Joburg Advocacy Group (JAG): Campaign for Direct Democracy

Monday, 21 March 2011

Campaign for Direct Democracy

Today is Human Rights Day in South Africa, the day on which we celebrate the Bill of Rights contained in the Constitution, commemorate those who died and were injured at Sharpeville on this day in 1960 and, in the words of Nelson Mandela, say: "Never, never and never again ...".

So we feel it is an appropriate day on which to launch a campaign for direct democracy in the City of Johannesburg, because Sharpeville represents what can and does happen when ordinary people have no meaningful voice in public affairs, and when power over many is vested in the hands of a few.


For those who are unfamiliar with the historic background to this day, it was on 21 March 1960 that apartheid-era police fired into an unarmed crowd conducting a peaceful protest against the mandatory use of the dompas ('dumb pass') identity document, which only black people had to carry.

The shooting is believed to have been triggered by poorly-trained young police officers reacting in fear when they saw the crowd massing, and its context is contentious. Nevertheless, 69 people died on that day and approximately 300 were wounded, mostly shot from behind. 

The event was a watershed in the country's history, as it lead to the declaration of a state of emergency and to the banning of the ANC and the PAC. This, in turn, lead to the decision to form Umkhonto we Sizwe (the ANC's military wing), to the armed struggle against apartheid and, ultimately, to the advent of representative democracy in 1994.

Seventeen years on, representative democracy has taken us only so far and, in too many cases to mention, has failed the people of South Africa dismally.

It therefore seems to be the right time to begin working towards a new kind of direct democracy, beginning at local level, which will ensure that every voice counts in our young democracy.

About Direct Democracy

Direct democracy is not an ideology or a political system, like nationalism or communism, and it cannot be imposed by centrally-controlled structures.

It is simply a non-partisan way of organising public life in such a way that all citizens have a direct and meaningful say over the laws, institutions and systems that impact on their day-to-day lives, and on the way in which their country is governed.

Direct democracy is therefore not something that can be created by political parties, ideologues or, indeed, by advocacy groups like ours. It is something that can only be created by the country's people - individuals or groups of individuals acting together to make this ideal a reality.

JAG's Campaign for Direct Democracy

What JAG has to offer to an undertaking of this kind is not a new political system, a new ideology, a new political party or a new set of leaders, but simply
the kind of information the city's voters need in order to decide on how best to exercise their hard-won democratic privilege,
as well as an open platform that they can use to express their views. We don't claim to speak for the city's people because they can speak for themselves, and we have never claimed to represent them, because they can do that for themselves too.

Our mission has always been simply to advocate for good governance in the Joburg metro on behalf of all of the city's residents, and to provide them with the kind of information that empowers them to take meaningful and effective action on their own behalf.

It has, however, become increasingly clear to us that, in a system which has become fundamentally dysfunctional, even the most hard-nosed advocacy has little impact. And we are more convinced than ever that the only solution to the current state of affairs is a completely new system of governance, as we feel certain that change cannot - and will not - come from within.

Even if the ruling ANC were to be voted out of power and the city were to be ruled by the opposition DA, the system's fundamental structural failures would remain unaddressed, and this would simply, we believe, be a case of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Without real and meaningful change, we feel certain that the city's system of local government will slowly but surely fall into a greater and more acute state of collapse and, as importantly, that voters will continue to have little or no say over how their city is governed.

So today we begin a campaign aimed at communicating some of the little-known facts about our current system of local government, and at engaging voters in a debate about possible alternatives. 

To begin with, from now until election day, we will be posting a daily fact about our current system of democracy or about direct democracy on our Facebook page and on Twittter (@JoburgAdvocacy), and will be posing pertinent questions about these facts. We invite all residents in the city and, indeed, from other municipal areas, to engage in this debate. 

For those who do not have Facebook or Twitter accounts, there is a direct Twitter feed in the sidebar on this site, which will enable you to follow the conversation. You can also click through to our Facebook page using the link in the sidebar. This will enable you to follow the debate on Facebook, even if you don't have a Facebook account. If you wish to post comments, you will need to sign up for a free Facebook account in order to do so, a process which takes only a few minutes.

During the next week, we will also be publishing two easy-to-read documents about our present local government system and about an alternative system of direct democracy: Direct Democracy: Frequently-Asked Questions and the 2011 Local Government Elections Information Leaflet. We hope these will give voters the kind of information that they're unlikely to see in the media or to be given by political parties.

Why Direct Democracy?

What, readers may ask, has brought JAG to the point at which it is advocating for a new form of direct democracy?

The short answer is our direct experience, both as individual residents and as members of this group, of the widespread failure of good governance in our system of government, particularly at local level. 

Of as much concern is the failure of various oversight bodies, including institutions such as the Public Protector and bodies like chambers of commerce and law societies, to respond in any meaningful way to this crisis of governance.

A Unique Window of Opportunity

This is why we believe a new system of direct democracy is the only way forward, and why we feel that voters have a unique window of opportunity to call for change during the upcoming local government elections.

Amongst other things, it is this window of opportunity that we will be exploring in depth in the upcoming weeks, and we look forward to engaging in that discussion with the people of Joburg. 

For a sensitive and insightful analysis of the Sharpeville shootings, please refer to "An ordinary atrocity: Sharpeville and its massacre" by Philip Frankel (Wits University Press, 2001)

Note: Just to advise that there seems to be a problem with Blogger at the moment, as several people have mailed to let us know that they've commented on this post, but that their comments have subsequently just disappeared!

We've checked our privacy settings, and comments are allowed from anyone without moderation, so the problem isn't on our side. This is unfortunately a known issue with Blogger and we've written to the technical team there to try and get this problem addressed.

In the meantime, if you're experiencing problems posting a comment, please send your comment through by e-mail to and we'll publish it from our side. Alternatively, please participate in the discussion on our Facebook page. We value feedback from all individuals and groups, and encourage everyone to participate in the debate about direct democracy.


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LC said...

Glad we could help! :)

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