Monday, July 23, 2007

On Robert McBride and democracy

My comment on Robert McBride last week elicited quite harsh comment from some readers. I bemoaned the fact that McBride was not being held accountable as one would expect in a democracy but some readers took issue with this on the ground that we do not live in a democracy.

That, of course, was before the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) announced that McBride is to be charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, defeating the ends of justice and fraud. Nevertheless, the comments of the readers was perplexing because it seems rather obvious to me that we live in a relatively healthy democracy.

Really, the Economist (not a left wing or PC magazine by any strech of the imagination) placed South Africa 29th out of 165 countries on its democracy Index in 2007. (Zimbabwe was placed 147th on the list, two places ahead of Angola.)

There are perhaps three interrelated reasons why some people are so dissatisfied with what is happening in South Africa that they can claim we do not live in a democracy.

First, because South Africa never was a democracy in the past, some people fundamentally misunderstand the nature of democracy. In the past, most white people more or less saw their views reflected in government policy and actions, but they now often find themselves in violent disagreement with government policies. Because the government does not reflect their views, they claim the government is evil and undemocratic, instead of merely arguing that the government is unwise or wrong like a true democrat would have.

Second, some people have a “look-at-Zimbabwe” attitude and see signs everywhere of the imminent demise of South Africa into banana republic status. What in another country would be seen as a sign of the stupidity of a politician or political party, is often seen in South Africa as the end of democracy if not the world. When Tony Blair stupidly decided to help the USA to invade Iraq, few people in Britain saw this as the end of democracy in the UK. Conversely, in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki’s handling of Zimbabwe is seen as proof that our government is anti-democratic and Stalinist.

Lastly, people are just plain uninformed, perhaps because they believe the things that bigots whine on about on talk radio. Thus a reader rails against the Constitutional Court for endorsing legislation that only allows individuals to vote if they are present in South Africa. Only problem is, the Constitutional Court has never ruled on this issue.

Thing is, the wonder of a democracy is that we do not always (or ever!) have to agree with the government or with the judgments of the Constitutional Court and we can say so loudly and clearly. This is exactly what democracy is about. Even if one is a permanent minority (like gay men and lesbians in SA or black people in the USA) and always feel the government is not representing one’s interest, it does not mean that one is not living in a democracy.

Of course, democratic governments should adhere to some basic principles and we the people should make sure they do (because give even the most democratic government half a chance and they will cut corners). This is why I criticized McBride for failure to be held accountable.

But today I am very happy that the NPA has done the right thing and has affirmed the respect that everyone is equal before the law by charging McBride. I am eagerly looking forward to the cross examination because Mr. McBride looks like a guy who is going to make Schabir Shaik look believable and coherent under cross examination.

Such are the joys of living in a democracy under the Rule of Law.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this one. It is about time someone describes what "democracy" is.

Anonymous said...

OK Prof - fair point, and point taken about the Constitutional Court not ruling on voters abroad not being allowed to vote. I was under the impression that they had ruled on it when challenged by opposition parties...! Clearly the law was merely amended then...!
The point remains however, that the current dispensation that you support so loudly, just happened to disenfranchise so many hundreds of thousands of voters...!
Is that a sign of a country bent on entenching contitutional rights for all of its citizens for the advancement of the nation as a whole...or do you think that the current government merely chose to do so because the vast majority of those abroad are disgruntled (mostly white) citizens whom they have a failry good idea will not ote for the current government...???
I appreciate your comment, since if I am correct, it then means that this is an issue that can then still be challenged in the Constitutioanl Court ahead of the next elections...!
By the way excuse me for "railing against the current government in an ill-informed manner..." but maybe you just missed the point entirely...namely, that when someone has had their most important contitutional right STOLEN from do you think they should feel about that...delerious with joy...especially when they were one of the same generation that were the primary catalyst for change...the first time they voted...?
Prof. whether I am right or wrong on my logic, the effect was essentially the vote was taken from me...! Not even a good attorney can argue with me on that!
I'm glad you think that the current govenment are just the shining examples of consitutional paragons and virtue when it comes to protecting your and my constitutional rights...!

Anonymous said...

By the way Prof., since you believe so passionately in the outlook of the constitutional future of our country, and if you believe in right to vote and the independence of the Constitutional Court, why don't you do the right thing, and together with the rest of your brighter acadcemic collagues do something useful and for what you will really be remembered for and launch a case in the Consitituional Court well ahead of the next now...and apply to rectify the matter...!
After's the right thing to do...and will surely leave you with a more permanent place in the anals of legal history than just writing another article for a legal journals to be picked apart by your academic detractors.

Anonymous said...

That ranking is complete rubbish. Ask yourself this: Does the government in Italy (34) have to watch what it does for fear of losing the next election? Yes. Can the electorate vote out of office a ruling party it doesn't like? Yes. Will there be a smooth transition to a new government if it decides to do so? Yes. The answers for South Africa (29) are: No. We don't know. And probably not. This is the test Zimbabwe failed. They would have succeeded if our democratically elected ANC government had sided with them rather than Mugabe.

Africannabis said...

Tee hee and SA rubbber stamped Zimbabwe's elections as democratic and free and fair...

bwa har har har - ROFL

And the elections in the DRC...

Shows you what SA know!

Bet the economist had nothing to say about that!

1. A competitive, multiparty political system.
2. Universal adult suffrage.
3. Regularly contested elections conducted on the basis
of secret ballots, reasonable ballot security and the
absence of massive voter fraud.
4. Signifi cant public access of major political parties to
the electorate through the media and through generally
open campaigning.

Oh ja - Check to all of those - In Zimbabwe and the DRC - Ja ja democratic. If we can rubber stamp the two on the bottom then we must be ontop.... jaja nee

Africannabis said...

I'm still and hanging onto the story - juicy as ever - Did Bobby blackout in the vehicle with the bottle 'o jack or was it the diabetic hyp-ing out on a sugar-rush in the bushes....?

These are the days of our Bobby-ways.

Ok but now about engaging the democracy........................


Thanx for the opening Constovom!

Tell me what more does one have to do?

It would be rough say for ANY average South African to access his/her democracy. Engage say at a housing level - or a policy level...

When those previously advantaged take advantage of their advantages (such as being able to read write complete and post application forms) one would guess this to be a starting point at accessing one's democracy...?

Demonstrating peacefully would be another...?

Petitioning would be another....?

And when all this fails...???

and what if you can't write your name?

Yes - it's democratic because we can have a different opinion. But effect it?

Outside of the constitutional court which in real terms is a very COSTLY process...

How do we (south Africans) engage with this democracy?

Farren Hayden said...

Fear, paranoia and ignorance seem to fuel so many comments here.

Like the author of this blog, I see a deficit of both logic and knowledge in the responses from people who don't think we live in a democracy.

SA's foreign policy on less democratic countries implies nothing about its own democratic mechanisms. Every mature democracy in the world today has or is chummy with less democratic nations.

The disenfranchisement of South Africans abroad is waved triumphantly as unequivocal proof of the absence of democracy. The fact that the massive majority of SA citizens are, in fact able to vote is disregarded.

News Flash: Although disenfranchising citizens is never a good thing, every single mature democracy has mechanisms by which voters are disenfranchised. In the US, felons are prohibited from voting in many states. Gerrymandering, so beloved of the Nats, is common in many countries and amounts to suppression of the popular vote. Infrastructural means, like widely spaced polling stations, are used in some places to disenfranchise undesirable voters.

All of these mechanisms are present in many of the world's mature democracies, but in rational dialog they are seen as faults in democracy, not evidence of the complete absence of democracy. To make this leap one must have a particularly bitter, partisan mindset, entirely closed to any nuance or subtlety.

ConstoVom appraisal of the chances of the ANC being voted out if they don't deliver what the public desires or whether the ANC would willingly hand over power to another party, if the electorate required them to, are entirely subjective statements of that poster's own belief, yet they are presented as if they facts which demonstrate SAs democracy to be a sham.

As Pierre has said in various ways. Democracy is not defined by your personal paranoia or beliefs about the future. It is defined by a well established set of criteria that SA s political process comfortably conforms to.

Anonymous said...

Dear Farren,

Your comments are appreciated. However, your young and eager mind misses the point entirely.

You seem to have your head so far up the ANC's posterior, that if someone shot them in the stomach, they would likely get you in the forehead...!!!

You've actually bought the propoganda, as apposed to applying your mind to the problem at hand in an objective manner...!

Let me get this straight...are you telling that ACCORDING TO OUR Bill of is acceptable practice to disenfranchise our citizens???

Interesting concept...! No wonder this country is not as far down the democratic path as it should be...because as a citizen you do not apply high enough standards when applying constitutional principles/interpretation!

You cite examples of other democracies that disallow the vote to those who have materially, and KNOWINGLY, NEGATIVELY affected the rights of innocent citizens, and equate that to removing the right to vote from citizens who have committed absolutely no crime of any import apart from leaving their country to gain experience abroad temporarily.

The reverse of your argument is that some more "backward", less economically empowered and less democratic countries allow their citizens to cast votes when outside the country, or God forbid, even by postal vote. (I met a Congolese refugee in South Africa recently...guess what...he proudly told me he cast his vote in the latest South Africa) Wow...what's that all about...? Some of them aren't even governed by Bills of Rights...! Mind-blowing stuff isn't it...!!!

You see Farren , some debates are worth marriage for homosexuals being recognised, or what constitutes the required amount of safety/protection for a countries citizens, or whether prisoners are allowed to vote.
You see these affect the sensibilities of society in general...since some matters may be so repugnant/repulsive TO THE GREATER SOCIETY that those rights are entitled to be, and should be debated i.e. I refer here in particular to the right of prisoners to vote.

HOWEVER, the basic right to vote for citizens, wherever they may be, is not a subject for debate. Read your Constitutional Law textbooks, and you'll see that the right to vote for ALL adult citizens is a right as inalienable as the right to Life. It is the cornerstone to any modern democracy and most importantly IT IS NOT SUBJECT TO DEGREES OF CORRECTNESS!

As a final point here, maybe you should take a long hard look at being more critical of the democracy you leave in, and less accepting of the government's constitutional transgressions when they appear...that is your duty...!

You currently appear to be so accepting of the ruling party's actions that you are not capable of interrogating their real commitment to democracy through their actions.

May I remind you that INTENTION is one of the most important principles to interrogate when analysing a problem.

So...what do you think the current govenment's INTENTION was by refusing the right to vote to those offshore...? Apply your mind to that problem, and then tell me whether or not you agree with their actions of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of citizens...!!!

Wake's gullible, half-educated people like you who are the real danger to democracy... You THE UNCARING, gullible and ignorant CITIZEN...are the real problem!!!

Anonymous said...

Good points Africannabis...!

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof,

What proof do you have for your conclusions about the three stereotypes in your article, i.e. people who misunderstand the nature of democracy, people with a ‘look-at-Zimbabwe’ attitude and the uninformed whiners? Or is it unsubstantiated speculation again, in which case the article is worthless.

Having seen some extremely creative manipulation of the facts, I need some clarity on your comments:

If you say South Africa is a democracy, what type of democracy are you talking about? Is it a Direct democracy a Representative democracy, a Liberal democracy, a Consensus democracy, a Tribal democracy, etc., etc…..

You will probably argue that we are a liberal democracy, let me give you a definition:
“Liberal democracy is a representative democracy along with the protection of minorities, the rule of law, separation of powers, and protection of liberties (thus the name liberal) of speech, assembly, religion, and property.”

Firstly: As I have already proven to you there is no protection for the white minorities in South Africa. In response to your question referring to my comment about anti-white racists legislation I listed for you a number of acts which discriminates against whites and exclude whites from having sustainable jobs and owning businesses in this country. Now white business owners who have slaved and sacrificed all their lives for their own businesses are forced, through BEE, to give it away to some incompetent, undeserving person, thereby relinquishing his and his family’s livelihood. This is democratic?

Secondly: The property of whites is not protected and is being stolen from them through laws such as the Land Restitution Act and the PIE Act. These laws are also leading to the slaughtering of farmers as murderous criminals believe the white man’s land is theirs for the taking, once he is gone.

I could go on but I think I have already proven that democracy in SA is a sham.

Unfortunately today, it is also whites against whites. The gov must be laughing. People who should know better, for some obscure agenda see fit to sell out their own race. The Constitution? I have already proven what a sham that is. Interestingly you stopped responding to my posts as soon as you realized that you had no answers. Or do you? If you have, then let’s hear it.

I would also be interested to hear what your comments will be when our great leaders lead us into communism.


A collection of tired clich├ęs and rah, rah, propaganda phraseology do not constitute an argument. Give it up.


Anonymous said...

I agree that McBride's prosecution is indicative of true democracy (underlied by the Rechtstaat - idea)in motion. If there is prima facie evidence to charge a person in a criminal court, he/she should be so charged, regardless of his past (Vlok & Van der Merwe), present (McBride) or future (Zuma?) position. In fact, McBride got his hands so full of goo when he blew up Magoos, that he cannot (ever) be a suitable person to head a law and order outfit - perhaps in another field, but not law and order. The fact that he has received amnesty does not change this, he remains an outlaw in character for killng and maiming inocent people. This character now appears to be filtering through to his management style running an outfit where 'law and order' is to be promoted, but, sadly, is being seriously neglected because so many Metro Police Offcials commit crimes like corruption, and even perjury at the instigance of their 'boss'. And, when they recant and repent, they get threatened by their boss (with threats of violence - remember Magoos involved serious violence) to an extent that they have to interdict him from doing so. According to some press reports he even reacted violently towards 'real' police who did not want to arrest one of these men, and he, who is so subjectively and thoroughly involved with the man in a law-suit, shows up to do the arresting (and harrassing) bussiness himself! The next thing that should happen is that he should be suspended without pay pending the outcome of his trial. Then it would be true democracy in motion.