Decisions on public money not that democratic when the majority is not heard

By Steven Friedman



WHEN South Africans debate how public money should be spent, we can be sure that the voices of most of the people will never be heard.

The conflict over university fee increases is the latest example. We are told that "the students" want some things and reject others. Actually, we have no idea what the students think. We know what protestors think but, in most cases including this one, protestors are a small portion of the people affected by a decision — there are hundreds of protestors, tens of thousands of students.

Protest tells us that some people feel strongly about an issue — it does not tell us what most people think. We also know what student representative councils (SRCs) think but, on most campuses, most students do not vote in SRC elections. We therefore have no idea whether most students support or reject the current fees proposal, or what they think about university funding.

Even if we did know, this would only be part of the conversation. Students are not the only people affected by public-spending decisions. Since democratic policy decisions should reflect the views of everyone they affect, all other voices have a right to be heard.

But we have even less idea of what most people think about university funding than we do about student opinion. In public-spending debates, some people are heard and others are not.

Those who are heard are the organised and connected, who have ways of making themselves heard in the media, social and regular, and are far more likely to join organisations that express their view. Those who are not heard are the poor and the unorganised.

And so we know what the middle class think about this and other public-spending decisions, but we do not know what single women trying to bring up two children in a shack think. Since South Africans living in poverty outnumber those who have jobs and homes, debates on public spending exclude most people who have a stake in the outcome.

Like students, poor people can and do vote in elections. In theory, this means that they are heard. Sometimes they do use elections to make themselves heard: voters in Nkandla and Marikana, who rejected the governing party, were surely making a statement about corruption and the shooting of strikers. But there is only so much that voters can say in an election. They can signal who they want to govern, but not which policies they want: it is a very rare voter who agrees with every policy that his or her party supports, and so voting for a party does not mean supporting a particular policy.

So debate — and decisions — are far less democratic than they seem: demands that the government listen to "the people" are really calls for it to listen to the minority who can speak, not the majority who cannot. The problem is worsened here by the divide between economic insiders — those who have jobs and regular income — and the outsiders who do not. Debate on spending is always about which insiders get what, not about what can be done to make outsiders become insiders.

Of course, everyone in the debate talks about the poor: it is bad manners to advocate anything, from privatisation to nationalisation, without insisting that the real winners will be the poor. But all those who do this are so sure that they know what the poor want that they would never dream of trying to find out what people in poverty really think. This doubly silences the poor: not only are they not heard, but others put words in their mouths, deciding for them what they are meant to think.

The obvious cure is for the silenced to organise to demand a say. But that is easy only in theory: people battling to get by, many of whom live in areas where local power-holders muffle independent voices, find it very difficult to get together to say what they want. When they do, their organisations are usually ignored because they do not speak the language of the middle class, or are bullied and attacked by the power-holders they challenge.

So most South Africans will remain excluded unless the insiders make a serious effort to hear them. Government politicians show no interest in trying to win the support of the poor for spending decisions, even when this could strengthen their hand by showing that unpopular measures are supported by the poor.

Opposition politicians show equally little enthusiasm for talking to the excluded about their proposals. "Civil society" — citizen organisations that campaign on policy issues — talk about people in poverty far more than they listen to them. Media and commentators usually look no further than the organised and connected, and rarely offer the excluded a voice by bothering to find out what they think.

If politicians, activists and the media really wanted to know what the majority thought, they could find out. But, as long as the insiders call the shots and no one gains by listening to the outsiders, the voices of most South Africans may well remain stilled for a long time.

*Friedman is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for the Study of Democracy.

This article was first featured in Business Day Live dated 28 September 2016.


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