As part of our 30th anniversary celebrations, Social Surveys Africa co-hosted a debate with the Democracy Works Foundation entitled DEFENDING DEMOCRACY – INSTITUTIONS AND THE PEOPLE (7 May 2017, Women’s Jail, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg). The speakers were Dr Reuben E. Brigety, Dean of the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University and former US Ambassador to the AU, Thembinkosi Dlamini of Oxfam South Africa and Heather Sonn Pather, Managing Director of Gamiro Investment Group. The discussion was moderated by Busi Dlamini, Democracy Works Director.

After several decades in which Democracy was considered a relatively unquestioned and largely functional ‘good’ in many countries of the world, it is now increasingly contested in those same spaces. There are deep-seated disagreements about who or what is to be resisted or defended; and few spaces in which people with a diversity of views can debate constructively to build new narratives and networks. This event was designed to facilitate such a discussion across sectors, generations and national contexts.

The three speakers brought a wealth of experience in diplomacy, civil society, business, community activism and academia to bear on the question of democracy’s nature and role. A highly diverse audience pushed the lively discussion further with provocative questions and challenging proposals for action. The speakers agreed that democratic systems, for all the flaws they have in practice, remain the best option available for ordinary people to have a voice in decision-making and to hold leaders accountable. However, people must actively use their democratic power, including in between formal elections and at all levels from community to national (and indeed regional where possible), as forcefully argued by Reuben Brigety and Thembinkosi Dlamini. The discussion debated the links between political democracy, aimed at controlling power and influencing decision-making within the state, and economic systems of power and decision-making. Helen Sonn Pather noted that the private sector should also be held to account based on a conscientious inclusion of the interests of the people, and not be judged only on its ability to extract value. Several audience members, especially young speakers, felt that there could be no substantive political democracy without substantially increasing the economic participation and power of those historically and currently marginalized in our societies.