COSATU can learn from Corbyn to avoid slipping into irrelevance

British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

“The ANC came before democracy.” This statement by President Jacob Zuma was obviously incorrect since the concept of democracy pre-dated the formation of the ANC in 1912 by about 2,500 years.
It came to us from the ancient Greeks who also provided the term, taken from demos (people) and kratos (power). However Zuma did go on to explain that he meant his comment to apply to South Africa where the first non-racial parliamentary elections were staged 82 years after the birth of what became the ANC.
This, along with comments made at last week’s Cosatu congress, put the whole question of what democracy means into focus. At the same time, the media was again accused of misleading the voting public and so undermining both the ANC and its trade union partner.
But does universal adult suffrage — votes for all to a parliament — equal democracy? And is the media really able, to a large degree, to manipulate public opinion and, therefore, harm the trade union movement and the country?

In the first place, there are different forms of parliamentary “democracy.” On the basis of universal suffrage, Britain was not a democracy until 1933, the first election in which women could vote on an equal basis.

So what applied in Britain up to that date — and even in Greece until 1952 — is best described as a gender exclusive parliamentary system of “democracy.” In South Africa, women classified white were only given the vote in 1930 at the same time that there were still black men on the common voters roll.

The remaining black voters were removed in 1936 and, 20 years later, voters classified “coloured” followed suit, making the country a racially exclusive parliamentary democracy. But all of these examples are a far cry from the democratic goal that all people should enjoy equal rights and constant oversight; that after discussion and debate, the views of the majority should prevail as long as they remain relevant.

A majority could also not remove the rights of a minority to dissent. Citizens and voters are not soldiers at war, so ongoing debate is healthy and decisions are always open to revision, with the power always resting with “the people.”

This is the essence of the now apparently abandoned Cosatu Constitution, just as it underpins the justly lauded Bill of Rights. But while democracy is much demanded and talked about, the concept is frequently abused in practice, not just here, but around the world.

Block votes, hand-picked delegates, bribery, bullying and vote rigging to various degrees are all means by which the electoral process, whether in unions or countries, can be, and often is, distorted. The media usually plays a role in reflecting this, but there is plenty of evidence that the power of the media is very limited.

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Having recently returned from Britain, I was able to see at first hand an excellent example involving democratic practice and the role of the media that should provide lessons for local union leaders and politicians. It concerns the election of the new Labour Party (LP) leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a life-long socialist, human rights, anti-racist and peace activist.

The 231 members of the parliamentary party wanted Corbyn’s name on the list of candidates in order to provide an illusion of choice in a field of business friendly members of the LP’s right wing. Only 20 of the MPs supported him and most of the LP-supporting trade union leaders were anti-Corbyn.

Right across the board, the media either reviled or rejected him. But, for the first time ever the LP allowed the election for leader to be on the basis of “one member, one vote.” Corbyn enjoyed a landslide victory.

Yet he ignored the mainstream media, instead addressing town hall and local party meetings while his growing band of mainly youthful supporters turned to the internet and to social media: people speaking to people. And they won.

It seems a simple enough message: democracy — the right of people to freely make their own choices — is a goal to be striven for and people are not easily swayed by the media. Personal contact and experiences, bolstered by open discussion with equals is what makes the difference.

Here indeed is a lesson, especially for Cosatu: truly go back to basics, to unity in diversity, to the democratic principles of the federation’s constitution and the goals of the Bill of Rights. True shop-floor democracy and the tolerance of difference may be the only hope left to halt a slide toward irrelevance.

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This article was originally published on GroundUp

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