In search of true democracy in Africa

2017-09-03 06:02
Hakainde Hichilema (File: AFP)

Hakainde Hichilema (File: AFP)

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Democracy is not possible without democrats.

However, true democrats are not embraced in the nationalist politics of post-liberation movements because governments born out of liberation movements invariably regard political victory as a divine right to rule, and they regard the opposition as the sworn enemy.

We face the prospect of this happening in South Africa, and it is already true in Zambia, where the government of President Edgar Lungu displays all the symptoms of a wholly undemocratic post-liberation movement.

The pattern is always the same – once enough votes have been secured, the winners entrench themselves in government by capturing the state, the media and Parliament.

Any subsequent electoral threats or losses are seen by them as a regression – a setback to their version of democracy – and are described in such terms.

That’s when we see a healthy democratic process labelled as “attempted regime change”. And that’s when political opponents are treated as enemies at war – arrested, tortured and silenced.

The arrest and detention of Hakainde Hichilema, president of Zambia’s opposition United Party for National Development, on trumped-up treason charges is a disgraceful expression of authoritarian rule.

It was Big Man politics at its very worst, and anyone who cares about defending freedom and democracy should have condemned it. Many did, but not our own government or our own president.

It seems that, when it comes to politics of the region, we have regressed from the quiet diplomacy of the era of former president Thabo Mbeki to invisible diplomacy under President Jacob Zuma.

Zuma’s visit to Zambia earlier this month and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting in Tshwane two weeks ago were little more than empty talk shops that did nothing to further democracy in the region.

While he was here for the SADC meeting, Lungu asked for a meeting with me to discuss my criticism of his government, but I made it clear that no meeting would take place unless he committed to taking certain steps towards restoring democracy in Zambia.

Predictably, that was the last I heard from him.

But if the old boys’ club of southern African leaders doesn’t have the backbone to speak out against such arrogant displays of power, the rest of the world certainly didn’t get the same memo. Condemnation of Lungu’s autocratic abuses has been steadily growing as ever more people become aware of the situation.

Bound by common values 

While my own attempt to attend Hichilema’s treason trial in Lusaka in May was blocked by Lungu’s thugs upon my arrival, the subsequent reporting on this incident helped put the Zambian story firmly in the news cycle. Every attempt by Lungu to silence his opponents has, in fact, had the exact opposite effect.

In the end, the pressure on Lungu became unbearable and he had to relent.

After spending 127 days in jail for the “crime” of refusing to make way for the president’s motorcade, Hichilema was finally released. This crime was repackaged as treason, a charge that carries a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison and a maximum sentence of death.

But if Lungu thought the brutality of the detention – which included Hichilema being chained in a standing position to the cell walls for days and having faeces smeared over him – would deter Hichilema in his pursuit of democracy in Zambia, he has severely underestimated the man’s spirit. Upon his release, Hichilema immediately reiterated his commitment to the Zambian people and set about rebuilding his campaign.

Hichilema is currently here in South Africa.

He addressed our caucus meeting and attended a National Assembly session as a guest of the DA.

We will continue to give him all the support we can in his quest to let the world know what a threat Lungu is to democracy in Zambia and southern Africa.

I mention the region specifically because we are part of this southern African community.

Our actions, whether right or wrong, will embolden those across our borders.

If we stand together as nations against oppression and tyranny, the oppressors and tyrants will fail.

But if we do the opposite – if we allow democracy in our neighbouring states to be trampled underfoot while we look the other way – it will take root throughout the region.

As the leader of the DA and as the chairperson of the Southern African Partnership for Democratic Change – a network of opposition parties that stand in solidarity with those who strive to further democracy in the region – I support Hichilema.

What binds us together is not our political ideologies or our so-called racial or ethnic identities.

Instead, we are bound by the values we have in common – our respect for the rule of law, our commitment to constitutionalism, our intolerance of corruption, and our unwavering defence of an independent judiciary and a free press.

If we are to restore real democracy to the southern African region, we are going to have to consign all forms of narrow nationalist politics – whether it be British, Afrikaner or African nationalism – to the scrapheap of history.

We are going to have to make a fresh start, and we must begin by restoring the rights of the individual citizen in these nations.

Maimane is the leader of the DA

Read more on:    da  |  sadc  |  mmusi maimane  |  democracy

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