African democracy?

2008-12-10 00:00

Recently, at a seminar on the current situation which I was chairing, an African asked me if I thought there would or could be a distinctively African form of democracy.

I answered that in its essence democracy is the same everywhere: a form of government which allows all adults to vote and to have their votes recorded accurately, and which therefore maintains high standards of fair play and tolerance; a form of government where the party gaining the majority rules, but respects the rights of other parties, and is accountable to, and aims to enhance the welfare of, all the citizens. Once one has accepted these broad outlines, however, one must recognise that every democratic country has its own distinctive electoral laws, regulations and cultural norms.

A properly functioning democracy is always a very complex social mechanism. At any time one or several of its elements can go wrong. A democracy has to be maintained by eternal vigilance on the part of politicians, the media and ordinary citizens.

Most of the world’s democracies are fairly new. A country such as South Africa, democratic for less than 15 years, sometimes feels a little overawed by the “mature democracies” of Europe; but it’s worth remembering that a mere 65 years ago Germany and Italy were ruled by murderous dictators, and the democracies of Spain and Portugal, after decades of dictatorship, are only about 30 year old.

There is no reason why this continent should not have distinctively African democracies. Botswana has done pretty well. So, on the whole so far, despite rumblings, has South Africa. Until recently, Kenya had a relatively good democratic record.

But I think there are certain universal democratic norms that many people in Africa, and certainly in South Africa, have perhaps not wholly grasped. Some of these norms could perhaps be seen as being in conflict with traditional African attitudes. In this matter, as in all others, tradition may or should be maintained where it does not conflict with universal civilised values, but it should be modified or even abolished if it does.

Given the fact that in a democracy politicians are in power through the choice of the people, and as circumstances change the views of the people are apt to change too, politicians should be viewed as essentially temporary. They should be respected and their status acknowledged, but they should not be revered. After all, they are servants of the people who elected them.

Too much bowing before them is in danger of undermining democratic principles. All this perhaps runs counter to African traditions, which tend to treat people in power with very great respect. I guess the tradition needs to be modified or downplayed. It is in this context that the blue-light cavalcades are worrying: they accord politicians too grand a position.

I have been to political meetings where the chairperson has said to the audience: “Please stand for the minister.” By all means treat the minister with respect, but to give him or her a standing ovation on every occasion seems to me to convey a dangerous message. Similarly it was worrying to see people vociferously supporting Jacob Zuma as a person, without much apparent interest in his projected policies.

There are two points to make about the South African case. The power of the African National Congress certainly has made it difficult for most people to feel that ANC representatives are temporary (although individuals come and go); the arrival of the Congress of the People on the scene may perhaps alter that perception. The second point is that, in voting Mbeki out at the Polokwane conference in December and then “recalling” him in September, the ANC did in fact give a dazzling demonstration of the temporariness of politicians.

Perhaps the main thing to be said about a good democracy is that it is practical; down-to-Earth. It is concerned about specific policies, and whether the majority of the people are in favour of those policies. It doesn’t deal in large apocalyptic visions. This presents a particular difficulty for the ANC because the freedom struggle, from which it emerged victorious (although after negotiations), was indeed a large apocalyptic event. It was an heroic struggle, a matter of life and death, the overcoming of one of the world’s great injustices. Understandably the ANC has been reluctant to move entirely out of the heroic mode into the quieter business of day-to-day practical democracy; but it must be done. And the emphasis must be on policies, not personalities. Quite apart from the inappropriateness and the possible blasphemy, in focusing on Zuma and comparing him to Jesus, Ace Magashule was not exactly enhancing democratic ways of thinking.

A final point, which brings me back to Hitler’s dictatorship — and also to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. African languages are richly metaphorical, and some have argued that it is this tendency in them which leads some politicians to call their opponents “snakes”, “rats” or “cockroaches”. But such words, in any language, do not belong in a democracy, where one accepts one’s political opponents as part of the democratic structure. Moreover, more ominously, let us not forget that in Rwanda and in Nazi Germany a deliberate campaign of vilification, of name-calling, was embarked upon in order to soften up the public in preparation for a systematic genocide.

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