The reality is that the rich and powerful are often above the law and the poor often beneath it, writes Imraan Buccus.
We live in troubled times. Most people are uncertain about the future. People worry about South Africa’s economic state and the talk of a recession, shocking police brutality, gender-based violence, corruption and post-election governance. Many people ask whether our democracy is in trouble.
In South Africa, perhaps more than in other parts of the world, we are protective of our democracy.
Perhaps it is because we fought hard to achieve it.
People sacrificed family, jobs and even lives. Even those who supported apartheid claim to have made some sacrifice for our democracy.
The then ruling NP did not build its politics around human rights and democracy.
We did not live in a system where everyone mattered, including children, prisoners, foreigners, poor people and sex workers.
Now, under democracy and human rights, no one is supposed to be either above or below the law.
The reality is that the rich and powerful are often above the law and the poor often beneath it.
That the reality of our democracy often fails to live up to its promise doesn’t change the fact that we are all explicitly committed to a constitutional order that protects the rights of everyone.
When the powerful try to act above the law and suppress the vulnerable – street traders, shack dwellers, migrants, sex workers and so on – as if they are below the law, we have a set of rules we can use to call people to account.
As much as it was shocking to see the police shoot at miners in Marikana, drag a Mozambican worker to his death and shoot at protesters and street traders, we still have a shared set of commitments by which we can reject this as outrageous.
Despite all its flaws, we cherish this democracy and realise that we have to work hard to protect it.
That protection requires all kinds of people, many unpaid, to take forward – with vigour and courage – their roles as critics of elite power.
It also requires that one of our priorities be to protect the integrity of our institutions. Civil society and the media remain key institutions in terms of protecting our democracy.
Civil society remains the central pivot of our democracy.
Civil society needs to be nurtured as it continues to be the watchdog of our democracy.
It is the engine of democracy and development, spurring ideas and ideals for a better life.
It is civil society that keeps the ruling elite on its toes, by scrutinising every action and always focusing on the public good. In our society-building exercise, we need to ensure that civil society is not abused and harassed.
When that happens then we need to worry. Some say we should worry already as some civil society spaces are threatened.
The other key protector of democracy in any society is the media. In our context, public radio and print productions, especially community print productions, are key institutions. For most of the population, it is their primary news source.
Mass media is essential to the building of a modern and democratic nation.
It is the space where we develop a shared sense of who we are, what matters to us and what the rules of engagement are.
It is also the space that enables elites to be called to account and for the public to be able to make informed political choices.
During apartheid, some media houses were used as a mouthpiece of the apartheid government and were used effectively as part of the ideological machinery of the state.
Having learnt from the past, we need to make sure that in a democratic order, media houses are not used as a propaganda tool for the ruling party or the elite’s business interests with which they are often closely associated.
This is especially pertinent in a context where many have expressed concern about the state of our democracy following allegations that many of our state institutions have been severely compromised.
If we are serious about defending our democracy, we need to be very, very serious about protecting civil society organisations and an independent media.
South Africa is two decades into democracy.
With increasing police brutality, gender-based violence and rampant corruption; people have much to worry about. Our hope lies with a free press and a vibrant civil society.
* Buccus is Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on social and political transformation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.