On the eve of the South African elections, we deserve better (and it exists)

May 26, 2024

By: Shawn Hattingh

Published in:
LINKS: International Journal of Socialist Renewal – https://links.org.au/eve-elections-south-africans-deserve-better-and-it-exists

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Over the past few years there has been a growing mistrust about the parliamentary system and other spheres of representative government in South Africa. It seems at every level of the state, it has become increasingly difficult to hold politicians accountable. Part of the reason is that in a representative democracy, as opposed to direct democracy, power in reality is given to politicians to make decisions and laws – while we vote for them, they actually decide what happens.

While we can make submissions to try and influence these decisions through the lobbying and advocacy that unions or community organisations do, these are actually just ignored by the politicians. The reality is that in the lobbying stakes, we cannot compete with better resourced corporations and the internal interests of the political parties the politicians are from. While some checks and balances may exist, in the case of South Africa, politicians have simply side stepped these and have largely become a law unto themselves. Indeed, many politicians have used their executive and legislative power, along with the wide-spread practices of outsourcing and tendering from the national to the local level, to develop patronage networks and to accumulate personal wealth, flaunting it with the latest BMW or Breitling.

Consequently, the list of parties in the upcoming elections – and the plethora of politicians that comprise them – may be aspirational, but they are anything but inspirational. Many are mired in corruption and scandals; others pedal some form of xenophobia; some embrace a form of racial, tribal, or ethnic nationalism; some aim to maintain the status quo based on vast class and racial inequalities; and most embrace capitalism. None offer a path to a more directly democratic, peaceful, and egalitarian future.

The consequences are growing cynicism: we are no longer even shocked when politicians do something outrageous and even illegal. It is the norm, and it is now what we expect, in fact we are often amazed when they are not corrupt. While many people are tired of this pigswill, without an alternative system however we will either trundle off to vote for the lesser evil, skip politics completely, or hope and pray for the best.

Yet, we actually do deserve better and in some places in the world, although still small, we can see glimpses of a better system built by people themselves without handing power to politicians (and that also aim to build communal economies as opposed to the capitalist one). These places hold lessons for South Africa and perhaps show that some form of working class based governance, based on direct democracy, can be built. One place where a new directly democratic system is being built today is in a town called Cheran in Mexico, with a population of 17 000, and it has a story that can inspire us all.

In the early 2000s, the town of Cheran had been badly impacted by the neoliberal policies that had been implemented since the late 1980s. During this period, the state had ended the subsidies it provided to small-scale farmers and consequently many of Cheran’s residents had become unemployed.

At the same time, gangs involved in the narcotics trade became entrenched. Gradually, as the power of the gangs grew, they started diversifying their operations and became involved in the illegal logging of the forests surrounding the town. As part of this, the gangs bribed local politicians and the police to turn a blind eye and even funded election campaigns.

On the lands that had been deforested, gangs along with corporations began planting avocado plantations. Avocado farming is highly water intensive and caused massive ecological damage, including diminishing the town’s water resources. By 2011, gangs were threatening to seize the town’s last water resource to divert towards avocado farming.

Around 2005 the community, led by women, began organising to try and resist the illegal clearing of forests. Meetings were held and at times members of the gangs were confronted, which often led to community members being assassinated. When the last communal water source was threatened, however, the entire town rose in revolt. This culminated with the events of the 15th April 2011.

On that day, women organised for the local church bells to ring as a signal to the community to come out and confront the gangs. They managed to subdue gang members that had violently reacted to being confronted. Eventually the community overcame the gangs, subdued their members, and seized their weapon stockpiles.

The mayor and the local politicians, rather than supporting the community, ordered the police to intervene to ensure the captured gang members were released. The community prevented the police from doing this and, in fact, drove the police and politicians out of the town. Barricades were then erected at all the entrances of the town and an armed community militia (using the weapons seized from the gangs) prevented the politicians, police and gangs from re-entering. The Mexican state, partly because of the relatively recent experience of the costs of oppressing an uprising in 2006 in another Mexican province (Oaxaca), hesitated to send in the military to crush the community of a small town.  

Once the local politicians and police had been expelled, assemblies were held on every street to decide how the town should be run. In these, people themselves decided that street level assemblies should run the town permanently and the local government would be dissolved. It was, thus, decided that the community would start permanently self-governing through the assembly system.

In this assembly system, anyone over the age of 12 can speak and vote in the street level assemblies. It is in these assemblies that people decide how services should be provided and maintained. The local schools and healthcare facilities are also linked to the assemblies. Each assembly member has to contribute labour time and resources – if they have – to ensure services are maintained and that education and healthcare are improved.

The assemblies are arranged into 4 districts. Each district elects mandated delegates – who are rotated every 3 years and are paid the average wage of a worker – to a coordinating council to ensure education, health and public amenities are run properly and collectively across the town. The mandates to co-ordinate come from the street assemblies and if they are not followed, delegates are recalled.

The people of Cheran also decided to ban all political parties – thus, in the assemblies, people represent the community and not parties. The reason for this, is people felt that all the political parties were corrupt, that they divided people and were only interested in power for themselves and the salaries or business opportunities that came from being in the state.

The people of Cheran, through the assemblies, established a militia directly under their control. The aim of the militia is to ensure communities are safe, as there is now no police force, and that the state and gangs cannot enter Cheran. Members of the militia are elected directly by the communities, and it was decided they would be paid the average wage that a worker earns in the town.

For 13 years now, the police, gangs, corporations and state have been unable to enter into the town. It was also decided that a legal battle would be waged for Cheran’s autonomy,  using clauses from the Constitution that were derived from the 1910 Mexican Revolution, and this was won in 2018. For 13 years, therefore, people have been self-governing through the assembly-based system. Through this, people themselves have improved their own lives, including reducing the murder and serious crime rate to almost zero. They have thus created their own form of direct democracy to run their lives, without politicians.

Along with building self-governance, there has also been an attempt to build a communal and ecological economy. A commune has been established to work on a reforestation programme and through this 50% of the forest around Cheran has been restored. Another commune supplies the saplings for reforestation. Likewise, there are communes involved in tapping and selling resin and a communal run sawmill and timbering project to cut down diseased trees. In this way, the people of Cheran are attempting to build a communal economy that is not in the hands of capitalists, politicians or gangs.

A critic would, however, point out that this is all good and well, but Cheran is only a small community and such experiments could never move beyond the local. Nonetheless, Cheran does not seek to be an isolated enclave and has links to movements nationally and internationally, including the Zapatistas and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Indeed, the AANES is similar in form, in terms of direct democracy based on street level structures called communes, to Cheran, but on a vastly bigger scale. In fact, the AANES involves over 2 million people living together practicing a form of direct democracy where the base has power to make decisions. Under this system, called Democratic Confederalism, the assemblies in neighbourhoods, towns, cities and provinces are federated together through mandates delegates (with AANES wide structures, such as the Syrian Democratic Council, combining this with elected representatives).

Consequently, there are experiments that demonstrate that a different politics, based on working class power and direct democracy, can be built and that states and politicians are in fact not needed if there is an organised working class power. Perhaps it is time for people living in South Africans to also start thinking about more democratic and accountable forms of governance to the one we have. Perhaps it is time to begin to imagine and build towards something better beyond the corrupt and/or self-aggrandising politicians standing in the upcoming elections.

In fact, in the 1980s struggle against apartheid, such a vision did exist. There were street committees in many working class townships that in some cases even drove the apartheid state out of these townships and self-governed locally through the street committees for a while: until brutal repression by the apartheid state and subsequent demobilisation by the African National Congress (whose leadership wanted state power) in the run up to the 1994 elections eroded them. At their height, however, there was even some vision that a self-governing system based on the street committees, and what was called People’s Power, could replace the apartheid state and capitalism.

Outside or beyond voting, we need to begin to strive for a new system of direct democracy, where people genuinely have power once again. It is something the working class needs if society is to be change for the better. But doing so will be harder than electing a few politicians every five years. To get a better system than the one we have, will require mobilisation and building organisations – but if Cheran is to go by, it is worth the effort.