR was drawn up. It is now a widespread perception that parliament is simply ignored on economic policy, that it has become a rubberstamp. Policies are decided elsewhere. Public and civil society participation in policy-making has been greatly reduced. Not surprisingly, such policies have been fiercely resisted at grassroots level, making their implementation at times very costly.

Since 1999, the restructured Presidency has increasingly taken on a more dominant role in the policy-making process in post-apartheid SA. The style of the President, seen by his strategists and himself as that of a CEO and Chairperson running SA Limited, has significant implications for policy-making, and for opening up policy-making to the democratic process. As CEO, Mbeki tightly controls policy-making processes in Cabinet, government and the ANC.

At the same time new centres of influence on policy-making – outside the elected representative system – have been established. Key among them is the presidential working groups: big business, black business, trade union, agriculture, international investment advisory council, and international IT council. Significant policies had their genesis or were fleshed out in these presidential groups and were presented to Parliament and the public as fait accompli.

In democracies, parliaments are expected to provide platforms for articulating citizens’ choices, scrutinising government policies, and providing legitimacy for policy outcomes – even if they prove to be wrong. Instead, South Africa’s Parliament has been increasingly sidelined from policymaking. Indeed, it is increasingly labelled a ‘lame-duck’ and a ‘rubber-stamp’.

The following are some examples of key policies insulated from democratic decision-making:

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) – the Mbeki-led attempt to lead a renewal in Africa’s social, economic and development fortunes – was not discussed widely. It has run into a wall of opposition from civil society groups within South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.

Neither was trade policy broadly canvassed. For example, Parliament was never involved in the decision to lift South Africa’s tariff barriers faster than even the Word Trade Organisation (WTO) demands – causing widespread economic pain.

The agriculture presidential working group put together a strategic plan that aimed to contribute to growth and make a dent in rural poverty within the next three years. The agriculture department, AgriSA and the National African Farmers' Union, drafted the plan and set up a permanent joint committee to implement it as the new strategic plan for SA farming. The fact that only “an elite few” had been consulting in drawing up the agriculture and land reform blueprints sparked widespread condemnation.

The Growth and Development Summit, scheduled in mid 2003, and one of the democracy’s major economic events, was agreed upon at a joint sitting of the big business, black business, trade union and agriculture working groups. The summit aimed to cobble together a consensus between business, labour and government, similar to the post-second war Western European pacts in the Netherlands or Ireland, which agreed on a common development path for the country. However, Parliament was not consulted and many groups in society – including opposition parties – felt excluded.

In 1998, the Presidential Jobs Summit, aimed at cutting high unemployment levels, faltered on the back of complaints that only a few people were included in drawing up the policies.

Another significant new policy making forum – outside democratic institutions – was the Millennium Labour Council (MLC), formed in 2000 by organised business and labour to reach agreements over contentious labour policies. In 2001, trade unions and organised business leaders agreed on key labour legislation in secluded negotiations at the MLC.

Government’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), aimed at bringing blacks into the commanding heights of the economy, and was never broadly canvassed. As a result, it was opposed from potential beneficiaries, who accused it of being elitist and only benefiting the well-connected few, while in white circles it was viewed with deep suspicion. However, BEE has been a case where sufficient public disquiet forced government to rethink and take it to the drawing board to refine policies to make it much broader. For example, the draft Minerals and Energy Bill, shrouded in secrecy, was leaked in 2002, slashing the share prices of many local mining companies. The whole BEE policy process was rethought, although not sufficiently and broadly enough. Trade union groups have started to galvanise opposition to BEE, with some groups even trying to block BEE transactions in court.

But policy choices cannot be settled merely by the pronouncements of those in authority. The official argument, as argued by Essop Pahad, minister in the presidency, and a close associate of Mbeki, in defence of this is often that government must govern, and cannot waste time debating policy choices. The implication is that consulting with the masses will only bog down policies and delay their implementation.

The tendency to centralise policy-making in the Presidency has been justified by arguing that more centralised policy co-ordination and monitoring would smooth implementation of policies. The oft-repeated saying is: government must govern, whilst the dominant argument in government circles since 1999 has been based on ‘delivery’. The implication is – wrongly - that consultation would slow down the policy-making and implementation process. Furthermore, it assumes, to stretch Sen’s argument a bit, and to take a leaf from Steven Friedman, that citizens place a ‘purely instrumental value’ on democracy, and that ‘delivering’ goods and services – at the expense of consultation and participation, can buy the loyalty of citizens.

Indeed, the implication is, to paraphrase both Sen and Friedman, that if some democratic considerations, for example in our case the right to influence policy or participation in policymaking, is compromised in the process, citizens satisfaction with their new-found material gains, will compensate adequately for their loss in the democratic participation stakes. Putting it differently, as Sen argues, poor people are interested, in bread, not democracy – of which there is little empirical evidence defending this fallacious thesis. Taking the argument further, Sen describes how policymakers in such cases often places the emphasis on ‘cultural values´, whereby, ‘Asian values’, or in our case `African values´ to falsely claim that these communities are more sceptical towards democracy, because they prefer ´discipline´, not political freedom.

The Turkish political economist, Dani Rodrik, in his groundbreaking research across developing countries, shows to the contrary, democracy is not only compatible with growth and poverty reduction, but may be crucial to both. Thus, the challenge lies not in ‘delivering’, at the expense of democratic participation, but in broadening democratic participation. Indeed, in South Africa, inclusive policy-making might be, as Rodrik argues, ‘a pre-condition of economic growth and sustainable development’, rather than an obstacle to delivery.

Disgruntled citizens, feeling alienated from the policy-making processes, are increasingly using illegal methods to make their voices heard. There has been a rise in civil society protests in South Africa. Many, feeling excluded from the insulated policy-making processes, have taken their grievances to the streets. Post-apartheid’s most visible social movement, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), has embarked on civil disobedience to pressure government to make AIDS drugs available to sufferers. Other new mushrooming social movements prefer to use illegal methods to fight the debilitating effects – retrenchments, increase service tariffs - of privatisation policies. For example, members of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), illegally switch on the electricity of township dwellers that have seen their power cut because of non-payment, following rates increases set out in GEAR. President Mbeki and many government leaders have been caught off-guard by the seemingly random and spontaneous protests by local communities frustrated by the snail’s pace of service delivery and often-indifferent local representatives, sweeping the country.


Public Dialogue

Deliberative democracy strengthens citizen’s voices in governance by including people of all races, classes, ages and geographies in deliberations that directly affect public decisions. Thus, citizens influence, and can see the result of their influence, on the policy and resource decisions that impact their daily lives and future. Another way of looking at it is that deliberative democracy requires ´political decisions based on some trade-off of consensus decision-making and representative democracy that involves an extensive effort to include marginalised, isolated, ignored groups in decisions, and to extensively document dissent, grounds for dissent, and future predictions of consequences of actions. It focuses as much on the process as the results´.

Habermas puts deliberation at the centre of the decision-making process. It seems that the importance of open dialogue is often underestimated in South Africa. Democracy requires deliberation for a number of reasons. First, discussing public issues helps citizens to form opinions where they might otherwise have none. Second, it offers democratic leaders better insight into public concerns than elections do. For example, did voters choose representatives because of their views on redistribution, or because of the weaknesses or irrelevance of the opposition? Leaders must listen to public discourse. Thirdly, public discourse provides a way of getting governments or people to justify their views or positions, so that the views can be sorted between the better ones and the worst.

Conducting a dialogue within society is not easy. Moreover, the larger and more diverse a society, the more difficult it becomes to hold such public dialogue. The corollary is that the larger and more diverse the society, the great the need for deliberative dialogue. But is crucial in working out the kind of values that is important in our new democracy. For one, public dialogue is important in helping society identifying its priorities and needs. Even the conceptualisation or the comprehension of what is a need may require extensive public dialogue and debate. Often, sectors that are excluded cannot take part in the public dialogue, since those who are marginal or voiceless, are also often misrepresented. This can happen either because they are invisible, because they do not have the power, or access to power, or because their images are distorted. They could also assume a position of silence, as a way of being resilient and protecting themselves from those more powerful.

South Africa’s public policy dialogue has increasingly descended into a ritual of labelling and name-calling. Moreover, crucial economic, social and development debates are often conducted via the extremes of ‘us’ against ‘them’. From the government’s perspective, if you are critical of aspects of government’s economic reforms, you are likely to be labelled ‘ultra-left’, ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘rightwing’. But criticisms are one form of participation, and a very visible one at that. Demonstrations are a form of criticism. Indeed, criticisms have positive elements in that it can lead to a review of unpopular decisions and it can influence the tenor of future decisions.

The responses of governments to the suffering of people often depend on the pressure that is put on them. The great Indian economist Amartya Sen makes the example of how criticisms, open public debates and dissent play such a crucial role in preventing economic disasters such as famines or social unrest. So, freedom of expression and discussion, are not only crucial in pinpointing economic and social needs, but are also important in deciding on what needs should have priority; and what demands should attention be paid to. Obviously, criticisms can also have its downside, when simply the loudest voice or the richest voices receive political attention.

In South Africa, because of the high levels of inequality and unequal access to key public forums, important opinions are easily shutout because those holding such opinions are too poor to influence party leaders or access institutions such as the media or Parliament. We have turned into a one policy state. In the end, the ‘marginalised’ feel it appealing to use extreme actions to get their voices heard, risking even further alienation from the centres of power. All too frequent the bottled-up frustration of those ignored, soon reaches fed-up levels, and then spills into violence. Ignored, and no way of influencing policies, the impoverished’ bottled-up frustration spill into violence.


The role of the Media

Though the press can do great harm, it can also enhance public justice and promote economic and social development. At the most basic level, the press, and free speech in general, play a crucial role in communication between citizens themselves and their government. It also has a protective function in a democracy, by giving voice to the vulnerable, disadvantaged and neglected issues. The rulers of a nation are often insulated, in their own lives, from the misery of the common people. They can live through a national calamity without sharing the fate of the victims. If, however, they face public criticism in the media, they might have a strong incentive to take action or deal with the problems of the poor and vulnerable. The press also has a role in disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny – not only specialised reporting, but just informing people on what’s happening. Moreover, informed and unregimented formation of values requires openness of communication and argument. New, priorities and values emerge through public discourse, and it spread through public discussion. Are the South African media up to the task? With exceptions, we are witnessing the implosion of journalism. This is largely the result of the concentration of the production and dissemination of both news and entertainment, often amalgamated into infotainment and the tab iodisation of the media. Public fears remain that the government exercise undue influence on the public broadcasting system.

Freedom of expression and independent journalism are among the pillars of a democracy. The scope for freedom of speech determines the public area for democratic exchange. “This public information space ... is still the vitally important as it provides the life force for, but may also set the limits of, democracy” . Freedom of expression should not only encompass a negative freedom from censorship and coercion, but also involve positive measures to promote equal and effective participation in decision-making through transparency and open government. It is in the nature of hierarchical power structures to become opaque and foster internal secrecy while seeking transparency from others in order to exercise maximum control .


The Importance of Dissent

Pity the ordinary or to use that wonderful euphemism – the grassroots – and middle ranking ANC member still willing to risk publicly criticizing the president, government or the party. The ugly and patently misguided unleashing by the ANC leadership of the full wrath of the ANC’s arsenal on such political ‘heavies’ - the moral icon archbishop Desmond Tutu and Coast leaders Zwelinzima Vavi and Willie Madisha – leaders with huge mass support compared to the ordinary grassroots supporter or sympathiser, for really mildly criticizing government has done the job. Alarm bells should be ringing, if critics in a free society are portrayed as disloyal, unpatriotic or enemies of the state.

Obviously, in political organisations bonded by affection, friendship and solidarity, such as the ANC, members are often unwilling to be critical for fear that this will prove disruptive and violate the organisation’s internal norms. Dissenters might well cause tension but, importantly, they are also likely to improve the performance of the ANC and its policies. For many in the ANC, however, the rewards for conformity involve salaries, benefits and advancement. Indeed, to dissent means not only material hardship and marginalisation, but loss of valued friendships and a warm supportive network. Moreover, public criticisms are portrayed as giving ammunition to ´reactionaries´, ´forces opposed to transformation´, disgruntled expatriate whites, or racists wanting to see a black government fail. Heeding internal criticism of government weakness is more constructive than wasting time and energy on such worries.

Differently, others argue that the government has not yet had enough time to prove itself.

Not surprisingly many bite their tongue rather than risk all this. But self-censorship is a serious social and political malaise and the cost to society is immense. Freedom of speech is a meaningless right if group pressure demands conformity, but the real victims are those who are deprived of information and views they need. Already large numbers of black and progressive white intellectuals in South Africa have, to all intents, withdrawn from public debate, and society is the poorer for their silence. The greater danger is a decline in intellectual self-reflection, both within the state and among its critics, about what is actually happening on the ground. This happened in India and ultimately led to the backsliding of another once great liberation movement, the Indian Congress Party.

Institutions have a better chance of success if their leaders are subject to scrutiny and if their actions are continually monitored and reviewed. Moreover, leaders who explain themselves and can be questioned instead of merely issuing dictates and introducing policies that are beyond criticism are far more likely to be followed than those who discourage dissent and crush debate are. Irving Janis developed the notion of ‘groupthink’ in the early 1970s and 1980s to describe the kind of decision-making that predictably leads to social blunders and policy failures. So, for example, when US president Lyndon Johnson and his advisors escalated the Vietnam War, it was because the leading group stifled dissent and tried to enforce consensus. A different case has been the recent sexual harassment scandals in the Catholic church. Often, victims and witnesses refrained from bringing deeply traumatic incidents into the open – at great personal costs, because they feared bring the institution of the church and religion into disrepute.

Organisations susceptible to groupthink pressure their members into uniformity and self-censorship, thus creating the illusion of unanimity. This is fostered by direct pressure on any members who argue against the group’s stereotypes, illusions and commitments. Increasingly, there is an eroding of internal democracy within the ANC. The case in opposition parties, for example the Democratic Alliance and Inkatha Freedom Party, are most probably even worse. But a case can be made for political parties´ internal workings to reflect the democratic ethos and constitution, since they are subsidized through the public purse. Obviously, party leadership must have some powers of intervention, for example if it wants to push women leadership to the top or bring some geographic representivity to the leadership.

Worryingly many ANC leaders even mimic the smallest mannerism of Mbeki. We see mini-me's, often verging on cult worship of the leader. South Africa must have a political culture that encourages disagreement and does not penalise those who depart from the prevailing orthodoxy.

Moreover, in a culture of silence and fear, there is the very real risk that leaders will not receive the information they require to make good decisions. When members of the ANC feel free to differ from the president or the party leaders, society is likely to hear a wider range of opinions, and better decisions may result. Policy errors are most likely to occur when people are rewarded for conformity.

A system of free expression and dissent protects against false confidence and the inevitable mistakes of planners in both the private and public arenas. If there had been more openness and discussion for example on government’s market friendly economic policy, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (Gear), opposition – and the it’s cost to society might have been lower. Indeed, the economic and political cost to society of muzzling dissenting voices is huge. A lack of public criticisms, dialogue and dissent are deadly, it costs lives. If more senior ANC leaders had questioned Mbeki and the government’s controversial Aids policies and costly theorising around the pandemic, anti-retroviral drugs might have been made available at state hospitals much earlier, thousands of lives might have been saved and the devastating social consequences of the AIDS pandemic might have been ameliorated.

Gumede is Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Public & Development Management, Witwatersrand University. He is the author of the bestselling Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, Zebra Press His book Democracy, Transformation and the Media is published later this year.