/ 15 September 2023

What does democracy mean in Africa?

2021 Local Government Elections
democracy arrived in South Africa and was seen around the world as a beacon of hope for humanity at large: if the deeply divided South Africa could do it, then so could any other country in the world. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The International Day of Democracy, commemorated annually on 15 September, was declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 to draw attention to the observance and celebration of democracy around the world. The declaration made it clear that although democracies shared many common features, there was no single model, with each region and country free to determine their own political and economic democratic system and mode of participation in public life.   

This raises the question of how democracy is understood and implemented in our own regional context. 

The one commonality on which there is a general agreement is that democracy is a political system in which people select their own rulers. Beyond that, the concept is highly contested in every part of the world. One reason behind the contestation is precisely because democracy is understood and applied differently in diverse political, social, and cultural contexts of individual countries. In addition, democracy plays itself out in the field of politics where competing forces of society collide with consequences felt by all.

In Africa the discussion centres on two main questions: is democracy a colonial imposition and is a system that emphasises the individual suitable for the African communal identity?     

The word “democracy” is indeed an import, having originated in ancient Greece. But   democratic procedures as a form of social interaction were in existence among Africans in pre-colonial times in the form of village assemblies debating and taking joint decisions pertaining to the affairs of the respective village community. And as one of Africa’s great political philosophers, Claude Ake, reminds us, traditional African systems are infused with communal consciousness, a stress on participation and, significantly, the accountability of chiefs at a risk of their displacement from power. 

Given this communal participatory character it might be argued that a deliberative type of democracy would be more suited to Africa than one based on multiparty competition. And yet, Afrobarometer’s findings make it quite clear that while most African societies do place much value on consensual democracy, there is also widespread commitment to representative government, albeit one that places limits on the extent of multiparty political competition.  

So, contrary to some sceptical assumptions of its supposedly alien character, democracy as a political system of rule was readily adopted by African countries across the continent in the wake of decolonisation and then again following the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and throughout the Soviet bloc. 

The collapse of communism has undoubtedly contributed to the ending of apartheid, which during the years of the Cold War was upheld on the grounds of guarding against the “Red Threat”. Some commentators assume the so-called threat was merely a fabrication by the apartheid regime to justify its clinging on to white racial domination. But declassified CIA documents leave little room for doubt the threat was real. Soviet military presence and interventions in the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, aimed at consolidating left-wing regimes in the two countries, as well as installing in power the South-West African People’s Organisation in Namibia had as its ultimate objective bringing down the white minority regime in South Africa. 

In the event, democracy arrived in South Africa and was seen around the world as a beacon of hope for humanity at large: if the deeply divided South Africa could do it, then so could any other country in the world.

Sadly, the euphoria of the early days is no more. 

This is because once democracy has been achieved, citizens expect their hard-won victory to bear fruit translating into a better quality of life. And in a democracy, they have a right to anticipate that their basic needs and demands will be implemented by the government they have elected in free elections. 

When instead citizens encounter rising inequality, grinding poverty, unacceptable levels of unemployment, load-shedding, collapsing infrastructure and having to live with rampant crime and gender-based violence, trust in the rulers is likely to be gone. And without trust in leaders, the very foundations of democracy begin to crumble. This happens when politicians use power more for their own benefit than that of those they are supposed to represent and serve. At that point — even if basic constitutionalised democratic institutions are still in place, as is largely the case in South Africa — the performance of the government matters more. 

There are no easy fixes, and no amount of more empty promises can turn the situation around. The only remedy is a comprehensive restructuring of the economy focused on economic growth and job creation on a huge scale. Fixing the economy and building up infrastructure needs to be accompanied by beefing up security and the criminal justice system to uphold law and order, so that citizens can feel safe again. 

This, in turn, needs committed leaders. The glory of democracy is that citizens get to elect such leaders into power through the ballot box. To choose well, it takes responsible democratic citizens who know their rights, who listen carefully to debates, who get involved in civil society organisations and who can thus develop the courage of their convictions. 

In this process we all would do well to remind ourselves of the words spoken by St Augustine more than 1 500 years ago: “In the house of the just those who command are at the service of those who seem the commanded. Indeed, it is not out of passion for domination that they command, but out of desire to give oneself; not out of pride in being leaders, but out of concern to provide for everyone”. 

Professor Ursula van Beek is the director of the Centre for Research on Democracy at Stellenbosch University.