Democracy in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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AS THE nation gets ready to vote for a new government, the columnist warns of the critical importance of casting a vote intelligently. Above is a signboard indicating the Durban City Hall voting station as citizens went to register and check that their names were on the voters roll for the May 8 poll. Motshwari Mofokeng African News Agency (ANA)

When I was born in 1971 in Venda, three years after the great partition of the peoples of Venda, my certificate showed that I was registered as a South African citizen. The great partition is the separation of Venda speakers from their Tsonga and Sepedi counterparts who had been living together for many generations. The Tsonga speakers were moved from the hinterlands of Venda to what is now called Malamulele. To create Malamulele, the Kruger National Park fence had to be moved. The Sepedi speakers were moved from the Sinthumule area to Botlokwa, Bandelierskop and other areas outside the present day Polokwane that were deemed reserved for the Bapedi people. This was to comply with a notorious law called the Group Areas Act, which prescribed that only people who speak the same indigenous language should live together.

This separation, which saw the movement of 10% of people living in Venda, was a big disaster. Firstly, you could not quite tell who was Venda, Pedi and Tsonga because these people had intermarried so much that the division was at best superficial. They even created a new language called Tshiguvhu, which is mutually comprehensible by three language speakers. Then the gender question entered the great partition! A persons’ ethnic group was defined by the ethnicity of their last name and patriarchy determined last names of families. Then began the separation of families! Brothers and sisters were assigned different ethnic identities depending on whom they were married to and were separated on a great scale.

The Bapedi, were lucky because the places they were taken to were areas not so much affected by malaria. Consequently, many of them survived, even though they were greatly impoverished because they still had to start again without compensation. The Tsonga speakers were unlucky because Malamulele was a malaria area and 10% of them perished. This was a forgotten genocide of the Group Areas Act.

In 1979, eight years after my birth, I lost my South African “identity” and at the stroke of pen by those who processed my reapplication, I became the citizen of the Republic of Venda. I still have the identity document (ID) of the Republic of Venda, which followed the establishment of the republics of Transkei and Bophuthatswana. The irony of the story is that my last Venda ID was issued after 1994, after Madiba became president of South Africa. This was not malicious but the systems of homelands were not yet integrated into the new South African system. The other irony is that even though I was a citizen of Venda, I held a South African passport because the Venda passport was only acceptable to few countries such as Taiwan. Our transition to democracy was a historical event but it was painful and full of ironies.

The 1994 democratic transition was more evolutionary than revolutionary but it gave us a democratic vote. Democracy is precious but its value depends on how much we invest on making it work. If we do not make it work, we render it to be characterised by what is called the banality of democracy. The term the banality of democracy is borrowed from the concept called the banality of evil, which was coined by a German American philosopher Hannah Arendt to describe how easy it is for ordinary people to descend into evil. In the banality of democracy, it is astonishing how easy it is for people to take democracy for granted by not becoming informed voters.

As a historical materialist, I believe that the measure of the effectiveness of democracy is by how much it is able to solve the contradictions of unemployment, inequality and poverty that plague our society. Democracy on its own will not solve these problems. There has to be a strong feedback mechanism between the voters and the elected officials so that elected officials will be weary of disappointing the electorates. For us to strengthen this feedback mechanism there has to be a strong connection between what our elected officials do and what is good for the general population. We can achieve this strong feedback connection through informed and not banal voting.

How do we achieve informed voting? We need to inform ourselves about the most pressing issues that are affecting our communities and communicate these to our public representatives, whether local, provincial or national. For example, I estimate that less than 2% of our population know where their parliamentary constituency offices (PCO) are. Worse yet, very few people even know what the PCO is and who are the elected representatives who are assigned to their local PCO. Whenever there is a serious problem in the community instead of first going to their PCO, which is what normally happens in a functional democracy, the tendency is to protest. Protest is important, but protest without holding our public representatives accountable is meaningless.

The other issue that we need to do is to guard against the negation of our democracy through the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The 4IR is changing the way we live and work through technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) – that technology that makes machines intelligent like human beings. Due to the fact that we are spending a great deal of time on social media networks, such as Facebook and communicating with the so-called free email system such as Gmail, a large population in our society is being watched, studied and nudged to behave in a certain way. This is industrialising the way our politicians interact with us by making them rely on technology rather than the face-to-face interaction. Last week, I received a prerecorded phone call from a leader of one of our major political parties urging me to vote for their party. It turns out that these political parties use AI software that goes to social media, segment undecided potential voters and contact them directly to nudge them to vote in a particular manner. The idea of harvesting data and using it to achieve a political objective is a scandal that engulfed Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. This allegedly contributed to the election of Donald Trump, President of the United States. As we go to vote, we should guard against the 4IR technologies taking away our political independence and ultimately our vote.

Now given all these problems of unemployment, poverty, inequality, service delivery failures, corruption etc., which political party do we vote for in the upcoming elections? For me which political party we should vote for is a personal choice but I believe we should base this on the objective analysis of the contemporary South Africa. Irrespective of our choices let us go and vote. We should do this to shape our future and to honor those people who suffered through our painful history, including those who died in the great separation that I talked about at the beginning of this article. I am excited about the future of this country and I believe in the core of securing our future.

Political parties must have a vision on how we should react to the unprecedented developments in the 4IR, which if not handled well will negatively disrupt our society, economy and politics. I believe the only viable strategy to resolve the problems that beset our society is through the intensification of relevant education. The world is a hostile environment and diplomacy, which should be a win-win situation, is very often a zero-sum game. In the zero-sum game, the win by one country is usually a loss by another country. Political parties that negotiate a good international deal for South Africa will get my attention. For South Africa to thrive, it has to leverage on the 1.3 billion people in the African continent. Therefore, I will positively focus my attention on political parties that want to open up to the rest of the African continent than those political parties that gravitate towards xenophobia. Let us exercise our democratic right and become informed voters on the 8th of May 2019.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.