Contrasts tells us how we compare and relate to democracy
by Rudi Buys
Two incidents of public import dominated media reports this week – the scene of the inauguration of the 46th President of the USA, and, a few days earlier, the scene of police vans using water cannons to control crowds of elderly citizens and people with disabilities at a social grant office.
The incidents share a common feature: they are scenes of current dramas in the political theatre of two democratic, though very different, societies. Read as scenes on local and global stages, a dramatisation of the first may be written from the perspective of an observer, and the second, as a participant.
Scene one: an observer views two television screens. One shows Donald Trump departing the White House after issuing last-minute pardons for close allies to deliver a final speech. After the speech, he walks up a red carpet to Air Force One for the final flight to his resort home, Mar-a-Lago.
On the other screen, President Joe Biden and Vice-President, Kamala Harris attend a vigil to honour those lost to Covid-19. They observe 400 lighted beacons surrounding the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial, before moving on to an inspirational inaugural programme with a diversity of voices, including a major highlight of the ceremony – the reading of her poem, The Hill We Climb, by 22-year-old youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman.
As you watch the two stories develop, you think back to the chaotic scenes at the same place two weeks earlier, when crowds of Trump supporters stormed and rampaged through the site of the legislative House and Senate of congress – a sacred symbol of democracy.
Scene two: a participant stands in a queue at the Bellville office of the South African Social Security Agency. She waits to re-apply for the care dependency grant to take care of her child who has a severe disability. To receive this grant is so urgent that each place in the queue matters above all, so that people press close together not to risk losing their place. Lockdown rules matter far less.
The national Minister of Social Development arrives. So do the intimidating vans of the police unit for crowd control. You hope their presence will move things along. However, soon the police instruct everyone to makes space in the queues for social distancing. No-one moves – they dare not lose their place.
Suddenly a jet of water hits and throws you to the ground. You see others knocked down. The crowd scatters in all directions. As you recover, you see the minister rushing into a police van.
Why does she not admonish the police, you wonder, for using water cannons on vulnerable people at a social grant office – a critical site to symbolise the democratic purpose to build social care for all citizens?
Read as scenes in political dramas of democracy, the two incidents reveal the characters, time lines, historical and other contexts, turns of discourse, themes and the storyline that will mark analyses of the incidents.
In one, the two separate screens reveal that the character and politics of the individual are at the centre of one side of democracy.
In the other, the trauma in a queue reveals that the struggles of collectives are at the centre of another site of democracy.
Arguably then, beyond drama, as moments in the lived histories of two nations, the two scenes also reveal the question of how two different continents compare and relate when democracy takes form.
* The Rev Dr BR Rudi Buys is Executive Dean and Dean of Humanities of the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute, and editor: African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education, ISSN 2706-669X.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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