Democracy or not democracy…

Democracy has many proponents, and probably as many (if not more) opponents; its efficacy is debated and legitimacy often disputed. Churchill is even quoted as saying “[t]he best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. Of course one’s repost could equally come from Churchill: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The system has been seen to function to a greater or lesser extent in Europe and the United States, and a number of former British colonies, it must be said.

This however begs the question: is democracy truly the best political system for Africa?

Western democracy poses a multitude of difficulties in Africa, and has seen the rise of numerous spurious democracies

One of the many fair measures of democracy is Samuel P. Huntington’s “two turnover test”, where the consolidation of a democracy takes place if “the party or group that takes power in the initial election at the time of transition loses a subsequent election and turns over power to those election winners, and if those election winners then peacefully turn over power to the winners of a later election.” Thus far it is only Mauritius and Ghana that conform to these requirements; the financial hub of Africa, South Africa, is far from passing such a test and is actually facing tests that undermine the fundamentals of democracy, such as the Information Protection Bill and a belligerent ANC Youth League leader that is screaming nationalisation of industry and trying to sneak in a rider that private property might be subject to non-negotiable government speculation. We may see Malema calm down for a while post-NGC, but fundamental discrepancies exist in South Africa that are not being seen to be attended to by normal democratic and capitalist means.

While for Churchill options may not have existed, today East Asia proffers up an alternative, one which has facilitated the meteoric rise of the Chinese economy, as well as that of Singapore. Other than extreme intervention in their respective economies, these states have implemented a very strict rule of law system. And as another English statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, noted: rule of law is a sine quo non for establishing a democracy, and that democracy is the fruit of civil order.

Western democracy poses a multitude of difficulties in Africa, and has seen the rise of numerous spurious democracies; we need only look north to Zimbabwe and Angola’s long-standing leaders who claim their democratic mantels to prove as much. Additionally, when an election is legitimately won, cries of foul are often the last resort of the defeated, again see Angola in the early 1990s and Kenya more recently.

There are massive difficulties when applying a East Asian rule of law system to Africa, but the difference in fundamentals certainly highlights democratic weaknesses, inter alia: democracy authorises an elected few to govern the majority by means of consent, rule of law is designed to regulate government instead of creating government; as in a democracy, rule of law relies on separation of powers so as to ensure accountability, however, rule of law tells government what it may do and does not allow it to manipulate the law to its own ends, and democracy focuses on law making by means of majority within the polity, whereas rule of law emphasises law enforcement so long as it is constitutional, that is to say compliant with basic laws.

A rule of law system is certainly not a panacea for African ills, and democracy may well weather the challenges posed to it, however, democracy for democracy’s sake has a pretty poor track record in Africa.

And that is the question…

  • Llewellyn Kriel

    In more than a decade of numerous gabfests about “the African renaissance”, “Ubuntu-cracy”, “African democracy” and heaven knows how many variations on the same them, the one common denominator is the risible outrageousness of the whole idea.

    It is one thing to adapt a concept to the realities of a given community or even nation (missionaries and evangelists have been doing this for centuries – and, in the process, have absorbed local traditions and protocols into newer manifestations of the concept itself). We’ve also seen this in adaptations of forms of government, juridical systems and even agricultural practices.

    But the notion that, somewhere out there with Foxx Mulder’s “truth”, is the ephemeral panacea of “African democracy” is as fictional (though nonetheless romantic) as Shangri-La or El Dorado.

    Getting back to the missionaries: While they might have adapted minor practices to accommodate the assimilation of the target culture or community, they did not ultimately distort the fundamental truth just to sugarcoat for local palates. That is what “Africanisation” of democracy envisages and it is doomed to ultimate failure as nothing more than a political and social man of straw.

  • RedMango

    Very nice post!