The beginning of the 21st century coincided with the democratisation of African states, with 29 African states adopting multiparty governments between 1990 and 1994. From 1994 to 1997, economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa was at its highest in a decade and in 1996, economic growth in the continent averaged 4.4%. The Economist argued that the continent was in better shape than it had been in a generation.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), over the course of the past decade, six of the 10 fastest growing economies were African. In 2011, at 13%, Ghana was the fastest growing economy in the world. This growth has led to the expansion of Africa’s middle classes. By these measures, the 21st century should be an African moment. But will it be?
The answer is not straightforward. Africa is the second most unequal continent after Latin America. The 2016 World Bank Africa poverty report found that seven out of the 10 most unequal countries on Earth are in Africa. And Southern Africa is particularly unequal.
In 2014, the African Development Bank recorded that the top four most unequal countries globally were South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia – in that order, from most unequal. Lesotho joins the most unequal cohort if we consider the top 10 list.
On poverty, roughly three quarters of the ultra-poor (those surviving on below $1 a day) live in Africa.
The point is, evidence suggests, at least since the 1990s, there has been a strong link between democratisation and economic performance. But what do we make of poverty and inequalities which seem to accompany Africa’s democracy-economic growth moment? There are many factors but I do think that one of the most critical constraints to equality and upward social mobility is the lack of the rule of law.
On a macro level, most African countries are democratic – they hold elections after four or five years and, even if contested, most times these elections determine who governs the country. And so we bask under “functioning democracy” because elections take place and shape the governing machine.
Though elections play a major role in calming discontent in society, they do not always translate to societies where the rule of law is upheld. The rule of law is a contested concept and has almost lost meaning in contemporary society.
The first usage of “the rule of law” is traceable to Plato (more than 2 400 years ago), who contrasted the rule of men and the rule of law. Plato understood the rule of law to mean the rule of reason for the purpose of achieving common good, although he proposed a benevolent monarch whom he saw as necessarily above the law.
Following Aristotle, who contested the idea of a monarch as above the law, contemporary society demands submission to the rule of law of both the ruled and the rulers.
Plato’s idea of a benevolent monarch was based on his belief in good men who had inner enlightenment and a commitment to the unwritten rule of law with the objective of achieving the common good.
In micro-systems – families, households, schools, churches, sports and every other space where socialisation takes place – there are both written and unwritten rules which should naturally uphold the dignity of “the other” and preserve individual and collective boundaries. When these rules become traditions, turning to legal regulations and penalties becomes a secondary rather than primary deterrence.
In practice, the rule of law means a woman should not be raped because she seems physically less strong than the perpetrator. That she is a human being, a mother, a sister or a friend suggests that her dignity, space and boundaries should be respected, according to the unwritten rule, whether there are legal consequences to the perpetrator or not.
Similarly, a child walking to school alone at dawn is every adult’s child, and the unwritten rule is that they deserve to exercise their privileges and dignity of childhood, freely. Children are to be loved and protected as a rule, first unwritten before making reference to the written rule.
Crimes such as corruption, burglaries and internet fraud point to the fact that the culture and tradition of the rule of law exists only negatively in the perpetrator’s world view.
Along similar lines, environmental degradation, racism, tribalism or even road rage reflect the erosion of the unwritten rule of law.
These micro-level oligarchic, dictatorial and autocratic practices suggest a disregard of the rule of law – the unwritten. These widen opportunities for some and constrain others from living freely, to participate meaningfully in building sustainable livelihoods for themselves and to rebuild the broader society as a consequence. These are not just government tasks, they are responsibilities of parents, teachers, guardians and all adults in any society – to regulate individual level social, economic and political behaviours by simple rules which maintain the dignity of the other.
On the surface, African societies seem vibrant, thriving and democratic but underneath is what Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere termed as a “man-eat-man society”.
Much noble work is being done to transform the African continent, by Africans themselves. I argue, however, that the defining factor in Africa’s development in this century will be the rule of law or the lack of it.
It isn’t Africa’s moment yet – not until there is first a moment of the unwritten and written rule of law in all spaces of social interaction. The formation and expansion of middle classes is a starting point towards mainstreaming the voice of reason, the rule of the unwritten and written law.
Dr Jason Musyoka is a development economist based at the University of Pretoria’s department of anthropology, human economy programme. These are his own views. Email: [email protected]