Democracy and dictatorship

SOURCE: Social Dynamics
OUTPUT TYPE: Journal Article
DEPARTMENT: Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES)
Print: HSRC Library: shelf number 5995
HANDLE: 20.500.11910/4677

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This article discusses recent developments in South African politics from the perspective of a paradox, even a contradiction, inherent in the democratic project itself. Democracy requires that the people, the source of democratic authority, are considered purely as an ideal. This is precisely what is at work in the notion of 'human rights', for example. The specific qualities and character of individuals, their culture, norms, values and history, are stripped away to venerate them simply in their essential humanness, that is as a pure abstraction. The moment, however, democracy is located in a specific state, the people are transformed from abstract and essential humanity into a concrete one, unified on the basis of some or other shared characteristic or norm (commitment to freedom, investment in a particular culture and notion of the good and so on). Yet, if 'people' is really a normative term, rather than a descriptive one, then 'democracy's people' refers only to those persons who fit this norm. What this authorises is the privileging of certain classes of people, in democracy's name, within the political system. I will argue that authoritarian tendencies in South Africa's political culture are effects of the contradiction above. I will consider this tendency to dictatorship, not simply in 'totalitarian' constitutions or political dispensations, but in the heart of the most classically democratic ones as well. In this regard, I will review the American Constitution to discuss some of its 'undemocratic' features. In the last part of this article, I will consider the effects on South Africa's democracy of trying to incarnate the people of South Africa as an 'African' people. What is at stake here is the concretisation of the people of democracy as a particular people. We will see that this has unleashed an identitarian politics about the content of this African identity. More importantly, it has authorised those who claim to be authentic Africans to assume privileged positions in politics and in the state.