14 February 2014

I no longer believe in democracy

I lost faith in democracy during a 4-hour staff meeting on a Friday afternoon about whether the school should ring one or two bells at the start of the school day, says Susan Erasmus.


I lost faith in democracy during a 4-hour staff meeting on a Friday afternoon about whether the school should ring one or two bells at the start of the school day, says Susan Erasmus.

It was 1986, it was mid-summer and boiling, and every single one of the 76 teachers felt that they had a duty to make their voice heard. Even if they were making the same point over and over, and the occasion was actually used to settle old scores of a more personal nature. And the issue itself was of absolutely no consequence whatsoever.

By the end of the meeting I was not only no longer a fan of democracy, but I was also in favour of the death penalty – as long as I could act as executioner.

The staff meeting ended in chaos, and no decision was taken.

It has left me in a bit of a conundrum for the last 28 years: I fervently believe in human rights (but also responsibilities) and dedicated years of my life to working in township educational institutions. This has made me fond of many individuals, but no more fond of democracy as a political system.

I know this is not a popular viewpoint, and I expect to be roasted in the comment boxes, but I am prepared to ride it out. I do not agree with the Latin saying Vox populi, vox dei – the voice of the people is the voice of God.  You only have to look at human history to realise the folly of that.

What else is there?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not in favour of tyrannical rule, or apartheid (but then I repeat myself), or hereditary rule, or communism, or pure socialism. But I am, for the benefits of this column, going to afford myself the luxury of criticising democracy without suggesting an alternative.

Every year the state of the nation address leaves me perplexed and feeling despondent. It’s the same promises, the same misguided pride (guys, increasing the number of people on social grants is not a reason to applaud – it’s a sign of failure, not of success), it looks like the same suit, in fact, it sounds like the very same speech. Would anyone notice if it were?

The real issues never really get addressed: the exorbitant prices of food, overpopulation, the education crisis, millions of asylum-seekers, tax evasion, the housing crisis, the crisis in state healthcare.

Is the majority right?

But then this is my basic problem with democracy: those who get voted in by majority votes, can never afford to make prudent financial and political long-term decisions that would make them unpopular and jeopardise their re-election. Democracy encourages short-sightedness and self-interest and greed. A bit like unbridled capitalism.

People who cut social grants never get in for a second term. But no state can continue paying out more money than it receives. That is, however, not the problem of the career politician. His/her goal is re-election, not long-term sustainable strategies. So the debt gets passed onto the next government and so on and so on.

We are seeing the worldwide effect of this debt being passed from generation to generation. The US has to keep borrowing more, and many EU countries, notably Greece, Spain and Italy are in serious trouble.

While I am definitely in favour of everyone having a say, I cannot say that the majority is always right. You only have to look at juries in the US, who have convicted many innocent people. Just because the majority of the population believed in the 1500s that the earth was flat, it didn’t mean that it was. Sometimes the majority is right, and sometimes it isn’t. Scary thought.

Benjamin Franklin said that democracy was ‘two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch’. That might be an extreme example, but it does make a point.

But what else is there? I don’t know. I can’t think of any other system that would be more fair. Or less flawed. Maybe the last word belongs to Churchill from a House of Commons speech in 1947:

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer for Health24.


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