Thursday, 20 October 2011

Does parliamentary democracy automatically represent the will of the people?

by Tebello Mohale
South African constitution’s preamble starts with the words; “we, the people of South Africa…” (Constitution of the republic of South Africa, 1996: 1). This preamble was adopted in 1996 under the newly democratic South Africa, which came into democracy in 1994, after decades of an oppressive minority rule. The statement, “we the people” implies that the constitution is the will of the people and was hence written by the ordinary South African. In fact, the very definition of democracy is ‘power of the people, for the people and by the people’. Democracy in South Africa, as in most democratic countries, is a representative democracy, as the preamble best puts it, the constitution is adopted through the “freely elected representatives” (Constitution of the republic of South Africa, 1996: 1). The aim of this essay is to deliberate whether representative democracy is indeed the will of the people.

The question here, is not whether in theory parliamentary politics does represent the people, because as we have seen and will further be illustrated, the theory of representative democracy, sounds good on paper and in political campaigns. What I aim to do is look at the practical implications of parliamentary democracy and whether it automatically represents the will of the people. The essay will define what the will of the people is and what representative democracy is. Using Ranciere, and other contemporary theories I will attempt to dispute the claim that parliamentary democracy does automatically represent the will of the people. In addition I will look at alternative ways in which people can express their will. 
Will of the people

Jean Jacques Rousseau theorizes the existence of a ‘general will’, which is the collective will of the people. This will is about ordinary people meeting, discussing and deliberating on issues affecting them. This assembly is both voluntary and autonomous; it also involves direct participation in implementing the ideas and the change which they have deliberated (Hallward, 2009: 17). The will of the people, is what the ordinary person thinks and wants, it is the expression of these ideas of the ordinary. For example movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is a collective movement or organization of the militant poor, it is an organization that embodies the very concept of the will of the people and the true definition of democracy. Abahlali baseMjondolo (here on refered to as AbM) originated when shack dwellers organized and participated in a road blockage, as a way of protesting against the sale of land that was promised to them, to local capitalists (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2006).

The state and the will of the people

The state has often justified power, by saying it is the will of the people, and they are acting in the best interest of the people. Although the notion of representing the will of the people has become the justification of modern state power, classical philosophy disputes the idea that people have a clear idea of what they want, and those who do have their own thoughts are seen as being unpopular and old fashioned. Theorists often use Freud’s theory of the “existence of the unconscious drive” to justify the idea that desire “moves” through people, implying that people don’t really have clarity of thought or real authority (Hallward, 2009: 18). In this way the execution of the will of the people is denied.

Parliamentary democracy

Looking at the South African Constitution or any democratic constitution, one sees a language that promotes this will of the people. The Constitution, which is set out to limit the power of the state and protect the individual rights of the people, talks of making the quality the livelihood of all citizens better and freeing each person’s potential. The constitution obligates the state to promote as well as protect and fulfill the rights of every citizen. This includes freedom, security, human dignity and equality. Within freedom amongst other things, is the freedom of expression and political rights (Constitution of the republic of South Africa, 1996: 1). The theory looks very appealing; it represents a utopian society where the ordinary person is personally and unconditionally protected by his representatives. It promises the poor majority that if they vote, their electorates will guarantee them a life of quality, an opportunity to realize their full potential; it promises freedom, security, dignity- an existence Foucault described as the good life (Anna Selmeczi, 2009). This good life is a life flourishing with relations, arts, culture, ect. However one has to ask if the reality is as good as the theory, if in reality parliamentary democracy does in fact automatically do all this and if so, does this then legitimise representative democracy?

Parliamentary democracy is when elected representatives represent the will of the people of the nation state. The nation state is seen as a representation of the people, hence if the state is said to be autonomous then the people are automatically assumed to be autonomous. From this the people is not simply the sum of the whole population, but rather a representation of the unity of the population, it is hence not a natural entity but a social construct (Hardt and Negri, 2003: 82).

According to Jacques Ranciere (2006: 53), parliamentary democracy is an oxymoron, this is because the essence of democracy is the poor or rather the many ruling themselves it is about representing one’s self, yet the very concept of representative democracy, or parliamentary democracy, is the few representing the many. Representative democracy is, according to Ranciere oligarchic in that it is a few elites who are at liberty to take control of public affairs. The popular slogan “your vote is your voice” which is used during election times to get people to vote is a misleading slogan. It’s a stretch to claim the one’s vote, in a parliamentary democracy, is an opportunity for your voice to be heard, it is rather giving consent to a superior power that has promised to represent you and your voice. 
Firstly in an election, one votes only for the party to be representing them, the part itself elects its own candidates to run it. So for example, the ANC has voted Jacob Zuma as their president, and he is hence the president of South Africa. Secondly, having the right to vote is not born out of democracy, but rather out of the idea of representation, which as mentioned, is more an oligarchy, and its use to is vote elites into parliament. It is the concept of putting competent people in power, however democracy makes it seem as though it is the people who put the elites in power. Having the right to vote in democracy, is not necessarily an assertion of being a political subject, a citizen, the idea behind voting is to justify or legitimate the theory of the competent ruling the incompetent. This is a justification of an elite few, ruling the majority, and the legitimization of only the dominant interests being represented by the electorates. Candidacies tend to be monopolized to the few (Ranciere, 2006: 56).Voting has become, to slightly exaggerate, about choosing a ruling party, from the ruling class that will “represent” the will of the people in their term in office. I say “represent” because although during elections electorates will express a care for the interest of the people, the reality is, the poor majority are not cared for beyond the elections.

Since 1994, every election in South Africa has brought a wave of promises of service delivery, yet these promises never come to pass. A trend seems to have developed in South Africa, whereby after elections, as was evident after the 2004 elections and the 2011 elections, community members in municipalities around South Africa begin to protest. Reasons stated by the community for the protests are mainly due to poor service delivery. One finds that certain areas, especially informal settlements have no basic services such as toilets, electricity, running water. Other promises the government makes include increasing employment, the alleviation of poverty, proper infrastructure and housing. These often prove to be empty promises to acquire the vote of the people. The issue here is not only the promises made during the time of elections, but the promise made in the constitution (Burger, 2011:1). The constitution as mentioned above states that these are the basic rights of the people, and that it is the responsibility of the elected representatives to make sure that people receive these rights. This takes me back to the question of whether or not the constitution represents the people in reality. This does not prove to be the case. Poor South Africans are living below what the constitution deems to be their right. Below the surface of poor service delivery, is the point of human dignity. If people are not receiving proper sanitation, how is that not robbing them of the dignity that parliamentary democracy is supposed to give them. In certain parts of the Grahamstown location, people use the bucket system, an undignified sanitation system that was used in the apartheid era. Around cities all over the country, poor people are forced to live in shacks, on the periphery of these cities, and they are vulnerable to being moved every time capitalists wish to expand beyond the parameters of the city. 
The people are dissatisfied and showing their dissatisfaction through strikes and other protests. Yet nothing is done. People are showing that their will is not being represented. Yet the ANC still show signs of nepotism that favors the elite, for example, in the past few years certain tenders have been given to unqualified people, because of the connections they have to the ruling party (Burger, 2011:1). The people given these tenders are elites, which makes one wonder if representative democracy, is indeed the representation of the majority, as it claims, or just the representation of the will of the elite few.

Civil and uncivil society

Michael Neocosmos states that full citizenship only exists within a particular domain of politics. A reference to Mamdani’s work provides a simple way to explain this. The way politics is exercised is through the medium of culture and tradition. The relation of state between power and people differs. Access to land differs. There are different modes of rule in politics, the dominant one being civil society, or as Marx calls it ‘bourgeois society.’ This is a society where in politics happens, where people have access to rights and where the police are theto protect those rights. The other domain is the uncivil society. In this society, the relation between state and the people does not have the same synergy as that of the state and the civil society. In this society, the rights of the people are not protected and there is no right to security. The relation to the state is one based on violence and the state thinks violence is legitimate, since it criminalizes the activities of these people. Those that challenge the system and proclaim their rights are suppressed, in this society, thought, especially ones own thought is considered to be against society. Even though people in this society try to assert themselves as active in an attempt to affirm that they are capable of their own thought, they are met negatively because society dictates that they be represented by a trustee (Neocosmos, 2011: 12-14).

AbM’s objectives include participatory democracy that embodies assembly and co-planing. They stand for popular democracy, organized and involving the mobilization of bottom up, instead of the representative democracy of civil society that is organized from the top down. However true to Neocosmos’ word, when such organization occurs, the state tries to criminalize it and hence suppress it. For example earlier this month when the people of AbM, in Cape Town met to attend a meeting with the major Patricia De Lille, upon finding out that the people were attending this meeting, the city cancelled the meeting citing a fear for the safety of the mayor. This happens in a state that claims to be a representative democracy, a democracy that represents the will of the people. However when the people attempt to express what this will is, they are silenced by using language of criminalization. This makes one wonder, what then or rather who, this democracy is supposed to represent (, 2011: 1). 
When looking at the progressive constitution of India which states that every citizen has equal rights, one would think that India is a democratic state that offers equal opportunity for all its citizens. Take for example the fact that every citizen has the rights of universal suffrage. On the surface, all the people of India are members of civil society (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). Classical philosophy’s definition of being part of civil society, means existing in a space where political discussions and intellectual thought occurs. Civil society is a space for a democratic way of being in the world. What Chatterjee is saying is that the ideals of democracy in India are realities and dreams only realized and practiced by the few, the civil servants and other elites (Chatterjee, 2004: 46). The reality of the ordinary Indian, the poor majority is a different reality because it is not a true reflection of the democratic rights secured by statutes and international laws. Civil society in India in its “actually existing form” is not a space for democratic engagement for all citizens, but a confined space limited to those who can afford to occupy such spaces, the people ordained to have the capacity to theorize and ‘represent’ others. 
Alternative methods

  Some suggest that having seen the failure of the state in representing its people, we can turn to Non- Governmental organizations (NGOs) or trade unions as the representative. However NGOs, in general no longer seem to be representing the people, as most have started treating people as apolitical. Some NGO tend to adopt the paternalistic stance of the state, in that they manage people, hence treating them as less than the intellectuals or benefactors of the NGO instead of engaging with them in a continuous dialogue. Being deemed as passive receivers or passive bearers of rights, most people in India have fallen outside realms of civil society (Chatterjee, 2004).

To date, dominant political theory has failed to bring to light that modern civil society has not been a field where equality is practiced, but in fact it has become a space where there are deep-rooted inequalities. Assuming the validity of this claim from Chatterjee (2004), political theory hence has the duty to start or work on a project that produces a theory different to the existing one, this theory must be more reflective of reality. In other words, political theory must expand its scope of knowledge beyond the constraints of civil society. Political theory must give rise to a theory that is inclusive of the realities of the people placed on the periphery of civil society. In other words political theory must engage in a theory of political society.

This new concept would be used as a substitute to civil society, whereby political consciousness would be given to the people who renounce all ties to civil society. According to Chatterjee (2004:40) this is a political society and it comes about as the solution for bridging the gaps left by civil society within political theory. The aim of Political society is to affirm the rights and equalities which have been denied by civil society, in other words, the lived experiences that were supposed to have been in lieu with the rights ingrained in the traditional ideals of civil society. Mass mobilization, for example social movements, is thus a means of affirming “popular legitimacy” and contesting state ideals in a popular sphere as opposed to adapting to state logic (Chatterjee, 2004:48-49). 
Although it has radical ideals, political society in no way represents a naïve portrayal of a utopian society. It is in practice in various modes in both India as well as other states with a strong NGO presence. As an example, a consequence in political theory has arisen in the conception of Subaltern Studies as a means of giving a voice to a “politics of the people” that would exist as a parallel to the domain of the elite (Guha, 1997:xiv). In turn, it seeks to bring to light the “structural split of politics” between those in the elite and those who have been silenced or ignored (Guha, 1997:xv). 
Another example of political society is present in South Africa wherein movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Unemployed People’s Movement (Grahamstown) exist autonomously to both NGOs and the state. AbM in particular prides itself in the invasion of spaces such as civil society that deny the equal intelligence and capability of the poor, as well as formulating a politics for those who “do not count” (Zikode, 2009:22-23). The above ultimately illustrates the change in the thinking of political theory in these contexts. Civil society has not only failed through its demographic limitations by creating inequality amongst citizens but also within the NGOs that dominate civil society. Issues of class and caste differences within the inner structures of NGOs in India are a constant rendering of each NGO’s attempts at creating fairness and equality, as meaningless and empty (Sangtin Writers, 2006:116-177). In turn, subaltern classes that find themselves ‘privileged’ enough to be a part of NGO structures are still dealt with the task of seeking “internal transformation” (Chatterjee, 2004:51). 
Political society is a platform for those who have been excluded and gives them the ability to be political in a manner differing from the elite (Chatterjee, 2004: 39). The extension of political theory would reflect that the existence of political society is an assertion of citizenship by the excluded. They are asserting that they are a body of people that can reason, self-govern and be actional, even through civil disobedience (Chatterjee, 2004: 40). Political theory would have to give rise to the realisation that although modernity has been seen as the practice of democracy in civil society, democratic practices, thought and way of being is located in political society (Chatterjee, 2004: 50-51). 

Representing the will of the people’ seems to be a good concept for democracy. If the constitution is to be trusted, this representation is for the ‘better good’ of the people, and improves the quality of their lives. However, as Ranciere points out, representative democracy is in all sense an oligarchy dressed in democratic terms. This has become evident through the practical examples of AbM and India that were used in this essay. In both cases, the government which is supposed to be a representation of the people’s will, has marginalized the poor majority and silenced them to a point whereby when they attempt to speak out, they are, as in the case of AbM, criminalized. Yet in election time, everyone is told that their vote is their voice. One has to wonder what this really means, if the majority is set aside and their opinions shut down. Does it then mean that the vote of the poor is a strengthening of the elite’s voice? If so, then which people are included in the statement: “the will of the people?”

By definition democracy embodies the majority, which in developing countries like South Africa and India, is the poor (well, certainly not the elites), if then parliamentary democracy silences the poor, and reacts violently to the poor organizing in protest to get their voices heard (For example the recent acts of police brutality against protestors, and the national police commissioner general, Bheki Cele’s order to “shoot to kill”), yet it represents the interest of the elites, how can we then in good conscious claim that it automatically represents the will of the people? I then offered an alternative that is not a representation of the poor, but rather a platform for the voice of the poor to be heard. A medium where poor intellectuals can mobilize and exorcise their will, autonomously and voluntarily.


Abahlali baseMjondolo of the Western Cape, 2011, Major De Lille Unwilling to Meet Backyarders on our own Terms, Date of access: 8 September 2011

Burger J., 2009, Reasons Behind Service Delivery Protests in South Africa,, Date of access: 8 September 2011

Chatterjee, P., 2004, The Politics of the Governed, Delhi: Permanent Black.
Constitution of the republic of South Africa, 1996

Guha, R., 1997, Introduction, in Guha, R. (ed), A Subaltern Studies Reader, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Hallward P., 2009 ‘The will of the people: Notes towards a dialectical voluntarism’ In Radical Philosophy. No. 155, 2009.

Holloway J., 2002, ‘Beyond the State’ in Change the World Without Taking Power, (Pluto: London)

Neocosmos M., 2011, ‘Transition, Human Rights & Violence – rethinking a liberal political relationship in the African neo-colony’, Unpublished Manuscript, 2011

Rancière J., 2006, ‘Democracy, Republic, Representation’ in Hatred of Democracy, (Verso: London)

Writers S., 2006, Challenges of NGOisation and Dreams of Sangtin, in Playing with Fire, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Zikode, S., 2009, To Resist All Degradations and Divisions