Gordhan's underlying theme: Participatory democracy

2016-10-27 18:19
Terry Bell and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan at the Frontline post-mini budget breakfast event. (Liziwe Ndalana)

WHAT seems to be missing in most of the analyses of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s mid-term budget speech and his subsequent interview at the Frontline breakfast event hosted by News24 is the underlying theme: the call for participatory democracy. For me, it was summed up in his question: “Can South Africans take ownership of their country?”

And he made clear that this meant “all 55 million” citizens. It underlined the egalitarian ethos of the Bill of Rights that “affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”.

The term “social contract” used by Gordhan also does not seem to imply burying conflicting interests in the cause of a claimed national interest. He acknowledges that there are “differing interests” within society. So, like any other contract, it is the clauses - the wording - of such a contract that is crucial.

By calling for mass, democratic, mobilisation - a political environment in which “citizens must actively participate” - Gordhan seems to support a level of participation in line with that envisaged in the Bill of Rights. So it is not a demand to rally across social and economic divides in order to save a ship of state that, like the Titanic, seems headed for disaster.

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Participatory democracy means that everyone has the right to an equal voice and equal power. This is a far cry from the present reality where most South Africans over the age of 18 are mere voting fodder for political parties, where citizens are allowed every five years to put crosses on ballot papers to hand over the power they collectively have, to party bureaucracies.

A democratic, and as far as possible egalitarian, state is clearly a goal Gordhan supports. And the route towards it, he sees as the greatest involvement of citizens across the board. But it is clearly a long-term view in a world facing ongoing economic crisis and the social and economic instability it continues to spawn.

So Gordhan is no idealist. As several analysts have noted over the past week, he is a pragmatist. He revealed this clearly in his Frontline interview when he admitted that to stand alone would invite being fired. Decisions and statements made as a minister were those of the government collective, despite any individual compromises this may involve.

It is no secret that there are daggers drawn and that Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas are being targeted; that a major political battle is under way within the governing party. Clearly both men see it as tactically sound to hold their ground within the ANC and government and shore up support.

The final battle lines are not yet clearly drawn, but there may be some sort of showdown if and when the impending prosecution of Gordhan goes ahead. In the meantime, there will be much behind-the-scenes jockeying for position and for arguments about ways and means to achieve the revenue flows the mid-term budget demands.

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