Third in a Series of
The Devils' Annexe
Myths about Democracy and Africa
Sidney & Shirley Robbins
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As humans, we have this marvellous insight into our boundless capacity to deceive ourselves. We tend to accept the popular view or trust to authority, to misconstrue everyday experience. With the experiences of Iraq and in sub-Saharan Africa, we should be warned and to think twice whenever we hear South Africa referred to as a 'democracy'.
If it means having the vote and a particular set of institutions, such as Parliament and president, and independent judiciary, a free media, acceptance of an opposition, you will find it hard to prove Zimbabwe is less of a 'democracy' than South Africa.
Is it about equality? Who at any time is making claims about “democracy”, and why? We try to answer this for you.
Democracy and Africa?
Is there a single model of democracy?
Democracy has become one of the 'elastic' words, and can be stretched out of all recognition.
There can be no shades of democracy, or room for contradictions. Either a country has a popularly elected government; an independent judiciary and watchdog institutions; a free economy; a healthy critical civil society; guaranteed freedom of expression, and tolerance of other’s convictions: or you have something than democracy. Surely that is a logical interpretation. Or is it? Let's find out.
In the newly emerged system in South Africa, democracy, as understood by the African National Congress (ANC), and other African Governments could be interpreted to mean 'black majority rule'. This is measured by the degree to which the government enjoys the support of, and fulfils the interests and aspirations of the dominant (and historically deprived) racial majority or, and most frequently, the dominant tribe. But you will often be hard-pressed to discover who your representative actually is.
Governments in most African states, and the ANC government’s particular understanding of democracy, have their origins in the Jacobins, the political club of the French Revolution, which propounded the idea of the ‘general will’. Far from ‘the people’ being a divided entity, made up of a multitude of conflicting and shifting interests and aspirations, as the liberal theorists had argued, according to the Jacobins, the people were one, possessing a single ‘right’ will.
We start by quoting from an article by a black Kenyan writer: The Failure of Democracy in Africa & Ian Smith. Date Posted: Thursday 22-Nov-2007
Posted by Mukui Waruiru on November 01, 2007.
'The ongoing violence in Iraq has caused observers to reflect on the challenges of bringing democracy to tribal societies. Before the Iraq War was launched in 2003, the Bush administration assured Americans and the world that the removal of Saddam Hussein would result in the creation of a peaceful, well-governed, and democratic society. But it is now becoming clear that building a successful democracy is not as easy as many Americans (or anyone else) had assumed. Pure democracy is a system that works well in particular cultures, and not all cultures are equally capable of building harmonious democratic societies'.
Most of the Black African nations that gained independence after Ghana followed its path by establishing a 'one-vote, one-time' system. In many of the cases, after the independence elections, the winning political party used its majority in the national parliament to pass legislation outlawing the existence of opposition political parties. This left the ruling party with a monopoly of power. This trend challenged the widely held notion that pure democracy leads to more freedom. If anything, in many countries, Africans enjoyed greater personal freedom and prosperity under colonial rule than they do today under their own independent governments.
While opposition parties have been permitted to exist in some countries in the last few years, the oppressive habits associated with one-party dictatorial rule have been hard to break.
William F.Buckley, in his book, Up From Liberalism wrote:
'We see ……. democracy, to be successful, must be practiced by politically mature people among whom there is a consensus on the meaning of life within their society. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be the indicated, though concededly the undemocratic, course. It is more important for a community, wherever situated geographically, to affirm and live by civilized standards than to labour at the job of swelling the voting lists.
Being able to vote is no more than to have realized freedom, than being able to read is to have realized wisdom. Reasonable limitations upon the vote are not recommended exclusively by tyrants or oligarchs (was Jefferson either?). The problem of the South is not how to get the vote for the Negro, but how to train the Negro - and a great many whites - to cast a thoughtful vote'
From Tribal Rule to Tribal Government
Democratic government in Africa is where the political structures are elevated to a position above the tribal structure but are intrinsically the same. However, in the case of democratic government, there are none of the structures and strictures of accountability, available to the tribe (the people), as in the case of rule by the tribal chief. In the political set-up the ‘big chief’, the head of government has an army and a police force at his disposal – most chiefs no longer do!
When Western style democracy was imposed, the tribal mentality inherent in the African psyche did not automatically disappear. It doesn't take much common sense to reason that the Africans didn't become democrats, as understood in the West, the moment they inserted that piece of voting paper into the ballot box for the first time!
Does Tribalism equate to democracy?
In the broadest interpretation of democracy, does the tribal system qualify? The obvious answer is ‘no’. The question is often asked: Does the chief govern with the will of his tribe? Yes, or he would not survive for long. Could the system be tested in a ‘free and fair election’? It is most unlikely that any chief would be prepared to put this to the test!