The Power of Direct Democracy.

On 17th March 1992, “White South Africa” voted overwhelmingly in a Referendum, to scrap apartheid and to negotiate a new inclusive constitution. In a turnout of 85 % of the registered voters, 69% voted for the proposed negotiations (ie to scrap apartheid) and 31% voted against the proposal.

We believe that this reflected the overwhelming sentiment of the majority of the white population which had prevailed for decades, probably ever since the introduction of apartheid following the 1948 general elections, which delivered a parliamentary majority to white South African nationalists.

On 25th May 2018 the Irish people voted overwhelmingly in a Referendum, to scrap the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, which in a referendum in 1983, driven largely by the Catholic Church in the guise of a visit to Ireland by the Pope, largely banned abortion in Ireland under most circumstances. This time around, some 35 years later, in a 64% turnout, 66% voted in favour of scrapping the eighth amendment and 34% voted against the proposal.

As part of the Irish ballot, the question was asked for how long had the sentiment expressed in the vote cast existed. Many answered, for decades.

And then, of course, there was Brexit! Yet another example of the will of the people expressed in an act of direct democracy in 2016 which went counter to the wishes, expectations and hopes of the establishment.

The point of this is to illustrate the power of voters exerted in the direct expression of their democratic will by means of a referendum, by the application of direct democracy. Few parliamentary elections generate such high voter turnout and fewer still deliver parliamentary results which express the will of the people so directly and so accurately and very few parliamentary elections deliver such landslide results, except in totalitarian stares where opposition opinion is excluded from the process.

Without the application of the will of the people expressed in acts of direct democracy, apartheid in South Africa and the almost blanket ban on abortion in Ireland and Britain’s membership of the EU, could well have continued ad nauseum.

What these three examples ably demonstrate is that the world’s parliamentary systems are not always aligned with the wishes of their voters so much as being aligned with the will of the prevailing establishment.  This does need to change, here in South Africa, and elsewhere.

Then of course there was the recent US Presidential elections where the will of the people (a substantial absolute majority for Hillary Clinton) was ignored by the establishment in favour of President Donald Trump. It may be argued that the one candidate is no better than the other, but in that instance it was clearly shown that the will of the people was not expressed in the election results.

It can and will be argued that direct democracy also demonstrates the fickleness of the voter population.  But we would argue that it is perfectly legitimate for a voter population to try out a particular political strategy or process and when finding the strategy or process to be wanting, to ditch it.  That is not being fickle, that is being responsible. 

The establishment are largely in fear of direct democracy because they fear populist government and they are less able to control the outcomes of political sentiment expressed by direct democracy, than by influencing the party political system, by various means, including but not limited to the buying of political favour in political parties.

The Direct Democracy Forum’s sentiment is illustrated by the proposed application of direct democracy in the DDF’s proposed SENATE and MUNICIPAL FORUMS and in the use of referendums to resolve political deadlocks, much like occurred in South Africa in the apartheid years and in Ireland since 1983 and in Britain since the 1970s.


There is a saying that all will come to those who wait. Being proactive I am not sure I agree with the sentiment. But recently something happened illustrating it’s relevance.

Some 60 years back in the 1960s, when I was about 15, I was pondering how a political process whereby a political fringe had managed to capture a perfectly adequate dual house parliamentary system and impose a largely unwelcome and undesirable system (the apartheid system) on the masses of the population of a country (SA), could have come about. From that came a proposal for an upper house of parliament (I called it a house of censure) which was drawn from the streets rather than the political establishment, and through which all legislation and regulation must be passed for approval. Of course I was 15 or so, and nothing came of it beyond it being a proposal.

Over the years, the proposal became more sophisticated and concrete and I stopped calling the house one of censure, and identified it as a Senate.

In the 1990s, when the CODESA was in process I submitted my Senate proposal to CODESA l and ll, as many did. The proposal was ignored. I happened at the time to be living across the road from Mac Maharaj, then the ANC’s spin doctor. I challenged him on the fact that my proposal had not even been acknowledged. He stood on the other side of his gate and held his hand about chest high above the ground and said, what did I expect them to do with a pile of proposals that high. The inference being that CODESA was a farce and was merely a vehicle to impose the opinions of the few on the many and is merely a sop to consultation. I learned this form of consultation is typical of the ANC.

Time moved on. In 2012 the Direct Democracy Forum was formed using TEAL and the Senate proposals as the foundation of DDF policies. These policies have since been added to by a Basic Income Grant and a Sovereign Wealth Fund (amongst other policies).

Now in 2018, I read an article published June 2016 in the Guardian’s long read series, by David Van Reybrouck titled “Why elections are bad for democracy” arguing very persuasively that representative democracy and elected politicians are failing us, their constituents, where “common interest lose out to short term and party interests”, and where “winning the next election has become more important than fulfilling the promises made in the last”, and that in it’s place was needed something like “the central principle of Athenian democracy, drafting by lot, or sortition”, where those drafted were immersed in the details of every legislative and regulatory proposal and so could vote from an informed position on the issues. Thus ” a cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed”.

How does that vindicate the DDF Senate policies? It does so because sortition describes exactly what the DDF Senate policy is about.

It is significant that sortition is being used more and more to resolve issues that party-political electioneering and periodic visits to voting stations have been unable to resolve. This has occurred “in the US, Australia and the Netherlands” and most innovatively in Ireland. In December 2012, a constitutional convention began, drawing on “33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, from both Ireland and Northern Ireland” .. who .. “met one weekend per month for more than a year”.

In this, the Irish approach, the convention drew up proposals to go before parliament. In the DDF approach, the Senate would be required to approve or reject legislation or regulation emanating from Parliament or Cabinet. So one is doing it one way, the other is doing it the other way. But the same essential principle is being applied. Get the approval of ordinary opinion, first or last in the process, but getting that approval is essential, which ever way you do it.

I believe all of this vindicates the DDF’s Senate policy and proposals and although it is a 60 year old story for me, the story still has some chapters to be written. Those chapters cover implementing a sortition Senate and the many more chapters thereafter where sortition builds a better South Africa for all.

Constitutional Reform

The South African parliamentary model is loosely patterned after the Westminster Model with an elected legislature and a second house intended to moderate the acts of the legislature (in UK a House of Lords and in SA a House of Provinces)

The Westminster model has largely been regarded with some respect and has been more or less emulated around the world.  Ok this is probably because Britain was a prolific colonizer and left its stamp on many aspects of the life and politics of its former colonies.  But the Westminster model is under scrutiny, indeed perhaps even under attack, particularly from those who want devolution from a centrist authority.  The most recent attack on Westminster itself came from the Scottish referendum of September 18 2014 on the issue of Scottish independence from Britain, but was defeated by a 10% margin (45% for and 55% against secession).  

None the less, the vote has sparked a great deal of debate about the Westminster style of government.  The sentiment for a greater and closer say in the process of government is developing a groundswell in Britain and elsewhere in the world.  A recent manifestation of this groundswell comes from a group of the world’s mayors, who are pushing for a parliament of mayors.  See Will mayors one day rule the world?

The Direct Democracy Forum might support such a move provided the mayors were directly elected but wonder if mayors would then have the time to also act as members of a national or international legislative body and how would that work?

The idea is interesting but DDF believe that any parliamentary model that does not include elements of direct democracy in it would basically usurp the rights recognized by the DDF, for a population to approve all laws and regulations by which it is governed.  

This is the core of the DDF‘s Senate model, that a legislature can be appointed in any manner provided it is directly answerable either to the electorate as a whole, by referendum, or to a senate representing that electorate, such as suggested in the DDF‘s proposal for a Senate.

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