The popular, populism and the crisis of representation

As the crisis of representation deepens it is necessary to draw a clear conceptual and political distinction between the popular and populism.

Democracy is often discussed in a way that seriously limits our understanding of its theory and practice. This was very evident in the Cold War period and there remains an assumption that states located in the Global North have achieved and sustained democratic rule, and are the model to which all other societies should aspire. This is often treated as a given, even when a range of undemocratic and authoritarian practices undermine any such claim.

Although South Africans have lived under democratic rule since 1994 there is little discussion of the quality of that democracy and what it is that we aim to achieve through varying forms of participation. There is little questioning of whether or not we have explored or exhausted various emancipatory possibilities.

In its original meaning, as enunciated by Aristotle and Pericles in Ancient Greece, democracy meant direct action by people, that they themselves were immediately involved, without any intermediaries, in making decisions. This notion of the people governing directly was also found in “organs of people’s power” in South Africa in the 1980s.

The notion of “the people” has itself to be questioned because it does not always, including in Ancient Greece, refer to all the people. In Ancient Greece slaves and women were excluded from democratic participation. Who, we need to ask, were excluded in the 1980s in South Africa?

In a government led by a liberation movement or former liberation movement, the notion of the people is often designated as automatically embodied in the liberation movement itself. In some cases, liberation movements had previously been described by the then OAU or the UN as the “sole and authentic representative” of the people. This conception has inherent exclusionary qualities that may increase when the liberation movement becomes the state and thereby depicts itself as embodying “the people”. In this situation, elections become irrelevant or merely a ritual aimed at confirming a right of representation that has already been conferred in perpetuity.

A crisis of representation

In contemporary South African there is a clear crisis of representation. If the ANC did ever have a credible right to be seen as the sole and authentic representative of the people, it can no longer claim that with confidence. Participation in elections has declined dramatically, support for the ruling party at the polls has declined substantially and significant social forces representing the organised poor and the working class now operate outside of the ANC.

At the same time there is no alternative political force that has the confidence of enough sectors of South African society to be able to claim the confidence of the majority. Lack of confidence does not simply refer to an absence of a clear preference between electoral alternatives. It is a sense of disquiet in relation to everything that is on offer, due to questions of integrity, a lack of commitment to the wellbeing of the people of the country and the absence of any coherent emancipatory vision.

Voting in elections, consequently, cannot satisfy any desire that people may have to see their own needs met through an elected MP “re-presenting” (that is, acting in order to present to parliament what their constituents would do if they were there) what they aspire to and want from government, in parliament.

The popular and the state

Democracy was a matter of direct participation in decision making before it became identified with parliamentary representation. In recent years the global crisis of credibility suffered by liberal democracy has generated broadly left popular democratic attempts to build forms of democratic authority outside of the state and manifestations, often demagogic, of right wing populism. While claiming to bring the state and government closer to the people the right wing populist governments in fact become less accountable and exclusionary, sometimes marginalising large sections of the population who do not conform to the notions of community and the nation, often racist, that they advance.

Where there has been a rise of the popular or forms of popular democracy, it has been part of a more generalised concern with “statism”, rejecting the idea that one should look to the state to provide for all the needs of inhabitants and forsake one’s own agency as individuals or the people of a country. At the same time, one should not see the state and the popular as a perpetual dichotomy. The popular may sometimes find space within the state, too. How it advances and serves the people will need to be considered in every specific context.

In the context of South Africa of the 1980s, popular power emerged partly as a form of protest, or even insurrection. But it was also a manifestation of people doing for themselves what the state ought to have done or may have previously done, in an oppressive manner. It was also a claiming of spaces outside of state regulation, where self-empowerment could be practised.

In the midst of widespread resistance to apartheid the ANC had called on the people of South Africa to make the country “ungovernable” and apartheid “unworkable”. In consequence, local state authorities, like the police and the Bantu Administration Department’s various functionaries were driven out of many townships and some of their buildings were destroyed or occupied. In at least one case a Bantu Administration Building was converted into a creche.

The ANC of the time recognised that driving out authorities left a vacuum that could be filled by a range of people or forms of action. Some pursued anti-social or anti-popular practices in the various locations in which they acted.  They may have referred to these practices as being under the mantle of the people while in fact operating to undermine the people’s needs and to further a range of other goals. Achieving ungovernability could not be seen as an end in itself.

It is in this context that the ANC called for the establishment of elementary organs of people’s power. That call was heeded and carried out, albeit in diverse way in different parts of the country. That diversity could not have been conceived by the ANC, as the initiator of the call, for it had to be decided on in distinct environments inside the country. It was uneven in its presence and less evident in provinces like the former Natal and the KwaZulu and other bantustans. It also took limited hold in the Western Cape, although it was found in other parts of the then Cape province.

Historical success and failure

The modes of implementation of popular power varied. In some cases, these played a constructive role in resolving intra-community disputes and preventing crime, sometimes independent of the police, sometimes with the police referring complainants to “the comrades”, who they recognised, presumably without any official mandate, were in some cases better able to address criminality.

Having driven the authorities out, or coexisting with the authorities, while in fact exercising local power in many respects, the organs of popular power sometimes encroached on state authority. That was one of the reasons why the states of emergency, especially from 1986 onwards, clamped down very hard on all who were involved in organising people’s power.  The apartheid state was particularly concerned with notions of popular justice and people’s courts since these directly encroached on state authority. Whether or not these proclaimed themselves as being insurrectionary, they inevitably made inroads into the notion of the state holding a “monopoly of force”.

Considering popular power then and now, this relationship raises the question of the relationship of the popular to the state. Popular power emerges from the ground or the grassroots, without official permission. It is conceived as self-initiated. It is the exact antithesis of statism – a fixation with what the state can or ought to do as the only way of achieving goals in society.

Popular power arises without state encouragement or endorsement and is generally not part of any state structure. Although it often does not relate to the state at all it may, in various cases, interact with the state, negotiating issues that trouble communities or making representations over various questions. In the past the general trend may have been for popular power to be quite separate from the (apartheid) state, although in parts of the country, like the Eastern Cape, the popular structures did at certain points negotiate with authorities in order to achieve some interim gains in local government.

This local government negotiation initiative was very important in relation to revolutionary theory and strategies, which are often focused on “seizing” the state or “transfer” of power, conceiving “power” as a thing, after which all else supposedly follows. The practice of negotiating before that supposedly decisive moment was an important revision of revolutionary theory, incorporating “structural reforms” into processes of transition, a practice already part of the trade union movement. In the trade union movement, under the slogan ‘building tomorrow today’, it was also understood that democratic practices and structures were being developed under oppressive conditions and prior to national liberation.

We know that there were certain abuses, in some instances gendered, that occurred while claiming to be implementing popular power. In the minds of some people “necklacing” was part of the exercise of the popular. The authorities claimed an inevitable connection between popular justice and necklacing.

One can dispute the claim that there is an inevitable connection between popular justice and necklacing. My research into popular justice demonstrated a general preoccupation with mediating disputes and preventing criminality. Certainly, there was necklacing but that tended to happen when the level of organisation was weak and not broad based and representative of the community as a whole.

Distinguishing the popular from populism

But what still needs examination is the delimitation of the scope of popular action, whether popular power ought to entirely usurp or displace the place of the state, in the spaces where it is organised. In particular, can a local popular organ, where it operates, that is in practice independent of the state, exercise all forms of state power?

In order to think this through it is useful to draw a clear conceptual distinction between the popular and populism. The former can take the form of building popular democratic structures in which everyone has a right to participate freely. The latter, populism, in contrast, is often a form of authoritarianism legitimated, frequently under charismatic authority, in the name of the people.

We know that periodically the ANC Women’s League or some members of its leadership have called for castration of rapists. That is illegal, but what happens if a local structure apprehends an alleged rapist and carries out the castration? Is that a manifestation of popular power? Is it not rather a manifestation of populism, insofar as it may well appeal to some or many members of the public, even if it takes us no further in understanding and addressing the scourge of rape?

The tolerance of widespread “vigilante justice”, people taking the law into their own hands and dispensing punishment, is a form of populism. It is not “the popular”.

The popular, to be the popular, needs to have a broad respect for human dignity and a conception of responsibility towards the present and the future, and the community it serves. It cannot build a respectful relationship between human beings if violence is allowed without any bounds and regulation. This is especially so where political authority comes to be invested in a charismatic figure or a single organisation acting in the name of the people, rather than the measured and free participation of people, based in various locations, in decision making.

Lessons from the 1980s for today

In South Africa today, as is the case in much of the world, a range of abuses, and possibly liberal democracy itself, is being challenged by both popular and populist forces. Some of the street committees and other grassroots structures survive from the 1980s and similar structures have been built in the post-apartheid period, especially in order to contain criminality. New organisations, like Abahlali baseMjondolo, have emerged with a broad popular base and a democratic orientation. At the same time various forms of charismatic authoritarianism speaking in the name of the people have emerged.

What we can learn from the 1980s is that where popular power was broad based, incorporating all sections of the community, there generally was a common purpose that was carried out with very little intimidation. One such case was Port Alfred, where the people were organised in a range of structures representing youth, women, workers, civics, students and other structures, that came together in what was called the “central committee”, which then decided on common actions. These were generally not enforced by violence, because all were part of these decisions, taken through their designated representatives, from streets, blocks and other structures.

When the states of emergency, especially from 1986 onwards, were continuously in force, the state arrested a number of senior leaders. Youth, who were less patient and willing to listen than older people, were often in charge and many structures were less representative of the community as a whole. Violence became more prevalent and there was more evidence of atrocities.

In the later periods of the 1980s when the United Democratic Front (UDF) was banned and its leaders imprisoned or restricted, the Mass Democratic Movement emerged in order to coordinate protests against the apartheid regime. Although it involved the South African Council of Churches and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, it did not bear the same organic relationship with the grassroots structures (that had in many cases been decimated) as had been the case during the UDF period. This created a situation where leaders began to speak on behalf of the people, without the direct involvement of the people, something that would have been difficult to practise in that period. But it set in motion a process that paved the way for the displacement of the popular after the unbanning of the ANC. The UDF stepped back and made way for the “real” leadership.  This was not a result of diktat from Lusaka, but a genuine sense that the UDF was a “holding action”, not representing sectors that had interests and values of independent value, while also being part of a broader struggle.

In the post-1990 period the popular was displaced not simply by the ANC as “authentic representative of the people” but by the state, as the embodiment of the people. There was a demobilisation of popular forces.

In this time, if it is correct to speak of a crisis of representation, it is the reinvigoration of popular forces that could be a key factor in remedying that crisis.

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