Democracy in Africa is a lie. It is a smokescreen. It does not deliver what it promises. It veils a lot of hard and harsh realities in the name of justice, freedom and equality. These hard and harsh realities are legion. For example, in Africa there is deepening poverty. Social and economic inequalities divide the poor from the rich. Skewed incomes, lack of access to public services such as health, education, and credit facilities for entrepreneurship are an archetype of inequalities. These inequalities are symptomatic of a deeper political weakness which African democracy is ill-equipped to address. Yet the very values on which democracy, as a theory, is hinged abstract from the normative dimension that has the potential to address these issues.
It seems to be more convenient to spell out what democracy is not, or what infuriates its critics, sceptics, and cynics, i.e., what they perceive to be the malcontents of constitutional democracy – maybe just to get a taste or feel of it. Democracy is not the prerogative of the political elite, political party top cats, and the top brass of state bureaucracy. Democracy is not a gimmick, or an occasional privilege for citizens to secretly vote the elite and other opportunists into positions of power and influence in general elections which are intermittently scheduled, say, every four or five years. Democracy is not mob-rule, or the fascist or Nazi-like reign of intimidation, terror, oppression and domination of political minorities and other marginalized groupings by the political and, most often, the demographic and ethno-cultural/religious majority.
Supposedly, from this negative definition, an outline of the basic idea of democracy may be gleaned. Democracy should be a form of government in which every citizen has access to a publicly available space, and so he or she freely exercises his or her citizenship responsibility, or right, to contribute actively and to his or her fullest capacity to the decision-making process which is crucial and integral to the running of his or her community, province or region, and the state at large. No matter how sketchy, naïve, far-fetched, or strange, his or her opinion might sound to others; the opinion must be heard and responded to because it could contain a grain of truth, or it might have some sort of utility value. Every opinion should be allowed to flow into the “common pool of opinions”. It must be duly respected while it is being crucially and fairly tested openly in the “crucible of public reasonability”, namely, the deliberative arena. Democracy should be institutionalized or entrenched so that it penetrates people’s mundane lives; it should be a daily and localized affair at village, town, and city level. All communal decision-making procedures in any political milieu should reflect deliberative democratic modes of thinking. Democracy should give its platform or space to every voice, small or big, because it is the quality, and not the size, of voice that matters.
Therefore, democracy purports to make political discourse or communication possible in a multicultural, or multiracial, polity where citizens are members or followers of political parties or associations which are divided along tribal, religious, or ideological lines, or, in short, where diverse groupings of citizens do not share their comprehensive worldviews due to deep and historical differences in cultures, languages, religions, philosophies, moralities, or other comprehensive doctrines. The goal or ambition of democracy is to create and sustain a public space for communication for all culturally (etc) diverse groupings of citizens, so as to forge social and political cooperation and co-existence in such historically problematic and deeply divided polities.
Democracy is a popular government elected by the majority of the adult voter population of a particular country. Etiologically, democracy is derived from the Greek “demos-kratus”, which translates as the “people’s craft of ruling”. The people rule themselves by knowledgeably and freely consenting to be led and governed by some of their own. The people lend, as it were, their natural power to rule and govern to a body of representatives. This body of representatives-cum-leaders is as strong, or as weak, as the people who put it into power and positions of authority. The body of leaders derives its power and authority-legitimacy-from the common will of the people. The leaders are nothing more than mere representatives of the general, or common, will of the people as the electorate. In short, in democracy the people essentially rule and govern themselves. Presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, parliamentarians, senators, councilors, etc, are the people’s lieutenants. Needless to say, the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, i.e. the three arms of government, lead and govern on behalf, and in the best interests, of the people who elect them into public office. In democracy the “rulers” are leaders and representatives of the people because in theory the people rule themselves. Those placed by the ballot into public office continue to take those national positions as long as the people want them to stay in those positions. Public office is performance-based, or meritorious. That’s why “recall” of representatives is not a privilege of constituents but their right. The leaders and representatives have the hopes, aspirations, and interests-needs– of the people at heart. Their personal ambitions are sacrificed for the sake of the needs of the people. Any contrary behavior on the part of a leader or a representative immediately evokes the people’s right to recall him or her, and hence to remove the leader or the representative from office– after all a public office is merely entrusted pro rata by the people to the officeholder. Abuse of office is tantamount to breach of the consent and the trust of the people.
Consequently, catchphrases like “decentralization”, “empowerment”, “participatory development”, which are desperate but futile attempts to close the gap between the theory of democracy and its hitherto bad practice, simply signify what has seriously gone wrong with democratic practice since the architects of the theory of democracy such as John Locke, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, among others, modernized the ancient Greek conception of democracy. These visionaries foresaw that Greek democracy could not be applied wholesale to the modern states principally because (1) it was suitable only for small city-states like Athens-which were more easily governable, and (2) it was exclusionist and male-dominated -foreigners, women, slaves, children or youth, did not have the right to vote and so they were barred from voting. In other words, democracy’s domain of rights and freedoms (its bill of rights) had to be continually widened and further articulated for the original conception of democracy to be more applicable to future, bigger, nation-states. In its modernized version, democracy thrives on the view that the people can only lead and govern if they have certain rights and freedoms. Slavery, feudalism, colonialism, racialism, imperialism, dictatorship or totalitarianism, majoritarianism or the marginalisation and suppression of minorities, among other ignoble and obnoxious systems of government, run counter to the democratic ideal or spirit because these systems are in clear violation of personal rights and freedoms. In these systems of undemocratic government, one dominant group brutally lords it over another servile group that fearfully and unwillingly obeys the dominant group. The ruler is to the ruled as is the master to his slaves. Brutality (of the rulers) and fear and blind or unquestioning loyalty (in the ruled) are the basic psycho-political tools that sustain undemocratic governments. Alas! In its degraded and adulterated form, democracy, as it is theorized and practiced today, is several removes from the democratic ideal, which its modern architects designed about two centuries ago. Both the so-called “democratized” states of the so-called “developed world” and the “democratizing” states of the so-called “developing world” have degraded and adulterated democracy to a sepulchral form that scarcely resembles the democratic ideal.
It is thus not mere literary logorrhea to term democracy an illusory smokescreen and an ignoble lie. The people feel both politically and economically powerless and disempowered. They sense a schism between politics and their economic needs. Solely driven by the survival interest due to extreme economic deprivation, the people of Africa cannot afford not to link politics to their personal physical survival. The ballot is first and foremost an economic promise made by the parliamentarian, or the president, aspirant to the people as voters. For the people, the ballot is their salvation-a culmination of otherwise dream-like hopes. This is evidenced by the now shattered grand hopes people held about multiparty politics around 1994 in both South Africa and Malawi. The people rightly thought with the introduction of multiparty politics paradise would abide in the two countries in the new political dispensation. Given their respective histories of Apartheid and autocracy, it was only natural for the voters in the two countries to equate political emancipation with personal economic redemption; or, political participation with personal economic development. However, political discourse at the time dwelt on civil and political rights mainly because of the totalitarian and oppressive nature of the previous regimes. It was thus unavoidable that political discourse at the time concentrated on personal rights and freedoms. Few democratic theorists saw the peoples’ emancipation or liberation in terms of economic rights as well.
Today, contemporary political discourse on democratic theory in Africa must bring to its fore the topic of economic rights, and not narrowly focus on civil and political rights and freedoms. Economic rights should be highlighted because political participation, say, through voting is an economic investment. A few years down the line, after general elections, the African voter begins to wonder whether that ballot is his or her lifeline or just a useless piece of paper, which is cheaper than toilet tissue that is ironically beyond the affordability range of most Africans. Will the elected representative whose photo appeared on the ballot live up to the economic promise of the vote? Therefore, as an ignoble lie, democracy in Africa has created the very instruments for both its stagnation or imprisonment and its eventual self-destruction. It creates a promise and then it breaks it dishonorably at its own peril. The conspicuous symptoms of this ignoble lie are voter apathy and growing public discontent with whatever the status quo stands for. Prevailing social and economic structures and modes of organization are lopsided and conveniently tipped towards the protection and promotion of the self-interests, fantasies and whims of the hegemony of sycophants and cadres of ruling parties. In a purportedly democratizing African nation-state, everything is structured and organized in favor of and for the overindulgent luxury of the sycophants and cadres of ruling parties, the haves. Their miraculous rise from rags to riches in one term of office (in four or five years) has been a feat achieved at the expense of, and by marginalizing and suppressing, political minorities, the have-nots.
Signs and symptoms of bad governance and bad democratic practice are too numerous to list. Curable but devastating diseases such as malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, plague Africa’s health and medical sector. The agricultural systems are too inept to address the perennial problem of hunger and starvation, which leads to malnutrition (high infant morality rates) and lowering life expectancy. The agriculture sector is replete with inauthentic agricultural methods. These methods do not relate to, or mirror, African agricultural needs. The commercial farmer who has the capacity to produce food in large quantities does not grow food crops; instead he or she merely grows cash crops for foreign markets and his or her foreign investment. Neither the small-scale or communal farmer nor the large-scale or commercial farmer is helping to avert the worsening food crisis. African governments are too incompetent to contain rising crime (which breeds insecurity) especially in urbanized areas. High-level corruption and mismanagement of economies (e.g. skyrocketing inflation, balance of payments problems) are the order of the day in Africa. Top-level politicians and senior state bureaucrats try their best to cover it up. If they are implicated, they try their best to escape the hand of the law by manipulating the justice system. Domination, not reasoned argumentation and persuasion, of the minority voice is their gavel of power and authority. Might is right. Given this erudition of democracy as an ignoble lie, what is there to use as vignettes to illustrate this situation? The section gives a synopsis of two cases
The South African Case
One classical example is the Khutsong saga on the border between Gauteng and North West, provinces. The constituents of Khutsong indicated to their councillors (representatives) that they did not want to be incorporated into the North West province. The concerned leaders and representatives itself turned a blind eye to their request. The reasons for refusing to be incorporated into the North West relates to the role of freedom as ‘constitutive of development’ of which, in this case, freedom is perceived as part of ‘well-being’. This, in the eyes of Amartya Sen enshrines the requisite rights of active political participation (at the local and high levels), in determining the shape of one’s social and economic environment. In the case at issue, ‘how was the democratic ideal violated so that democracy in Africa and in South Africa in particular, amounts to only an ignoble lie?
The case in Khutsong concerns the bread and butter issues of the constituent communities. These bread and butter issues are linked to ‘instrumental freedoms’ propounded by Sen, namely: political and economic freedoms. At political level, this includes the opportunities and possibility to scrutinize and criticize authorities and participatory selection of representatives or councillors. At the economic level, the freedoms have to do with the opportunities to enjoy utilising economic resources; and availability and access to these resources. In the saga at issue, all these were scathingly denied to the people of Khutsong. For instance, Khutsong people did not want to go to North West on economic grounds. They are better off in Gauteng than in North West because their economic ties are in Gauteng; hence the view that they could be worse off in the North West. Let alone, Gauteng is a rich province. Moreover, this has also to do with the social opportunities, in terms of accessing health care, education, and social security services. These were noble demands that should constitute a democratic ideal. Meanwhile, the only way these people could make sure their economic livelihood is not taken away from them was to contest the decision of their leaders and representatives through dialogue and ‘toyi-toying’. This right was also violated. The reader should bear in mind that democracy is not the prerogative of the political elite, political top cats, and the top brass of state bureaucracy. Given this purview, the reader should be reminded of the democratic ideal that purports: ‘all communal decision-making procedures in any political milieu should reflect deliberative democratic modes of thinking. Democracy should give its platform or space to every voice, small or big, because it is the quality……. of voice that matters’.
Another classical example that denote to the violation of the democratic ideal is the phenomenal prevalence of shacks (imijondolo) in almost all cities in South Africa. How is this so? The ballot is first and foremost an economic promise made by the parliamentarians or representatives of the people in government to people as voters. The shacks are a symbol of poverty. They are associated with less economic power and lower social status. The inhabitants of shacks lack basic services such as water, proper sanitation, healthcare facilities etc. in their poverty-stricken, they are not afforded the opportunities to enjoy and utilize economic resources; and availability and access to these resources. At political level, they have not been afforded the opportunities and possibility to scrutinize and criticize authorities and participatory selection of councillors. For example, one ‘informal’ interviewee argued that an organization called ‘Abahlali Basemjondolo’ (literally translated the dwellers from the shacks) argued that these people were refused to make their voices heard by the local government through ‘toyi-toyi’ or demonstration. These people simply wanted to make their voices heard about housing and the like. In this case the democratic ideal has been violated. Moreover, these people live in shear poverty. Surprisingly, though, everyone is told the economy has grown phenomenally (around 4 – 6 %). To worsen an even inflamed situation, according to the human development index (HDI) South Africa ranks number two in terms of income inequality, which is measured by the gin coefficient of 0.58. The gini coefficient measures the extent of inequality; and serves as the starkest indicator of the country’s unequal distribution of income. This situation of these people is well-captured in the discourse of Robert Chambers, that the poor find themselves in a deprivation trap of: poverty, isolation, powerlessness, vulnerability and deprivation itself. The presence of these nullifies the presence the democratic ideal as they can not coexist. Thus, where there is deprivation, there is no democracy.
The cases cited here are a pointer to the fact that, the economic factor in the lives of these people is ‘the measure’ of the extent of the embracement of the democratic ideal; which is an integral part of the modest proposal for an ‘African Progressive Democracy’. In the final analysis, the bleak picture that these two cases paint is indicative of the violation of the democratic ideal. In this context, democracy in South Africa is an ignoble lie which does not deliver what it promises. Nevertheless, in academic circles, discourses are never concluded. The subsequent articles will built upon this theme with more classical examples on the violation of the democratic ideal at issue; and eventually suggest a modest proposal of redress.
About the Author
Mr. Mpofu Bhekimpilo, BSoc.Sc, MSocSc (Fort Hare, South Africa), Training for Trainers in Conflict Transformation Certificate (Coalition for Peace in Africa), PhD Candidate – Centre for Higher Education Studies (UKZN)
Tel: +27 31 260 3257
Cell: +27 812 1074