On the eve of the elections, South Africans deserve better — and it exists

Cheran no political parties

Over the past few years there has been a growing mistrust about the parliamentary system and other spheres of representative government in South Africa. It seems at every level of the state, it has become increasingly difficult to hold politicians accountable. Part of the reason is that in a representative democracy, as opposed to direct democracy, power in reality is given to politicians to make decisions and laws. While we vote for them, they actually decide what happens. 

We can make submissions to try and influence these decisions through the lobbying and advocacy that unions or community organisations do. But these are just ignored by politicians. The reality is that in the lobbying stakes, we cannot compete with better resourced corporations and the internal interests of political parties. While some checks and balances may exist, in the case of South Africa, politicians have simply side stepped these and largely become a law unto themselves. Indeed, many politicians have used their executive and legislative power, along with the widespread practices of outsourcing and tendering from the national to the local level, to develop patronage networks and accumulate personal wealth, flaunting it with the latest BMW or Breitling. 

Consequently, the list of parties in the upcoming elections — and the plethora of politicians that comprise them — may be aspirational, but they are anything but inspirational. Many are mired in corruption and scandals; others peddle some form of xenophobia; some embrace a form of racial, tribal or ethnic nationalism; some aim to maintain the status quo based on vast class and racial inequalities; and most embrace capitalism. None offer a path to a more democratic, peaceful and egalitarian future.

The consequences are growing cynicism: we are no longer even shocked when politicians do something outrageous or illegal. It is the norm, and it is now what we expect. In fact we are often amazed when they are not corrupt. While many people are tired of this pigswill, without an alternative system we will either trundle off to vote for the lesser evil, skip politics completely, or hope and pray for the best. 

Yet, we actually do deserve better and in some places in the world, although still small, we can see glimpses of a better system being built by people themselves, without handing power to politicians, which aim to build communal economies (as opposed to the capitalist one). These places hold lessons for South Africa and, perhaps, show that some form of working-class governance, based on direct democracy, can be built. One place where a new directly democratic system is being built is in a town called Cheran in Mexico, with a population of 17,000. It has a story that can inspire us all.

In the early 2000s, the town of Cheran had been badly impacted by neoliberal policies, implemented since the late 1980s. During that period, the state ended subsidies to small-scale farmers. Consequently, many of Cheran’s residents became unemployed. 

At the same time, gangs involved in the narcotics trade became entrenched. Gradually, as the power of the gangs grew, they started diversifying their operations and became involved in illegal logging of forests surrounding the town. The police turned a blind eye while the gangs bribed local politicians and even funded election campaigns.

Gangs and corporations set up avocado plantations on the lands that had been deforested. Avocado farming causes huge ecological damage and is highly water intensive, leading it to diminish the town’s water resources. By 2011, gangs were threatening to seize the town’s last water resource to divert towards avocado farming.

Around 2005,the community — led by women — began organising to resist the illegal clearing of forests. Meetings were held and, at times, gang members were confronted, which often led to community members being assassinated. When the last communal water source was threatened, however, the entire town rose in revolt. This culminated with the events of April 15, 2011.

On that day, women organised for the local church bells to ring as a signal to the community to come out and confront the gangs. They managed to subdue gang members that violently reacted to being confronted. Eventually, the community overcame the gangs, subdued their members, and seized their weapon stockpiles.

The mayor and local politicians, rather than support the community, ordered the police to intervene to ensure captured gang members were released. The community prevented the police from doing this and drove the police and politicians out of town. Barricades were then erected at all the entrances to the town, with an armed community militia (using the weapons seized from the gangs) preventing politicians, police and gangs from re-entering. The Mexican state, partly because of the costs inflicted by the experience of oppressing an uprising in another Mexican province (Oaxaca) in 2006, hesitated to send in the military to crush the community. 

Once local politicians and police had been expelled, assemblies were held on every street to decide how the town should be run. People decided that street-level assemblies should run the town permanently and that the local government should be dissolved. It was, thus, decided that the community would start permanently self-governing itself through an assembly system.

In this assembly system, anyone over the age of 12 can speak and vote in the street-level assemblies. In these assemblies, people decide how services should be provided and maintained. Local schools and healthcare facilities are also linked to the assemblies. Each assembly member has to contribute labour time and resources — where available — to ensure services are maintained and education and healthcare are improved.

The assemblies are arranged into 4 districts. Each district elects mandated delegates — who are rotated every three years and paid the average workers’ wage — to a coordinating council to ensure education, health and public amenities are run properly and collectively across the town. The mandates to coordinate come from the street assemblies: if they are not followed, delegates are recalled.

The people of Cheran also decided to ban all political parties — in the assemblies, people represent the community and not parties. The reason for this is that people felt political parties were corrupt, that they divided people and were only interested in power for themselves and the salaries or business opportunities that came from being in the state. 

The people of Cheran, through assemblies, established a militia directly under their control. The aim of the militia is to ensure communities are safe, as there is now no police force, and that the state and gangs cannot enter Cheran. Members of the militia are elected directly by communities and paid the average workers’ wage in the town.

For 13 years, the police, gangs, corporations and state have been unable to enter into the town. It was also decided that a legal battle would be waged for Cheran’s autonomy, using clauses from the Constitution derived from the 1910 Mexican Revolution. This was won in 2018. Therefore, for 13 years, people have been self-governing through the assembly-based system and in the process improving their own lives, including by reducing the murder and serious crime rate to almost zero. They have created their own form of direct democracy to run their lives — without politicians.

Along with building self-governance, there has also been an attempt to build a communal and ecological economy. One commune has been established to work on a reforestation program. Through this 50% of the forest around Cheran has been restored. Another commune supplies the saplings for reforestation. Likewise, there are communes involved in tapping and selling resin, and in a communal-run sawmill and timbering project to cut down diseased trees. In this way, the people of Cheran are attempting to build a communal economy that is not in the hands of capitalists, politicians or gangs.

A critic would point out that this is all good and well, but Cheran is only a small community and such experiments could never move beyond the local. Nonetheless, Cheran does not seek to be an isolated enclave and has links to movements, nationally and internationally, including the Zapatistas and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Indeed, the AANES is similar in form to Cheran, in terms of direct democracy based on street-level structures called communes, but on a vastly bigger scale. In fact, the AANES involves more than 2 million people practicing a form of direct democracy, where the grassroots base has power to make decisions. Under this system, called Democratic Confederalism, assemblies in neighbourhoods, towns, cities and provinces are federated together through mandated delegates (with AANES-wide structures, such as the Syrian Democratic Council, combining this with elected representatives).

Consequently, there are experiments which demonstrate that a different politics, based on working-class power and direct democracy, can be built and that states and politicians are, in fact, not needed if there is an organised working-class power. Perhaps it is time for people living in South Africa to start thinking about more democratic and accountable forms of governance to the one we have. Perhaps it is time to begin to imagine and build towards something better than the corrupt and/or self-aggrandising politicians standing in the upcoming elections. 

Such a vision did exist in the 1980s struggle against apartheid. There were street committees in many working-class townships that, in some cases, even drove the apartheid state out of townships and self-governed locally for a while — until brutal apartheid state repression and subsequent African National Congress demobilisation (whose leadership wanted state power) in the run up to the 1994 elections eroded them. At their height, there was even some vision that a self-governing system based on the street committees — what was called People’s Power — could replace the apartheid state and capitalism. 

Outside or beyond voting, we need to begin to strive for a new system of direct democracy, where people genuinely have power once again. It is something the working class needs if society is to be changed for the better. But doing so will be harder than electing a few politicians every five years. Getting a better system than the one we have will require mobilisation and building organisations — but if Cheran is to go by, it is worth the effort.

[Shawn Hattingh works for the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) in Cape Town, South Africa.]