SAR, Vol 12 No 3, June 1997
DEMOCRACY, STRONG OR THIN
The debate about democracy continues in Africa, and it bears commenting upon - not least in light of the substance of a number of articles about democracy's status in southern Africa that appear in the present issue.
In fact, it's difficult to think of "more democracy" as anything less than a "good thing" on a continent where far too many cruel dictators and arrogant elites have had the run of the shop for far too long. And yet the scope and substance of such democracy is itself in question, its meaning often narrowed to a set of rather formal practices that have little to do with any deep-cutting political mobilization of ordinary citizens or any genuine popular empowerment. In the words of Larry Diamond, one of the contemporary theorists most vocal in trumpeting the claims of a narrowly-cast and implicitly elitist "liberal democracy" against the struggle to realize any more expansive or popular form of it, democracy "demands that citizens care about politics, but not too much"!
"Not care too much" in part because the outcome of any democratic process is already given, of course: it is, must be, a confirmation of the wisdom of neo-liberalism as the only really sensible strategy for a southern African government - or, indeed, any government - to adopt in our increasingly globalized and re-colonized world. "The new enthusiasm for democracy is conditional," Manfred Bienefeld writes of the region elsewhere. "Just as Henry Ford once declared his Model-T to be available `in any colour so long as it is black,' bemused electorates now find they can choose any policy regime, so long as it is the neo-liberal one."
But what if - as many readers of SAR will suspect - this neo-liberal economic strategy is not likely to prove particularly developmental for southern Africa.? Then the costs of facilitating only a rather shallow form of democratization, and the fundamentally demobilized populace attendant upon it, may prove to be very high indeed. A number of observers worry about the fate, in these terms, of South Africa's post-apartheid ANC regime, with its neo-liberal agenda and its all-too-conventional political practices. In a powerful lead article in this issue, Chris Tapscott argues that Namibia, the country that immediately preceded South Africa into the brave new world of liberal democracy, provides a disturbing case in point of precisely the dangers involved.
Thus Tapscott worries that "despite its auspicious beginnings, the country is increasingly displaying patterns that have characterized autocratic, neo-colonial states elsewhere on the continent." As he goes on to itemize, "these include the arrogation of power by a newly emergent political elite, the drift towards a de facto one party state, the slow but progressive erosion of civil liberties, growing public sector corruption and the continuing poverty of the masses." Dangers indeed.
In order to counter such trends activists in southern Africa have come to think of "civil society" as the seed-bed from which more powerful democratic assertions from below could eventually grow. We have heard much about this theme in previous issues of SAR and Tapscott himself identifies the "weakness of civil society" in Namibia - the lack of development of "NGOs, community-based organizations and other organizations outside of formal politics" - as one factor that is facilitating the outcomes he fears in that country.
In other parts of the region a mobilized "civil society" seems a far more powerful actor, Swaziland, the subject of two complementary articles in the current issue, being an apparent case in point. Of course, in Swaziland even a realized "liberal democracy" would be considered a clear step forward from the unapologetically autocratic monarchical system in place there presently. True, one of our authors - Michael Stephen - does wax somewhat nostalgic for certain features of the quasi-traditional political structure now under so much popular pressure in Swaziland. But for our other author on Swaziland, Jacqui Salmond, there are no such ambiguities. In her view, the trade-union centred popular movement that has surfaced so visibly from within civil society in recent years is, together with its regional allies, the potential bearer of a transformed future for Swaziland.
The Swaziland story is a dramatic one, then, if still one that is very far from being resolved. Other articles in this issue, especially those focusing on Zimbabwe, also speak to the tense interplay between state and civil society. Familiar aspects of the autocratic urges of Mugabe and company surface both from Wetherell's account of the government's attempts to control discussion of a report on its past abuses of power in Matabeleland and from Sara Rich's account of its moves to assert greater control over the NGOs in that country.
And there is also a recognition of some of the ambiguities of civil society itself as a protagonist for progressive change in southern Africa. Salmond notes for Swaziland the potentially contradictory alliance that has found business and labour linking up to push for democratic change there. In Zimbabwe, Saunders argues, the contradictions inherent in such an alliance have already come much closer to the surface. Thus the media and the popular organizations that once collaborated so closely to press for liberal/democratic reforms in Zimbabwe have begun to drift apart. On Saunders' account, the business-driven media has become much less vocal about deepening the meaning of democracy now that neo-liberal economics has been installed as the government's orthodoxy, leaving the popular organizations far more isolated in their fight against structural adjustment ... and for a stronger brand of democracy.
Ah, strong democracy, there's the rub. The notion has been given currency in the writings of Benjamin Barber, who sees liberal democracy as being, in contrast, "a `thin' theory of democracy, one whose democratic values are prudential ... means to exclusively individualistic and private ends. From this precarious foundation, no firm theory of citizenship, participation, public goods, or civic virtue can be expected to arise." As for "strong democracy," it is "defined by politics in the participatory mode," a politics through which "active citizens govern themselves directly, not necessarily at every level and in every instance, but frequently enough and in particular when basic policies are being decided and when significant power is being deployed."
Or take the complementary theory of "popular democracy" articulated by Tanzanian scholar and activist, Issa Shivji. Shivji, too, is deeply sceptical regarding the claims of "liberal democracy" to offer any real promise of liberation for the mass of the African population. Instead, he emphasizes the necessary centrality of "popular struggles and mass movements from below" to any substantial democratic advance on the continent. And he also emphasizes the centrality to any such initiatives of a continuing emphasis on the perils of "imperialism" (not least in its neo-liberal guise); on the need to confront them; and on the imperatives of, yes, class struggle. Democracy, strong or thin: in southern Africa, as elsewhere, that is the question.
Southern Africa Report
Contents - Vol 12 No 3
"Democracy: Strong or Thin"
Editorial: Democracy, Strong or Thin - 1
The Autocratic Temptation: Politics in Namibia Now - 3
by Chris Tapscott
Swaziland: I. Of Trade Unions and Transformation - 7
by Jacqui Salmond
Swaziland: II. Of Kings and Compromises - 9
by Michael Stephen
The Press and Popular Organizations In Zimbabwe: A Frayed Alliance - 13
by Richard Saunders
The State of NGOs in Zimbabwe: Honeymoon Over? - 17
by Sara Rich
The Matabeleland Report: A Lot to Hide - 21
by Iden Wetherell
Banning Landmines: A Conference Report - 23
by Valerie Warmington
Neo-Liberalizing Skills: A Critique of the South African Green Paper - 26
by Melanie Samson
Rallying the Region: SA/EU Negotiations Continue - 30
by Dot Keet and the SAR editorial working group
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.