What is Democracy?

These days, democracy is a much used word. Around the world, comparisons are made between democratic countries and undemocratic countries. Most people have a deepseated feeling that democracy is a good thing. By examining the word more closely, we can uncover some of meanings of democracy that are too often ignored.

The word democracy comes from two Greek words: demos which means “people” and kratos which means “power.” In other words, at its roots, democracy is about people’s power. During the struggle against apartheid, “Amandla awethu” (power to the people) was the rallying cry that resounded at meetings and marches. In essence, this was a call for democracy, for the people to govern.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States of America who led the war against slavery, defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Brief and catchy, this is probably the most frequently used definition of democracy. People rattle it off almost automatically, without pondering its deeper significance. In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s definition shows both strengths and some of the pitfalls of modern ideas about democracy.

Lincoln’s definition emphasises the government. Its strength is the idea that people should own “government” (by the people, of the people). But remember that democracy, in its root meaning, is first and foremost about “the people,” not government. In today’s world, government is often the centre of the action. Democracy is seen to be something that good governments do, and bad governments don’t do. Once citizens have elected a government into power, they all too often sit back and wait for their elected officials to respond to their needs and dreams, as spectators or consumers. The truth is that for democracy to flourish, people must rise to much bigger challenges than simply voting in elections. As Nelson Mandela put it in a famous challenge to citizens during the 1994 election campaign, building the new democracy would require everyone to work hard; government alone could not solve the nation’s problems. Mandela’s challenge pointed to democracy as a way of life, not simply free elections.

The idea that “the people” are the foundation of democracy is repeated numerous times in South Africa’s historic documents such as the Freedom Charter. Drafted in 1955, the Freedom Charter provided a vision of a non-racial democratic South Africa, in which the people would be the guiding voice of government. Now our country’s Constitution carries a preamble that begins with the words, “We, the people of South Africa…”

How easily do youth in South Africa identify with this idea that “the people” are the foundation of democracy? All too often democracy is seen by young people as the responsibility not only of government, but also of adults. Young people who are not yet eligible to vote can end up feeling on the sidelines, even alienated from society as older people, experts and government agencies attempt to address problems on their behalf. At this point, youth complain quite vocally about their environment (whether it be home, school or the community) being “undemocratic,” without boldly claiming their own role in shaping society.

While elections are an important way in which a society debates and decides on its future direction, voters are not the only people who can shape the way forward in our democracy. Young people of all ages need to explore democracy as a way of life. They need to develop skills that make it possible for them to participate in public life and make a difference to the world they live in.

Democracy is one of those words whose meaning is constantly being debated. This is important. A fixed definition of democracy would contradict the very spirit of the word.

Some scholars have compared different democracies around the world in an attempt to capture the essential characteristics of a “true” democracy. It is a concept that covers values as well as social and political procedures. But talking about values is not enough. For a society to be democratic, it needs people who live out the values of democracy, with conviction, on a daily basis. Moreover, everyone needs to be involved. Democracy takes
place at every level, from grassroots to the highest departments of government.

Here are just some of the values and procedures that come to mind when people attempt to define democracy.

Values Structures / Procedures
Equality Mandate
Fairness Elections
Accountability Representative government
Transparency Multi-level court system
Respect for human rights Checks and balances
Freedom of expression Consultation of the people
Tolerance Majority rule
Community-mindedness Protection of minorities
Open-mindedness Referendum

The Constitution is called the highest law of the land. It determines the spirit and goals of a society. It is used as a yardstick to assess all other laws. During the apartheid years, South Africa had a series of undemocratic Constitutions that failed to honour the dignity and equality of all its people. Before the first democratic elections in 1994, an interim Constitution was drafted during the multi-party negotiations that paved the way for the transition. After the new government was elected, the Constitutional Assembly was formally established to draft a new Constitution for South Africa. Once again, all political parties were represented, but politicians were by no means the only people who participated in the Constitution-writing process. Consultative meetings took place in communities across the country. Citizens made submissions, both as individuals and as organised groups. It was a great example of how democracy can work.

South Africa now has a Constitution that is admired around the world for its broad recognition of rights and also for its emphasis on public participation in democracy.

It is also a document that ordinary South Africans can look to for the protection of rights and for a vision of how our society should work.

First and foremost, the Constitution contains South Africa’s Bill of Rights, which clearly lays out the rights and freedoms that enable all citizens to play a meaningful role in society and strive for their basic needs to be met. The Constitution also determines the way our country is governed, by outlining the structure, election, powers and functions of our three spheres of government (local, provincial and national). Future Youth Vote South Africa
supplements will cover the Bill of Rights and the structures of government in more detail.

It is important to understand that the Constitution provides the basic framework for detailed legislation and also for partnerships between citizens and government. It is not a blueprint, but the rules we play by and the fundamental values we stand for. Some of these values are mentioned explicitly in the Preamble to the Constitution: justice, freedom, respect, unity in diversity, openness, equality and recognition of individual potential. Other values, such as patriotism and a belief in citizen power, are woven into the Preamble through references to our country’s history, its place in the family of nations and the adoption of the Constitution by “the people.” By naming them in the introduction to the founding document of our democracy, all South Africans have an ideal to live up to.

We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as
the supreme law of the Republic so as to –
Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values,
social justice and fundamental human rights;
Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based
on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a
sovereign state in the family of nations.

The Constitution is a visionary document. Perhaps more than anyone else in our society, youth have vision too, because for young people the future seems open, something that they can shape. It is true that the minimum voting age of 18 is prescribed by the Constitution. But the Constitution opens up all kinds of other opportunities for young people to shape our society and our future. It is by “doing democracy” that constitutional values can really become part of our lives. How can the values that are captured in the Preamble to the Constitution provide a guide for citizen action?

· Justice

It should never be forgotten that the Constitution marks a dramatic break with South Africa’s past. In the Preamble, the injustices of apartheid are contrasted with the work of those who struggled for change. But justice is not a static reality. We can never say that justice has “arrived” in South Africa for once and for all. A just society is something that citizens and government create together. It is built from the bottom up, day by day, in fair or just interactions among citizens in families, schools and communities. It is also developed through just relationships between the state and its citizens, as well as the pursuit of formal justice through the courts. The pursuit of justice is always an ongoing work.

· Freedom

It is often said that human beings desire freedom almost more than anything else. It is especially true that young people yearn for freedom, and their role in the struggle for political freedom in South Africa was pivotal. But freedom means living in a community, not simply “doing your own thing.” Rights and responsibilities need to be held in balance. All of this is a matter of constant negotiation, sometimes at the highest political level and other times in relationships closer to home, for example between family members, school mates, colleagues
or neighbours.

· Respect

Democracy is based on respect and on the belief that other people have interesting views, talents and intelligence. All people, whatever their backgrounds, whether we agree with them or not, deserve to be treated with dignity. Respect is something that begins in our relationships with people closest to us: at home, at school and in the broader community.

However, our society often falls short of this value. Citizens need to work hard to be treated with greater respect by their governments and institutions. It is easy for people with more power, in government, schools or other settings, to fall into the trap of imposing solutions, rather than working collaboratively with citizens to develop them. In big ways and small, respect is truly one of the cornerstones of democracy.

· Unity in diversity

The capacity to value diversity is closely linked to respect. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us do not like the idea of difference. We feel more comfortable with people who are like us. We seek out friends and supporters who have similar interests and views. As far as our personal relationships are concerned, we are perfectly entitled to make these choices. However, when we venture beyond our family and friendship circles into the public world, we encounter diversity head on. The essence of democracy is not only to differ decently, but to be able to negotiate solutions to common problems across lines of difference.

South Africa, with its diverse peoples, is often looked to as a case study of how democracy can help meet the challenges of the 21st century. The Constitution boldly states that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.” Treating this human diversity as our richest resource means learning to value the contributions that each one of us can make to our democracy.

· Openness

A democratic society, as stated in the Preamble, is an “open society.” There are a number of values associated with an open society, including transparency, accountability, participation, debate and dialogue, and equality of access. Since 1994, South Africa has made great strides in becoming a more open society. The Constitution makes frequent reference to the participation of citizens in policy making. The aim is not for government to spring surprises on the people, or to hold secrets from them. An open society is also a more just society. Legislation has been passed to ensure access to government information and, in certain cases, access to information held by the private sector as well. But legislation on its own is not enough. Once again, it is the task of the people themselves to hold public officials
to account.

· Recognition of individual potential

One of the most inspiring values that appears in the Preamble to the Constitution is the commitment to “free the potential of each person.” It becomes increasingly clear that democratic values are all inter-related. Freedom, respect for diversity and openness will all make it easier for the talents of individual citizens to be realised. But concentrating on developing individual potential is not automatically a way to build a democratic society. If it goes unchecked, individualism can destroy the fabric of community and run counter to democracy. But as people work together, they create a public space in which their potential as citizens can be realised.

· Patriotism

Pride in our country includes pride in our history and the world famous political transformation cemented by the Constitution. The Preamble recognises the role of “those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land.” Remembering and honouring these people is a way of ensuring that we don’t take what we have for granted. However, being patriotic is not just about looking to the past. It is about appreciating our present, with all its challenges. It is also about believing in our future together. A country without its people is like a movie
backdrop without actors. Our present and our future are what we make it, together.

· Recognition of people’s power

The Preamble to the Constitution begins with the phrase, “We, the people of South Africa.” This is a strong claim of ownership: the Constitution belongs to us. As Thomas Paine, one of the leaders of the American Revolution, put it, “A Constitution is not an act of government but of the people creating a government.” It is useful to conclude these thoughts on Constitutional values by reaffirming the centrality of people’s power in democracy. One way of asserting this is at election time, and the millions of young voters in South Africa can make a difference here. But an election is simply one moment in the life of a democracy. It is the constructive partnership between citizens and government between elections that makes democracy come alive. The Preamble acknowledges “those who have worked to build and develop our country.” This is ongoing work in which each one of us can play a part.

This is taken from Idasa’s Youth Vote Series – see http://www.idasa.org for more.


2 Responses

  1. has to lead with actions and not just talk about what needs to be done. Maya Negotiation

  2. This work is fantastic. I realy love it because it is the truth

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