Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Is democracy all it’s cracked up to be?

The Kigali Memorial Centre was opened in 2004, built on a site that also houses the graves of some 250 000 people slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide that took place a decade earlier. As I took in the permanent exhibition that can only hint at the story of how 800 000 people were killed in a hundred day period, I was at a complete loss in trying to understand how neighbours could turn on each other so quickly, so violently. I wondered about the much vaunted African principle of Ubuntu, our human interconnectedness: is this simply a mythical ideal that we sprout with hollow pride and nostalgia but in essence, we’re as selfish, atomised and disconnected as those in western societies?

The world ignored Rwanda from April to June 1994 when the genocide took place, focusing much more on the miracle nation down south which was hosting its first non-racial democratic elections in April too. By June 1994, Nelson Mandela had been inaugurated as President and his euphoric speech was still ringing around the globe:

The time for healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us….We must therefore act together as a united people for national reconciliation, for nation-building, for the birth of a new world.

While ethnic groups were literally hacking each other to death in Rwanda, at the very same time, the reconciliation project unifying people across racial and ethnic divides had just begun in post-apartheid South Africa.

South Africa is about to celebrate its 17th Freedom Day marking the first elections on 27 April 1994, having been through a further three national elections in that time, and about to undergo its fourth local government elections in May. A Constitution has been adopted that guarantees freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of the media. Yet, at this very moment, there is a court case about whether the “struggle song”, Shoot the Boer, constitutes hate speech against Afrikaners. It has been given prominence by the leader of the ANC Youth League who was 8-years-old at the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and so hardly a veteran of the struggle against apartheid! In this week too, six policemen have been charged with the murder of an unarmed man protesting against the lack of service delivery, his beating, shooting and subsequent death being broadcast around the world at a time when similar images are emanating from the non-democracies of Yemen and Syria. And while protests against the lack of service delivery take place around the country, a South African cabinet minister is exposed to have spent large amounts of public funds on a trip to his drug mule girlfriend in a Swiss prison and on stays in top Cape Town hotels, and is now also building a mansion for himself in an impoverished town in the Eastern Cape.

These three issues demonstrate just how little the national reconciliation project has progressed in South Africa, how far the country still has to go in transferring constitutional rights into reality and how high up greed and corruption go. But at least we’re having an election soon…!

In a December 2010 article by Andrew Mwenda of The Independent in Uganda, he states “The ANC in South Africa inherited a strong bureaucratic state with a well-developed and modern industrial economy, properly developed infrastructure, the best human resource pool on the continent and great international goodwill. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) inherited a backward economy that had collapsed, and a nation without a functional state. The pre-existing institutions of state had been dismembered, as over 90% of its human resources were dead, in jail or in exile. There was little international goodwill.”

Rwanda has hosted two Presidential elections since the genocide, with Paul Ngwane of the RPF winning his first seven-year term with 95% of the vote in 2003 and his second (and constitutionally final) term in 2010 with 98% of the vote. Ngwane and the RPF have been heavily criticised by local and international human rights organisations for their clampdown on the opposition, on the media and their absence of traditional democratic credentials.

According to Mwenda though, the lives of ordinary people in Rwanda have improved with 97% primary school enrolment, 75% having access to clean water and maternal mortality declining, all pointing to the effective pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. The incidence of HIV in Rwanda has declined from 11% in 2000 to under 3% in 2010, with average life expectancy growing from 25 in 2000 to 52, ten years later. By contrast, South Africa’s average life expectancy declined from 62 before the ANC took power to around 50 last year, with a Harvard University study concluding that at least 330 000 people (nearly half of the number killed during the Rwandan genocide) died avoidable deaths during Thabo Mbeki’s reign. The study estimated that there was an average of 900 AIDS-related deaths per day in 2005, one year after the ANC was re-elected into power with more than 69% of the vote!

The point is that there is no relationship necessarily between democracy and the delivery of services to the poor, or the improvement in the lives of the majority. As Mwenda’s article also points out, India – the world’s largest democracy – has freedom indicators comparable to those of Norway and yet, in terms of public services such as access to education, health, clean water, health, etc, India is similar to failing states such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. China on the other hand, not exactly the world’s leading democracy, is the one country which according to the World Bank has made substantial gains in reducing poverty, lifting 600 million people beyond the threshold of those living on less than $1,25 per day over a 30 year period.

While best practice democracies can indeed be effective mechanisms for delivery of services and for the improvement of the lives of the majority, having the forms of democracy – free and fair elections, constitutionally protected freedoms and human rights, etc – can also be means of co-option and of quelling resistance. Where democracy essentially serves elites – as in South Africa – the masses are “voting fodder” to ensure the maintenance of the political vehicle that creates the conditions for the elite to prosper. The constant battles (literally) to be nominated for electoral positions within the ruling party in South Africa points less to a desire to serve the South African people than to the economic and lifestyle opportunities afforded to politicians given front row seats at the trough of public funds.

The pursuit of a democracy and of a democratic culture – as in North African and Middle Eastern states at the moment – is admirable and is to be encouraged, but the lessons from further south are that democracy is not a guarantee of substantial and progressive social transformation. It has to be accompanied by the nurturing of a culture that values the greater good rather than individual greed, that does not glorify crass materialism as signs of success, and that places people rather than profit or ideology or narrow political interests at the centre of the transformation programme.

New societies require new cultures.

1. The views expressed in this column are entirely those of the writer and are not necessarily representative of any of the organisations in which he is involved.
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Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent. He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector. He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

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