Hundreds of students are set to march to the Union Buildings on Thursday to call for free tertiary education. File picture: Nokuthula Mbatha
Hundreds of students are set to march to the Union Buildings on Thursday to call for free tertiary education. File picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

A brand new model for collaborative processes

By OPINION Time of article published Oct 16, 2016

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The time has come to widen our political and intellectual horizons, writes Muxe Nkondo.

Johannesburg - Both participatory democracy and professional expertise are defining values of South African society. Although many social scientists have tried to understand the two as mutually supportive, the tension between participatory democracy and professional expertise has long been a critical theme in South African politics.

Whereas participatory democracy stands for transparent and inclusive deliberation on the part of all citizens, professional expertise has always been regarded as the exclusive domain of professional elites. Whereas participatory democracy seeks to canvass a wide range of perspectives on a given topic, professional expertise strives to limit the number of participants in pursuit of facts and truth.

Taking up the tension between participatory democracy and professional expertise, we should reformulate the relationship through a socio-political perspective emphasising professional practice as a socio-political activity. Rather than taking professional practice to be the ideal for decision processes, we should investigate to what degree such practice might be democratised.

Against this backdrop, we should turn to the more difficult question of a lay person’s ability to collaboratively engage in professional decision processes. First, we should consider the intellectual and linguistic barriers that block such participation in the complex decision processes inherent in South Africa’s regulatory environment, and then review cases in which lay citizens have demonstrated the capacity to engage in pressing issues of the day.

We should examine the ways lay people’s experiential knowledge and normative imperatives can be brought to bear on decision processes.

We should then turn to numerous case studies, around the world, that more specifically illustrate the possibilities of inclusive participation. Basic to such cases is the emergence of collaborative relationships between lay citizens and professionals.

The professionals themselves should be assisted in helping lay citizens grasp the significance of such collaboration, to broaden lay people’s access to information, and to help them systematise their own experiential knowledge.

Emphasising the development of a participatory political culture, we should seize the opportunity to address the following questions: is it possible to restructure the largely undemocratic professionals-laypeople’s relationship in decision processes?

And how can we integrate professional inquiry with citizen education and public action?

A mode of decision-making designed as a strategy for deepening participatory democracy, the inclusive decision mode emphasises the political and social dimensions of knowledge production and dissemination, and the role of knowledge as an instrument of power. Understanding the decision-making status of lay citizens’ in democratic discourses, requires, as a sine qua non, rescuing them from the marginal position within the discourses of neoliberal policy science - the latter having confined them to the realm of the unthinking, the realm of the “dangerous excess” unassimilable to the rational order, a realm that appears prominently in professional studies on mass psychology.

This relegation has been possible because, from the very beginning, a strong element of ethical and intellectual condemnation has been present in elitist considerations of “ordinary people” or “the masses”.

Their dismissal has been part of the discursive construction of a certain normality, of an ascetic political and moral universe from which “ordinary people’s ways and logics” had to be excluded. Neoliberal discourse thus “simplifies” the political space, replacing a complex set of differences and determinations by a stark dichotomy, where the elite and the “masses” are irreconcilably different.

The democratic challenge is to use inclusive participation as the cornerstone of the decision process.

The case for participatory democracy derives its basic normative rationale from the principle that government should reflect the democratic consent of the governed. Even “ordinary people” have the right - even obligation - to participate meaningfully in decision-making on issues that affect how and where they live.

This way, the world of everyday life becomes reconnected to the political process which has constructed it. For the “ordinary people”, in the process, testimony and witnessing become history and sociology.

In the post-apartheid society that is failing to overcome socio-economic inequalities, is there anything that we should learn about professional practices that we did not know before? Can the experience of “ordinary people” instruct the professions?

What and how can testimonies of poverty, unemployment and enduring justice teach us, not merely in the areas of law and medicine, but in the larger areas of the interactions between the actual and the “professional”?

A testimony on poverty, unemployment, and injustice is not simply a testimony to a private life but a point of conflation between the private and the public; a testimony which should penetrate professional decision processes. Each poor participant is a witness to human suffering in post-apartheid South Africa; a witness to 22 years of enduring injustice.

“Ordinary people” can contribute substantially to problem recognition by identifying various aspects of problems needing analysis. They can also play an important role in the consideration of political values that cannot be addressed solely by professional techniques.

Given the dialectical nature of knowledge, participant interaction between professionals and lay citizens is an essential aspect of the decision process. Beyond a one-dimensional vantage point on the part of the “professional” policy maker, the participation of lay citizens is necessary to overcome the erroneous and excessively limited conception of professional expertise based upon a dichotomous schism of the world into facts and values.

However, it should be pointed out that inclusive participation is not advanced here as a magic cure-all for all political, social, and economic problems. But it does hold out the prospect of bringing forth a new understanding capable of creating and legitimising new interests, shaping our understanding of existing interests, and, in the process, influencing the political pathways along which power and interest travel. In bringing in the discourses of lay citizens, the inclusive model helps to remind us that decisions always take place within a configuration of power and that the task of the policy maker is to dialectically engage the existing political and social forces.

Towards this end, the objective of inclusive participation is to create political spaces within democratic deliberative structures that offer a place for public reasoning. Asking who is privileged and who is marginalised by the elitist forms of governance, such decision analysis, challenges the formal decision institutions to be inclusive and collaborative.

The emergence of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements can be seen as a contribution to the expansion of horizons, because they help to present other analytical categories - such as justice and agency - for what they are: contingent and particular forms articulating democratic demands, not an ultimate core from which the nature of the demands themselves can be explained. This widening of political and intellectual horizons is a precondition for thinking the forms of our political engagement. It is necessary to re-conceptualise the historical context of the social movements, the logic of their articulation, the nature of the collective socio-political entities resulting from them, and the ground for multi-vocal decisions.

These movements grow out of historical struggles for freedom, in which freedom is the precondition for the achievement of the true meaning of freedom.

* Nkondo is a member of the Freedom Park Council and Council of Unisa. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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