Letsema Centre

What is Democracy?

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This topic deals with the question »What is Democracy?« - articles in this category include definitions and inputs on the topic.

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Discussing the Principles or Signposts of Democracy

Citizen participation
Participation is the key role of citizens in a democracy. It is not only their right, it their duty. Citizen participation builds a better democracy. Citizens get to choose their leaders in national, provincial and local government elections.  They can join and play a role in community organisations, labour unions and cultural groups. They can also express their opinions through the media and peaceful protest. Citizen participation is provided for in South African law.

Human Rights
All democracies strive to respect and protect the human rights of citizens.  Human rights are those values that reflect respect for human life and human dignity. Democracy emphasizes the value of every human being. Examples of human rights include freedom of expression, the right to equality and the right to basic education and health care. The struggle for liberation in South Africa was fundamentally a struggle for human rights. The United Nation’s document on the International Declaration for Human Rights is an all time resource. 

Bill of Rights
Many democratic countries have a bill of rights to protect people against the abuse of power. A bill of rights is a list of rights and freedoms guaranteed to all people in the country. When a bill of rights becomes part of a country's constitution, the courts have the power to enforce these rights. A bill of rights limits the power of the government and may also impose duties on individuals and organisations. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa provide for a uniquely inclusive Bill of Rights in Chapter Two.

Democratic societies emphasize the principle that all people are equal.  Equality means that all individuals are valued equally, have equal opportunities and may not be discriminated against because of their race, religion, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation. The old apartheid South Africa is an example of how societies could discriminate people as unequal.

In a democracy, elected and appointed officials have to be accountable and responsible to the people as a whole, not just to those who elected them. Elected leaders must take political decisions and become accountable to the public, whereas Officials must make managerial decisions and perform their duties according to the will and wishes of the people they represent, not for themselves. Accountability means of all who are charged to serve society to demonstrate the highest morality in terms of accountability. The old apartheid government was never accountable to all people hence we all must strive to make a democracy work by holding all public representative accountable.

For government to be accountable, the people must know what is happening in the country. A transparent government holds public meetings and allows citizens to attend. In a democracy, the press and the people are able to get information about what decisions are being made, by whom and why. The government must make information available and citizens must be able to understand and act on this information. Transparency means there is a glass in between to see through, it does not mean nakedness.

The Rule of Law
No one is above the law in a democracy, not even a king or an elected president. This is called the rule of law. It means that everyone must obey the law and be held accountable if they break it. Democracy also insists that the law be equally, fairly and consistently enforced. This is sometimes referred to as »due process of law.« The new South Africa has seen Presidents Mandela and Zuma been taken to courts and due processes of the law duly observed.

Regular Free and Fair Elections
One way citizens express their will is by electing officials to represent them in government. Democracy insists that these elected officials are chosen and peacefully removed from office in a free and fair manner in regular elections.  Intimidation, corruption and threats to citizens during or before an election are against the principles of democracy. For free and fair elections to occur, most adult citizens should have the right to stand for government office and obstacles should not exist which make it difficult for people to vote.

Accepting the Results of Elections
In democratic elections, there are winners and losers. Often the losers in an election believe so strongly that their party or candidate is the best one that they refuse to accept the result of the election. This is against democratic principles. The consequences of not accepting the results of an election may be a government that is ineffective and cannot make decisions.

Multi-Party System
In a multi-party system more than one political party can participate in elections and play a role in government. A multi-party system allows for opposition to the party which wins the election. This provides different viewpoints on issues and gives voters a choice of candidates, parties and policies to vote for. There is an average of more than hundred registered parties with the electoral commission and an average of ten parties always represented in parliament in South Africa.

Political Tolerance
While the majority of the people rule in a democracy, the rights of a minority must be protected. People who are not in power must be allowed to organise and speak out. Individual citizens must also learn to be tolerant of each other’s views, beliefs and politics. The interaction between political leaders and members from different parties is still a challenge in South Africa, this could be strengthened in the interest of political tolerance.

Economic Freedom
Economic freedom means that the government allows some private ownership of property and businesses, and that the people are allowed to choose their own work and join labour unions. It is generally accepted that free markets should exist in a democracy and the state should not totally control the economy. In South Africa, the economy is still very much in few hands, hence the poverty gaps between rich and poor always widening. Many scholars have asked the difficult question: what is democratic freedom without economic freedom?

Control of the Abuse of Power
Democratic societies try to prevent any elected official or group of people from misusing or abusing their power. One of the most common abuses of power is corruption. Democratic government is structured to limit the powers of the branches of government; for example, to have independent courts and agencies with power to act against any illegal action by an elected official or branch of government.

Acknowledgements and Disclaimers: The Signposts of Democracy were developed by Streetlaw for the Democracy Game. The views expressed herein about signpost of democracy are not exclusively those of LETSEMA CENTRE.