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In the beginning was the word, and the word was Democracy. And Democracy was the way, and the truth, and the light, and all who came unto Democracy would not perish, but have donor funds and equitable life.
Or would they? Earlier this year, we interviewed Nigerian Afrobeat star Seun Kuti prior to a show in New York. Seun minced no words in his explanation of his most recent album, an ode to political disenchantment among young Africans today titled From Africa with Fury: Rise: “In Africa we do not have leaders, we have rulers. These rulers first serve the interest of multinational corporations and western powers before they consider the welfare of their people. People had forgotten this. Democracy brought some blind hope…”
In the lead up to the Open Forum 2012 that took place in Cape Town in May, TIA in collaboration with the Open Society Initiative for South Africa (OSISA) organised a series of radio debates in Ghana, Kenya and South Africa on the question: has democracy brought blind hope? Many of the points that came up in the debates were also discussed at the Open Forum and its preceding Youth Summit, revolving around the axes that rule the world: money, power and sex.
Democracy was heralded as the panacea that could transcend these axes, equalize the playing field. And yet, according to the debate participants, the overwhelming experience across all three countries has been the opposite.
“The right to vote has become the worst thing that we have,” asserted Rithuli Orleyn, spokesperson for the September National Imbizo, a South African political youth movement. “It has become the way of legitimizing a small group of middle-class people to take money from public coffers and go use it in private. Instead of true transformation, I see small representations…tokenistic representation.”
The youth summit also involved some discussion about the branding of democracy as the most desirable political ideology, and whether this can create true transformation. Participants from Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, expressed commitment to the vision of democracy as the best way for the country to move forward. However, Velaphi Mamba emphasized the importance of a revolution that stretches beyond governance structures: “… we are interested in a change process that will allow people to have access to their resources – it’s not about establishing institutions. It’s about daily bread-and-butter, survival needs.”
Listen/download the Cape Town debate
http://content.omroep.nl/ghettoradio/musicblog/has_democracy_brought_bling_hope_cape_town_a.mp3 Part 1 (DOWNLOAD Part 1)
http://content.omroep.nl/ghettoradio/musicblog/has_democracy_brought_bling_hope_cape_town_b.mp3 Part 2 (DOWNLOAD Part 2)
But it is precisely the need for a deeper change process that has generated cynicism among people from countries where democracy is long-established, such as the USA. Ferrari Sheppard expressed frustration about the ideological grip that democracy has across the world, calling it a brand that kills. “What is this thing called democracy? Money is its own country – elections are about choosing between orange and orange.”
Stella Agara reiterated this view in the Nairobi debate. “The people who make decisions in a democracy are the people who have muscle, and muscle and money have an equal sign in between the two of them”. For young people therefore, who mostly lack financial muscle, active participation in democracy becomes a myth. “Young people in this country do not have money, and so they follow people who have money,” Stella continued. “They make the assumption that they are participating in a democracy and yet the decisions are made for them. Young people are used to popularize these decisions.”
And thus democracy finds itself in a catch-22, tasked with providing the answers to its own Achilles’ heel: inequality. Where does one start? In South Africa, where the incredible gap between rich and poor has created what Rebecca Davis described as a “bipolar reality”, the September National Imbizo is calling for the airing and confronting of dirty laundry – particularly around race.
While Mario Wanza in the Cape Town debate described the recent national outcry around a white model’s tweeting of the word “Kaffir” – a derogatory term for a black person – as a sign of a healthy democracy, Rithuli referred to it as an example of a country that is shying away from the truth. “Black people in South Africa still live under kaffir conditions today,” he said. “When you see the squalid conditions that most black people live in, although it was perturbing to hear that word, you can see that it is appropriate. Black people need to start thinking: why are we kaffirs in our own country? We are pariahs in our own land… a neo-apartheid system.”
Dr. Hamet Maulana, Accra debate
In Accra, Hamet Maulana expressed similar sentiments about Africa’s relationship with the West, blaming the failures of governance on the “Europeanisation” of the democratic blueprint that was inherent to African civilisation pre-colonialism. “We need to understand where we are,” he said. “We may say that in Africa we are politically independent, but we are not economically independent. We are beholden to an outside entity... we have to break the economic strangle hold that Europe has over us. Who pays the piper is the one that calls the tunes.”
At the Open Forum, former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, also called for recognition that freedom was not absolute. “Post-independence, colonialists said: you are free – but this is what you must do. This should not be forgotten...countries transitioning from colonial rule to democracy did not have time to build up civic education.”
Listen/download the Accra debate
Tic Tac, Bridget Babiee Dappah and Dr. Hamet Maulana, Accra
So are the challenges with democracy that we have seen rooted in the manner in which our systems of governance were imposed from a Western paradigm? David Makali suggested in the Nairobi debate that the problems actually lie much deeper within our current social context. “Democracy cannot exist in a place where you have poverty, where you have illiteracy, and where you have oppressive culture. The culture we grew up with was oppressive, it was patriarchal – we have to grow out of there.”
This is a statement that most would agree with – but as usual, the question is how. Many of the proposed answers raised in the debates and at the Open Forum pointed to a fundamental gap: education.
There have been two major blunders with democracy, stated Bassie Montewa in the Cape Town debate. The first was the expectation that a government would deliver simply because it was democratically elected. The second is that people who have information, too often discuss it amongst themselves, making no effort to broaden this discussion among the broader public. Speaking of the current crisis over the ownership and maintenance of government-sponsored housing in South Africa, he asked, "Have we contributed to educating people about the benefits of democracy, educating Auntie so-and-so that she has a right to a house? She doesn’t know – for 350 years she was indoctrinated otherwise.”
At the Open Forum, Maphela Ramphele also addressed this indoctrination, stating that “Africans have been deeply, deeply wounded by centuries of indignity. We need to own up to this.” She cautioned about misplaced emphasis on the role of “heroic leaders” post-liberation, as opposed to on the role of citizens.
Listen/download the Nairobi debate
Part of the problem, said Billy Kahora in the Nairobi debate, is that we often think of democracy as "free and fair" elections – freedom to cast a vote and have it counted. This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The pre-occupation with electoral cycles that only last a few years can also undermine progress since, as pointed out by Hemel Besem in the Cape Town debate, addressing structural inequality requires political commitment to strategies that stretch over decades.
Stella compared Kenya to Libya, where, though elections never took place under Gaddafi’s rule, “there are certain things that the people of Libya were enjoying that most of us can only dream of…” – citing Libya’s free health care and education programs. “Kenya claims to be a democracy but do we have free education up to university level? For me that’s where the conflict comes in…if you ask someone that cannot read the constitution of Kenya how the two-thirds gender rule should be applied, they will not be able to respond.”
Nic Kock pointed out similar challenges in South Africa, which he notes has “very poor turnout in terms of quality of education”, despite being one of the countries that spends the most on education in Africa, the result being that people’s access to money and ability to participate meaningfully is compromised. Bridget Dappah in the Accra debate made a dire prediction about where this will lead: “If you don’t build more schools, you might as well build more prisons.”
So if education is such a pressing challenge across the continent, why doesn’t it receive more attention? Stella in Nairobi suggested that one of the side-effects of inheriting models of democracy from the West is that we also inherit agendas that are not necessarily our own. “We [in Africa] have had a certain form of democracy and representation since time immemorial…the new democracy that has come in has been defined by the West, and this is why you see certain conversations being imposed.”
She flagged the rights of sexual minorities as one such “imposed conversation” – questioning whether this is an African agenda. However Billy saw this concern, which is reflective of broader societal homophobia, as deeply problematic. He posed the question: "why does the state, and we as individuals, feel so threatened by what people choose to do with their bodies?" Patriarchal structures, he said, lie at the heart of this discomfort – they “become part of tradition, become part of religion, become part of politics. The body challenges a lot of these institutions.” Why doesn’t the state, he asked, direct the energy that it uses to target same-sex relationships, towards the crisis of food, housing and dignity in African countries?
It seems that when it comes to body politics such as homophobia and patriarchy, where oppressive mindsets have become entrenched in the majority, democracy can become a tool for sustaining discrimination and persecution. The sad irony, in the context of the African people, is that we are all too familiar with oppression, with the devastation it wreaks on both the oppressed and the oppressor. One would hope that after everything we have been through, we would know better than to advocate hatred of people because of their personal choices and freedoms.
However, it appears that the hype that is built up around people’s emotive perception of so-called value systems also serves to distract from us other critical issues that governments – and we as society – have failed to address. “We are wasting time placing responsibility on others,” Billy warned, “when we need to place responsibility on ourselves.” Some participants at the youth summit echoed this feeling. “We often think that revolution is about people with placards,” said Ann Daramola, “but this is not true. Revolution happens on a very personal level.” And so, it is only the interrogation of the personal that can make democracy work, emphasized David in the Nairobi debate. “When we talk about corruption,” he said, “we talk about it as a theme, we never introduce the individual’s penchant, human nature – greed. We don’t talk about – you, are you greedy, and how can you stop that?”
We need "something" else
Billy Kahora, Nairobi
But at the end of the day, despite all of the suggestions about how to improve the practice of democracy, there still seemed to be a lingering sentiment that something much more radical will be needed for society to attain equality. “The international system is not democratic, it has never been, that is why we have a Security Council with 5 powers,” Billy said in Nairobi. “Nations have never been about fairness. [Democracy] is the best of the worst, and it’s never been seen to work in reality. We fall back to democracy because we haven’t found any other way to govern ourselves.”
In Ghana, TicTac called for inward reflection, for a new emphasis on African culture. “We are pushed to the wall and we are angry – we are angry with the system. We put the leaders there, but they are liars... if African people had realized who we are, then we could actually be a step ahead of the Western world. Our cultural values already had something ahead of where the Western world had gone.”
But what is this "something"? Where is the step ahead? September National Imbizo believes in a “democracy bigger than what we have at present” in South Africa. Their proposition is simple: that politicians should live out their rhetorical commitment to equality. “If you are administering public service, you are saying that it is worth being given to some people – then you should set the example,” said Rithuli. “There should be a law that says politicians should be forced to use the public services that they provide. We want a radically equalizing discourse.”
So it seems that according to the prevailing sentiment in these debates, Seun Kuti was right, that democracy has brought blind hope, empty promises. But at the same time the disenchantment appears to be moving us, albeit a bit blurrily, towards a new truth: a realization that the road to equality will not be paved with government systems and politricks, but with much more fundamental and personal cornerstones such as education, self-awareness and sacrifice.
Continue the conversation
These debates are not the end, but the start of a conversation about whether or not the Western form of democracy has indeed brought blind hope to Africa, and if so, what political system would be most appropriate for African countries. The concerns everybody, so please continue the conversation below and in the Facebook group we've set up specifically for this one issue: has democracy brought blind hope to Africa?
We wish to thank everyone who took part is these debates, including all those who worked behind the scenes to make them happen.
Radio station: Bush Radio 89.5FM / Listen live
Hosts: Shamiel X and Bassie Montewa
Marion Wanza – Occupy Cape Town organiser and Proudly Manenburg co-ordinator
Rebecca Davis – Journalist, Daily Maverick
Rithuli Orleyn - Spokesperson for September National Imbizo
Nicolas Kock - Lecturer, Institute for Social Development, University of the Western Cape
Simone Witbooi (Hemel Besem) - Hip hop artist, social activist, development worker
Radio station X FM 95.1FM / Listen live
Rebroadcast Vibe FM 91.9FM / Listen live
Host Kojo Mensah
Bridget Babiee Dappah – News Anchor, “Hot Gossip” host and social commentator
Dr. Hamet Maulana - Co-founder of the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission
Tic Tac – Hip-Life Musician and producer
Radio station Ghetto Radio 89.5FM / Listen live
Host Linda Ochanda
Stella Agara – activist and community worker, Africa Youth Trust
David Makali – Journalist, political analyst, director of the Media Institute, Nairobi
Billy Kahora – Editor, Kwani
Paula Akugizibwe is a writer and contributor to OpenForum2012.