Notes on a Lesson in Democracy

04/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last Thursday, as I sat listening to remarks by Justice Albie Sachs of the South African Constitutional Court, it occurred to me that when this man uses the word 'democracy' he really knows what he's talking about.

Albie Sachs is a major figure of the South African freedom struggle. He is in the US promoting his latest book, The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law. He and colleagues Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, and millions of South Africans of every hue (Albie is a white man), transformed their country from a rigged 'democracy' for the privileged few, to an actual democracy for all. It remains a work in progress. But like the United States, it is founded on a profoundly enlightened set of documents that it continuously struggles to live up to.

Albie helped to write those documents. And before that he spent most of his life working to free his country from the racist system of apartheid. On Thursday he spoke softly and effortlessly about his astonishing life, using lovely metaphors. He even sang occasionally. Like when he demonstrated how he endured over a hundred days of solitary confinement, and the marathon interrogations by secret police, (during which, he admitted, he was "almost broken," and from which, he says, he will "never completely recover").

When he speaks, Albie gestures freely, almost impishly, with what is left of his right arm. He lost the rest of it, and his right eye, to a car bomb placed by agents of the South African government. Those agents were following orders to assassinate him, because his non-violent efforts to bring down apartheid had qualified him as a "terrorist."

Albie smiles when he describes his transformation from terrorist to collaborative author of his country's new constitution, and he jokes that he didn't feel any different as a terrorist than he does now. He believed in democracy then, and he's still working to close the gap between the ideal, and the reality, of democracy now.

He is, therefore, a man with deep understanding of the big words that are freely -- and often disingenuously -- bandied about by political partisans on all sides here in the US. Words like freedom, sacrifice, rights, service, liberty, citizenship, etc. It occurred to me as I listened, that our democracy is in peril precisely because it's loudest and most adamant "defenders" don't seem to have any idea of what those words really mean.

The great achievement of Albie Sachs and his colleagues was not that they brought out the best in their allies. They also brought out the best in their adversaries. Nelson Mandela didn't walk out of prison determined to get back at his captors; he resolved instead to give each of them a vote in their new country. Albie Sachs may have wanted vengeance on his interrogators when they were prying his eyes open with their thick fingers and dousing him with cold water. But instead he came to identify with their fears, and even empathize with how, as children, they were taught to see enemies all around them. That's why he was able to help write a constitution that gave his former enemies much more freedom after he and his fellow 'terrorists' ascended to positions of authority, than they'd had before.

The people that voted in South Africa's first free and fair election did so after a political crisis which was resolved through negotiation between mortal enemies. The process was messy and arduous and almost collapsed countless times. But it didn't, because the participants on both sides came to realize that their country's future mattered more to them than their ideology. So they found enough common ground to make a real democracy. The lofty words, once used to impugn eachother's motives, took on their real meaning for a while, and a perilous confrontation became the gateway to a hopeful future.

During the Q&A after his talk, Albie quickly acknowledged that the new South Africa has its share of demagogues, political hacks, corruption, violence and inequity. He admits that change has been slow to arrive in the areas that need it most, and he doesn't pretend that some of his allies in the journey to freedom abandoned the principles that got them there.

It is disheartening that the two candidates who've followed Mandela as President have been most successful only in proving what a rare and inspired leader he was. The ideal, and the real, spend too much time apart in today's South Africa. But as the center of a functioning democracy, Pretoria makes Washington look like a bunch of spoiled children fighting over the remote control.

Incumbency is not the (almost) insurmountable advantage that it is here. There is enough political range within the society that fear of alienating the "base" is a concept they find hard to understand. There's real freedom of the press in South Africa, not the brand name variety we have here. Votes are counted correctly, by hand, the first time. The electorate is impatient, but they are not cynical. Excessive ideology makes them laugh because more than anything, South Africans are for what works.

A corrupt, isolated police state that called itself a democracy, is now the real thing.

I submit that our country is in danger of having more in common with the old South Africa, than with the new, and that unless we admit that rigid partisanship is a habit we can no longer afford, things will only get worse.

During apartheid, many liberal whites in South Africa, and most conservatives, clung to the conceit that they knew how to govern in ways that the poor oppressed blacks could not, and therefore change had to be meted out in small, gradual increments. Liberals adamantly despised hard line conservatives and blamed them for the torture and oppression of black people, while secretly sharing their fear of annihilation. Thus they left themselves little choice as the crisis deepened, but to throw up their hands and blame the evil supporters of apartheid, as if their passive support had nothing to do with it. Liberty was, in their trapped and fearful imagination, still too lofty and exclusive for the poor, unwashed 'other'. They seem to have thought of democracy as an exclusive club, where it was best to only allow new members one at a time. Conservatives masked their fears less delicately, but there was more than enough hypocrisy to go around.

Looking back it is tempting to be scornful of such blindness, rather than to learn from it and perhaps recognize a common danger. After all, it was because they blamed political adversaries within their false democracy, and not the system itself, that they rendered themselves obsolete. It was more important to place blame, than to identify with their adversaries and work together on the real crisis before them. They failed their country, only to be saved by the very people they feared the most.

When Mandela walked out of prison twenty years ago, he enlarged the imaginations of all South Africans, by insisting on their shared humanity. It wasn't just rhetoric, or clever politics. If it had been, all sides would have seen through it soon enough, and a political crisis might easily have toppled into civil war. He gave all of his people credit for deserving equal citizenship; even those who wanted him to spend the rest of his life in jail. This is the essence of democracy.

There's no comparison between the situation South Africa faced twenty years ago, and our present political stand-off here in the US, right?

After all, South Africa called itself a democracy even when only a privileged few held real power. They had liberals, conservatives, and even some independents. They pretended to deal with the important issues of the day, and they convinced themselves that there's was the only game in town.

We're not like that, yet, are we?