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S.African Election: Democracy in tatters?

By Reuters Staff
April 16, 2009

William Gumede is the author of “The Democracy Gap: Africa’s Wasted Years” and ”Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC”.

South Africa votes on 22 April with not only its globally admired efforts to build democracy in tatters, but against the backdrop of many other promising attempts to build viable democracies across Africa now backsliding.

Military coups, such as the recent one in Madasgascar, assumed to be part of Africa’s terrible past, appear now to again have become a regular occurrence. The election earlier this year of Muammar Gadaffi – who himself came to power by military coup in Libya – as leader of the African Union, by his peers, is symbolic of the continental regression.

When South Africa became democratic in 1994 with Nelson Mandela at the head, it was hoped that the new democracy at the southern tip of Africa would provide a powerful home-grown impetus for expanding democracy across the continent.

And it initially looked promising, with Mandela’s exemplary moral leadership; and his successor Thabo Mbeki’s initial efforts to champion an African economic, social and democratic ‘renaissance’.

However, soon the African curse struck: Mbeki’s moving rhetoric did not match actual day-to-day practice. While preaching democracy, Mbeki clamped down on internal dissent, packed public watchdogs with uncritical loyalists, and looked the other way when allies were shown to be corrupt or incompetent.

It is inconceivable that the ruling African National Congress, with Jacob Zuma at the helm, will not win South Africa’s national elections. Formidable charges of corruption were dropped against Zuma after the acting head of the national prosecuting authority emphasised that the case against the incoming president was solid, but that possible political interference in the timing of whether to press charges against Zuma made the authority reluctant to press ahead.

Most African independence and liberation movements have failed on three levels in government: leadership, building viable democracies and prudently managing their economies.

Some leaders come to power by violent means and rule through violence. Some start off proclaiming themselves democrats, but once in power turn into autocrats. Some leaders prefer to die in office, as the case of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Lack of democracy and the lack of viable alternatives – either because they are brutally silenced or just irrelevant – are among the reasons why oppressive regimes are ousted in coups.

Yet in the still rare cases where opposition parties remove oppressive ruling parties through the ballot box, they often behave no better in power themselves.

Democracy is invariably seen by most of the continent’s leaders and ruling parties in the most minimalistic way – and meaning only holding the occasional election.

Another problem is that very few post-independence African ruling governments have managed to spread wealth evenly. Invariably the benefits go to the old colonial elite and the new post-colonial ones made up of prominent struggle figures and the liberation or independence ‘aristocracies’. The overwhelming majority remain as poor as before.

It is not that there are no quality leaders in ruling African political movements, it is that the patronage system of these movements is so entrenched that serious new contenders outside these networks cannot break through.

Ruling political movements are often the problem themselves: parties run tyrannically are unlikely to be able to build democratic societies. What makes successful independence or liberation movements, trying to overthrow corrupt colonial administrations, often make for poor governments.

Furthermore, liberation and independence movements often mimic the autocratic governments they fight.

Open elections for the top leadership are discouraged, leadership centralised and opposition is often discouraged.

Doctrinaire positions on economics, whether inspired by the West, the East or romantic notions of past African management styles, makes for woolly economics once in power.

African voters often vote for parties and leaders based on their past struggle record, rather than on actual performance in government. Yet, it is their performance in government that will make a difference in ordinary voters’ lives.

Most African leaders, even the out-and-out dictators, claim to be ruling on behalf of the people. Yet, they experience daily life in a way that is outrageously different to that of the average poor supporter: when ordinary South Africans are besieged by crime, Jacob Zuma spends more in a month on personal security than many might earn in years.

South Africa goes into the election with a number of parties, but in Africa, it is not only whether there is an opposition party that is crucial, but the kind of opposition party.

Sadly, in most African countries opposition parties are hardly relevant.

In South Africa, enthusiasm for the Congress of the People, a splinter from the ANC, has abated, following poor policies, the undemocratic election of its leaders and poor visibility.

The global financial crisis is likely to make daily life even more difficult for ordinary people not only in South Africa, but across Africa.

Such worsening conditions may prove the catalyst for restless long-suffering ordinary Africans to rebel against failing governments.

However, it may also provide unscrupulous, but failing leaders, the excuse to reverse democratic reforms, blaming scapegoats for their own inadequacies, bowing under the pressure from their allies to extend corrupt patronage, or to embark on irresponsible economic populist measures, to bolster their own power.

Most African parties and leaders often still mostly blame outside and internal forces for failures, which block the necessary self-examination.

Yet, unless there is thorough introspection by African political movements themselves, to learn from past failures, viable democracy will remain a distant dream for the continent’s long-suffering ordinary citizens.


You are spot on William.I have no doubt that you will be labelled a cocoanut or imperialist apologist for your analysis on the problems beseting South Africa and Africa in general.Keep writting.

Posted by Jackie | Report as abusive

Sad and true. The worst being that the governments are determined to keep the rural and poor people exactly as they are thus enabling the governments to keep their hold over them. Zimbabwe is a good example of people continuing to follow a hero who has done nothing for them, but they are blinded by ignorance and fear. Here in South Africa the same thing will undoubtedly start once Zuma (whose main claim to fame after managing to get out of corruptions charges, is to be pronounced the sexiest politician – heaven help us). It is in the government’s interest not to educate, not to house and not to help – this is how they will continue to blame white rule for all woes and maintain the belief that only they can give them hope. But we had no option all those years ago but to vote for change and pray the world and we would be wrong.

Posted by Lynne | Report as abusive

In fairness, it should be noted that other “democracies” are not that much better than the African ones, and some non-African “democracies” have interfered in Africa to the detriment of its development and democracy – e.g. bribing politicians (e.g. while the arms corporations might actually have done the bribing they have been assisted and protected by their home governments).

Posted by Michael Graaf | Report as abusive

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