Understanding African democracy through SA's struggles?

HARARE - Southern academics and policy-makers from the North have touted South Africa as an important case study to probe African understandings of democracy.

The view that Africans perceive democracy simply in liberal and procedural terms (minimalist or thin approach), postulating instead that substantive understandings of democracy resonate widely and are reinforced by increasing inequality as was the case with the struggles against apartheid in South Africa is subject to debate.

In the struggles against apartheid, social and political movements in South Africa employed a substantive appreciation of democracy that includes social and economic criteria alongside electoral procedures and civil and political rights for a country to be described a democracy (maximalist or fact approach).

This sets apart South African understandings of democracy.

Elke Zuern a democracy scholar argues that South Africa is often touted as one of the most successful cases on the African continent despite stark expectations less than two decades ago of a descent into full-scale civil war after attempts by apartheid hardliners to resist the democratisation process that led to the African National Congress (ANC) victory in the 1994 elections.

Zuern contends that, South Africa’s apartheid past does not make it an exceptional case, but rather an extreme case of colonial and postcolonial exclusion in terms of its appreciation and understanding of democratisation.

Third, South Africa has a strong legacy of political activism from local community organisations to national movements and political parties. As such, the question of the meaning of democracy has been vigorously debated in public fora for decades.

The same cannot be said of other countries in the region such as Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi and Angola.

While South Africa’s democratisation process was not viewed as its “second” liberation, as was the case for the majority of African states, but rather its first, the popular understanding of democratisation in South Africa was certainly one of a process of liberation from colonial and apartheid subjugation.

More so, South Africa’s stark economic and social inequalities as well as its high level of urbanisation may well represent the future for a relatively large number of other African countries.

South Africa’s status as an upper-middle-income country and therefore its comparative wealth on the continent might be expected to lead to lesser substantive democratic demands, but the opposite is in fact the case.

This early post-apartheid perception of democracy where substantive rather than procedural democratic values are critical issues in South African understandings and appreciation of democracy is clearly a direct product of the history and struggle that preceded it.

The South Africans put issues of education, health, access to economic levers on the forefront of their democratic discourses and aspirations.

The African National Congress (ANC), the leading anti-apartheid political movement and the dominant political party in post-apartheid South Africa, consistently argued that material concerns would never be addressed in the absence of full liberation.

So from the outset, the founders of modern South Africa were clear about substantive democratisation as part of their liberation not just thin (minimalist) democratic demands to do with civil and political liberties such as the right to vote.

This was underlined in the Freedom Charter drafted in 1955 by ANC leaders and aligned groups, which included demands for a democratic state in which all people would have equal representation regardless of race as well as pledges to share the country’s wealth and land.

It held out the promise of a future state in which both immediate material needs as well as broader demands for equality would be addressed, promising houses, security and education as well as equal rights and equal opportunities for all. It was a call for a fat (maximalist) democracy.

During the struggle against apartheid, township community organisations — referred to as “civics” — echoed the words of the Freedom Charter by working to bring together material struggles and struggles for democratic rights.

These organisations first developed in their “modern” form in 1979 in Soweto and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape region formed a nationwide network of almost 100 organisations by 1983.

Within the context of a repressive apartheid state, the ANC-aligned civics organised to respond to the harsh material realities of life for urban blacks and focused on issues from high rentals and the need for adequate housing to forced removals and police brutality.

This civic-political nexus was thinly-developed in most countries in Africa that gained independence ahead of South Africa.

The civics provided the central opportunity for ordinary residents to participate in local politics, and by developing strong, locally-based organisations across the country they formed a key component of the national movement for liberation and democratisation. The civics addressed economic and social conditions of their constituencies hence the substantive democratisation inclination of the South African struggle.

While material struggles often formed the immediate basis for organising, civics worked to include large numbers of township residents in struggles for democratic rights and for liberation.

Theorists discussing the role and actions of the civics in South Africa have all too often understood the civics as either local organisations engaged in a project of democratisation or part of a liberation movement and a revolutionary struggle.

The tendency has been for most analysts to support one argument or the other and therefore to obscure the important interaction of the reinforcing currents of democracy and liberation that exist within single organisations.

At the ANC’s 1985 Kwabe Conference held in Zambia, both of these views of civic organisations were discussed side by side.

In the first, civics were described as embodiments of “direct, participatory and popular forms of democracy” — within the second, civics were thought of as actors for liberation, helping to make the townships ungovernable and tearing down local government.

Liberation and the necessary dismantling of the most divisive and discriminatory aspects of the apartheid system worked in tandem with the creation of a popular, participatory democracy.

As a product of these dual goals, democratic participation remained a pragmatic goal for civics even during intense periods of state repression and revolutionary resistance.

The democratic aspects of the civics’ structures attracted many ordinary township residents and provided a stark alternative to the authoritarian apartheid regime as well as an ideal for future governance.

The civics’ power was directly tied to the level of community participation in their activities; more community participation meant more civic power, but residents also clearly benefited by being given their first opportunity to help determine which issues should be addressed in their communities and how they should be addressed.

While the representative nature of local civic structures must not be exaggerated, this was an important departure from the clearly unrepresentative apartheid local councils, and forms the basis for many popular demands for greater democracy today.

The form of democracy that the civics championed was also explicitly distinct from what South Africans understood as the liberal, elite model. Civic leaders preached a form of participatory democracy that in practice was a mix of participatory and representative democracy.

The idea of simply electing leaders once every few years and in the interim having little interaction with those leaders was commonly criticised as elitist and far too restricted.

The rhetoric in the townships consistently stressed the need to create a system that would allow all members of society, particularly the poor and oppressed, to take control of all aspects of their lives.

This form of participatory democracy was thus consciously distinguished from various versions of liberal democracy, and models from other revolutionary struggles such as Zimbabwe.

It is sometimes difficult to understand and later on observe organic relationships between grassroots communities and the leadership of civic society in Zimbabwe as the struggle for democratisation in this critical phase of the transition requires and demands this critical and grounded nexus.

Community-based organisations in the areas of civil, political and socio-economic mobilisation of the citizens not the lofty bureaucratic civic formations are required in order to build a resistant critical mass in the struggles for maximalist democracy as Zimbabwe grapples with its political transition.

In the Zimbabwean case, the liberal democratic model is most often slighted for emphasising debate and pluralism above all else.  

When the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed in 1999 following the People’s Charter crafted by social movements, civics, students, workers and women’s groups, its leaders spoke of a national democratic revolution.

But 13 years on, where is that nexus? - Pedzisai Ruhanya

*Ruhanya (PhD Candidate, Director Zimbabwe Democracy Institute)

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