State of Democracy in a changing global landscape

It was fitting that the 2016 Democracy Works, State of Democracy debate was held at Lilliesleaf Farm, the place where struggle stalwarts who became known as the Rivionia Trialists, used to meet. It was here, before their capture by the apartheid regime’s security police, that they discussed their vision for a future democratic South Africa.

The panel discussion held on 28 November was moderated by Thandiwe Matthews and comprised Democracy Works Executive Chairperson, William Gumede, Jules Hoareau, Chairperson of the SADC Council for Non-Governmental Organisations, and Zimbabwean academic, Tamuka Chirimambowa.

The debate took place against a background of a rapidly changing political environment, a fact that was reflected by the contributions of the audience. Ideas on democracy, as experienced in a changing political environment, in contrast to the experience of Westernised societies were eagerly exchanged. Of critical important was the salient question: What kind of democracy do Africans want?

Nicholas Wolpe, CEO of the Lilliesleaf Foundation, said the discussion had come at an opportune time for the liberation struggle, as the ideals of the struggle seemed to be fading. “How do liberation ideals get translated into practical deliverables, we need to ask whether we are living up to the ideals of the Freedom Charter, and what it means to be an African.”

Gumede reflected on Africa’s quest for democracy over the past 50 years where many countries strove to throw off the shackles of colonialism. “But they were not necessarily looking for democracy, they were looking for freedom, perhaps economic freedom, he said. “But they never really unpacked the concept of democracy. Apart from South Africa, only Mauritius, Botswana and Cape Verde had really focused on democracy as part of their political freedom”.

“Since their democracy, Mauritius has done better than most which is very interesting as their liberation party, the Mauritian Labour Party, was almost identical to the ANC. Since their independence, they have done much better than any liberation movement on the left. There are other more conservative examples of liberation movements”, Gumede said.

“Botswana is one of them and has very much tried to get their democracy rights and their freedom rights. They have been much more successful than the other Patriotic Fronts (PFs).

“Another successful movement was The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). They did not initially focus on democracy. They lost power and were the opposition,  but when they won an election again, they started focusing on democracy. I believe that the African countries who have done best are those who really focused on democracy”, Gumede said.

He also pointed out that in the last five years government and opposition parties in Africa have been challenged in a way that has never been seen before.

“Across the continent, we have seen musicians, rappers, and young people who are mobilising on a mass scale to either take out autocratic governments, like in Senegal who started a massive campaign to get Wade out. In the DRC and Cameroon, this is also happening. There appears to be a non-political type of activism as people are mobilising as they are tired of the current civil society groups, the current ruling parties and the current opposition parties. It is a really interesting phenomenon”, he said.

Hoareau agreed with Gumede that there were different kinds of democracy but felt that the leaders were in fact diluting democracy. “We need to redefine the word. I believe that democracy has different meanings depending on its application. We have to acknowledge that the impact of technology on democracy and social media is adding another dimension to democracy.”

Tara Polzer Ngwato of Social Surveys Africa said that proof of the power of social media was a group of teenagers in Macedonia that bombed the web with fake stories about Hillary Clinton which probably contributed to her losing to Donald Trump. She also remarked on the fact that San Franciscans had said they would resist any negative policy implementions by Trump.

Yvette Geyer, Democracy Works associate, then remarked that if a “bunch of teenagers could influence the US election” they were very smart and were, at the very least, practicing their economic democracy”. In regards to Polzer’s comments about San Francisco, she said that San Francisco could do that because they were profoundly resourced. “I doubt that any conversation in a Soweto shebeen would ever be taken note of.”

“People often focus on the philosopy and concepts of democracy, but she, personally was more interested in the practice of economic democracy.  She cited the Afrikaaners who grew their farming co-operatives into massive corporates, like Sanlam.

Matthews asked Chirimambowa as a young man coming from Zimbabwe that has a draconian leadership, how the youth were challenging the current understanding of democracy.

Chirimambowa cited the Trump campaign, Brexit and Julius Malema that he believed that democracy was on the retreat. He felt that, not just in Zimbabwe, there were anti- democratic elements tapping into democratic principles.

But he felt that the “one cloud of hope had to be drawn from a recent Afrobarometer survey that showed that Africans generally do believe in democracy.  In terms of Zimbabwe which was ‘lurching from one crisis to the next’ one can find the poorest groups of people increasing their social power mainly through technology. It has changed the game,” he said.

A question from the floor asking how Trump, Brexit and Malema could be anti-democratic when they were part of the democratic system and what or who was the problem, the people or the system.

Hoareau replied that the problem never lay with the people, a point agreed to firmly by Gumede who said the main problem lay in that the leaders are not accountable. People vote because they want change. “Government leaders use democratic language because they want to hoodwink people. African leaders will never say to you publicly that they are anti-democracy. Instead they will use the democratic system and manipulate it, in order to behave autocractically”.

The conversation turned to the conceptualisation of democracy beyond that of holding elections and casting votes. The fluidity and importance of many factors.

Almost as a last word at the debate, Nompumulelo Runji of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) said she believed the concept of democracy was important and said that people had a tendency to pack democracy with so much that “it is so imprecise that we get lost when we speak about it”.

“It is really important to distinguish democracy as a process from democracy as a system of governance, or as a political culture and to think about the other things that work together with democracy to deliver the type of society we are looking for.

“Democracy tends to be as fluid as water, that is why we keep giving labels to democracy. We speak of liberal democracy and social democracy. Democracy is not value free. It is laden with opinions and values and whenever it is applied, it will take on the shape of the existing values, culture and economic system within that society”, Runji said.

Gumede wrapped up by saying he felt that democracy was a work in progress and that an opportunity had been missed by liberation movements to ask themselves what constituted a post colonial project, beyond freedom.

“We need to ask ourselves, what a democractic state is, what should a democratic liberation movement be internally and what a democratic culture should be”.

The event was sponsored by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung South Africa. A full recording of the discussion can be found on Facebook/DemocracyW.


Sarah Hudleston is an author and freelance journalist, copy editor and researcher who has a keen interest in politics and socio-economic issues. She previously worked for Business Day, the Centre for Development and Enterprise And Wits Business School where completed a short term contract researching  the history of the Kagiso Trust. She has also worked as an Account Director in a Public Relations firm, as well has fundraised for a small education non-profit organisation. She lives in Johannesburg and is a single mother to a 13 year old daughter, for whom she hopes to help make South Africa have a bright and equitable future.

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