/ 5 November 2020

America’s democracy is broken. What does that mean for us?

Donald Trump Holds Multiple Campaign Rallies Across Pennsylvania
The first democracy: Many of the markers of free and fair elections — a universal voters’ roll, centralised election management, uniform rules — are absent in the US system. (Mark Makela/Getty Images/AFP)

If there is one thing that we’ve learned from the United States’ elections this week, it’s that democracy is hard work. As the first country to become a democracy, the US has long been held up as a model for other countries to follow to achieve accountable and representative government. Free and fair elections, rule of law and liberty were the American way — and we’d all achieve the American Dream if we adopted them.

This was especially the case for newly democratising African countries in the 1990s, which modelled their constitutional systems on the US. American democracy institutes made a roaring trade advising African governments on how to hold free and fair elections. 

Yet many of the markers of free and fair elections — a universal voters’ roll, centralised election management, uniform rules and regulations — are absent in the American system. Much of what we Africans have been trained to recognise as good electoral conduct has never existed in the US. It turns out that the world’s model democracy is not that democratic after all. 

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote last month that Donald Trump is not an aberration, he is a continuation of the racism, indifference and corruption that has defined many US presidencies. Bouie called on citizens to “take the opportunity to look with clear eyes and assess this country as it is and as it has been or again seek the comfort of myth”.

Africans should do the same. Can we take this opportunity to assess our American-modelled democracies with clear eyes and examine whether they benefit us?

While the world has been preoccupied with the US election this week, Africa has witnessed a number of significant democratic reversals in Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, among others. There is a pervasive sense throughout the continent that democracy yields sub­optimal socioeconomic outcomes and leaves people feeling more alienated from those who govern them. Elections seem to fuel conflict rather than resolve it.

In a prescient article, published in 1993, Nigerian political scientist Claude Ake argued that democracy in Africa would have to be designed to fit the cultural context and would emerge from “practical experience and improvisation in the course of a hard struggle”. He cautioned against an approach of adopting Western liberalism because this would “achieve only the democracy of alienation”. A cursory examination of the continent’s democracies indicates that Ake has been proven right.  

So where to now? As my colleague Shuvai Busuman tweeted on election day: “Why then as Africans are we holding on to this system that is clearly not working for us?” Academics, democracy practitioners, civil society activists and ordinary citizens must ask hard questions about why democratic politics in Africa do not improve the quality of people’s lives. 

If we want accountable, responsive and representative governments, what kind of systems do we need? Can we identify existing models in our own societies to build on? 

With Joe Biden looking set to become the 46th president of the United States, we must guard against the temptation to breathe a sigh of relief and pretend that things will return to the pre-2016 normal. The hard work of defining democracy and good governance decoupled from the model of the US is just beginning. It is time for Africans to take responsibility for developing our own systems of accountable and responsive government that will work for us.

Dr Sithembile Mbete is a senior lecturer in the department of political sciences at the University of Pretoria where she lectures international relations and South African politics