ANOTHER VIEW: Warning signs in the health of a democracy
Andries Tatane's death has telling lessons for SA
THIS past week marked a year since the killing of Ficksburg service delivery protester Andries Tatane. The police officers accused of carrying out the killing also went on trial this week, opening the possibility for justice to be served.
Tatane's death and its aftermath have some telling lessons for all of us. One of the most important is that various institutions were robust enough to ensure that the incident did not go unnoticed. Those alleged to be responsible could be brought before the court to account for their actions.
This would not have happened if the media had not been at the scene and reported it so widely, and police oversight structures in the form of the Independent Complaints Directorate had not exercised their responsibilities.
We are also reasonably confident that the prosecuting advocate has prepared well for the case, and the presiding judge will carry out his responsibilities in a manner that serves justice. Even though Andries Tatane can never come back, there might be a resolution that ensures his killers take full responsibility for their actions.
That is the beauty of a constitutional democracy.
But what happens when these institutions and others, for various reasons, can no longer carry out their responsibilities? What can citizens expect when those who are supposed to be their guardians against the violent might of the state are either paralysed or do not care?
In his 1932 magnum opus, Education and the Social Order, Bertrand Russell described such an environment: "A society will be produced in which all the important posts will be won by those whose stupidity enables them to please the herd. Such a society will have corrupt politicians, ignorant schoolmasters, policemen who cannot catch criminals and judges who condemn innocent men. Such a society, even if it inhabits a country full of natural wealth, will in the end grow poor from inability to choose able men for important posts."
In any place where lawmakers legislate and take executive decisions to serve themselves and their interests instead of those of citizens, the kind of environment Russell describes will materialise.
This breaks the trust citizens have placed in their elected representatives to conduct the affairs of state in their interest.
This in turn creates a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling elites. In order to protect their continued incumbency, they start compromising democratic institutions within and outside the state. As Russell points out, they appoint unethical or unable men to posts that require ability and integrity.
Only the deterioration of the material conditions of citizens alerts them to the conversion of these social arbiters into monsters that regularly violate their rights. Citizens respond with objective violence through demonstrations and civic disobedience. This invites police action, sometimes heavy handed.
Obliged to implement laws otherwise designed for legitimate incumbency, the courts become unwitting instruments of violence against the legitimate grievances of citizens. If it so happens that the courts have been subordinated to the wishes of political power, this accelerates the implosion of their institutional credibility. Far from being just referees in social conflicts, they become a public enemy .
So how can democracies ensure not only their longevity but the maintenance of social order in the long term notwithstanding the length of incumbency?
The answer lies in the protection of democratic institutions. In addition, meritocracy is absolutely necessary. This involves the selection of men and women of remarkable character and professional standing to run those institutions.
Unfortunately, this common advice is usually disregarded to varying degrees by democracies the world over. The extent of the political disdain of these two simple rules is usually reflected in two ways. The first is the extent to which civil society groups, middle- and upper-class citizens resort to institutions of complaint or the courts to regulate the power of the state. The second is the frequency of public objective violence by a disaffected underclass.
A cursory assessment of these two barometers determines whether a democracy is growing or sliding into anarchy. As we reflect on the meaning of Tatane's life and death, let us consider what would happen if our democratic institutions no longer served their purpose. At that point we might see more Andries Tatanes.