Is culture an obstacle to democracy?

The question is often asked whether African culture and traditions are obstacles to development and democracy.

African culture is not inimical development or democracy. The South Korean development economist Ha-Joon Chang rightly agrees it depends on how people interpret their culture and tradition. “Which aspects they choose to highlight, and which interpretation wins in political and ideological battles”, will ultimately determine whether an African country secures development and builds democracy.

Culture and traditions are dynamic and change quickly. Africa’s brush with colonialism, industrialisation and, more recently technology, has and will further change them.

Not so long ago, many Western observers claimed Japanese, Chinese and East Asian cultures were anti-developmental. Germans in the past were dismissed by European peers “as lazy, irrational and even congenitally incapable of dealing with machinery”.

Given the astonishing industrialisation of many of these societies, few would say so now.

Colonial powers often chose to highlight aspects or distort elements of culture and traditions which would reinforce the oppression of the colonised people. Those are often the more autocratic, subservient or anti-developmental aspects.

Alternatively, colonial governments distorted elements of culture and traditions to bring out the more autocratic, subservient or anti-developmental aspects. Many ruled through a different set of laws, called “customary laws”, which were ostensibly African “traditional” and “cultural” laws, conventions and institutions.

They appointed pliant proxy traditional leaders, chiefs or kings to oversee the indigenous communities on their behalf. The African scholar Mahmood Mamdani called this phenomenon “indirect rule”. This was done to make it easier for the colonial governments to rule.

By doing this, colonial governments essentially rewrote African culture and traditions.

Africa’s clash with colonialism also changed culture and traditions. Furthermore, industrialisation, urbanisation and global cultural influences also changed them.

In the post-independence period, most African governments and leaders retained the colonially appointed “traditional” leaders and structures on condition that they guaranteed their support and votes.

Post independence, many African governments have emphasised only the more autocratic, subservient and anti-developmental aspects of African culture and traditions. They have done so in many cases to reinforce their control over their populations.

Some leaders have, for self-interested reasons, emphasised the undemocratic elements of African culture or rejected democracy as “foreign”. Others opportunistically argue democracy is “Western” or against African culture because it shields them from democratic scrutiny so they can continue to enrich themselves at the expense of overwhelmingly poor Africans.

For example, President Jacob Zuma says he needs to be judged by African “culture” while building a R280 million estate with taxpayers’ money, while his supporters live and die in grinding poverty.

Some rulers have invented new African “traditions” and “cultures” to either cover up misdeeds, shield themselves from criticism or to shore up their political support base and the support of poor, uneducated and uninformed communities. Many have implemented only the aspects of “democracy” that favour them, their parties and their political factions, regions and ethnic groups.

Esteemed developing country scholars, such as the Indian Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, long ago debunked the wrong-headed notion democracy is Western or foreign to African or Asian cultures.

There is not one single version of democracy but multiple forms in both developing and Western countries. Different democracies have varieties of political institutions, some originating from specific country circumstances, and some adapted from others.

Those who excuse the poor quality of some political institutions in Africa by saying they were imported from Western democratic institutions, and therefore bound to fail, have not done their homework. In most cases, African leaders have only introduced aspects of democracy that benefited them personally. For obvious reasons this undermines the functioning of democratic institutions and their credibility.

African culture and traditions have democratic and autocratic, developmental and anti-developmental aspects. Countries that have pushed for democracy since the end of colonialism, such as Botswana and Mauritius, have been richer and more peaceful than those who have not.

Botswana, the one country which has attempted to use the democratic aspects of African culture has outshone those which have labelled democracy unAfrican or introduced aspects of democracy which only favoured them. They have mostly remained poverty-stricken and beset by coups and civil strife.

The great challenge for this generation is how to emphasise democratic elements in African culture and traditions and cut out the autocratic elements; how to elevate the developmental aspects. For this generation to fail to grasp the nettle of this challenge is to perpetuate another generation of failed states, poverty-stricken, broken and unstable societies.

Culture and traditions are not frozen in time.

They evolve. Institutions can evolve too. Similar cultures to African ones, such as the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean ones have, over time, put more emphasis on the elements that promote development.

Driven by leaders who felt aspects of these traditions and cultures were stopping them from being competitive with Western countries or neighbouring rivals have changed to emphasise aspects that promote development. Not surprisingly, these economies have seen spectacular development over the past half-century.

Since independence in 1966, Botswana has emphasised aspects of African culture such as popular participation in decision-making, consensus-seeking, governing in the interest of the majority and leadership accountability. Surprisingly, many African leaders and governments do not highlight these. Not surprisingly, Botswana has done better both in terms of development and democracy than most African countries.

It is crucial for Africans to determinedly push the aspects of African culture and traditions which will enhance democracy and development.

Unless they do, they will stagnate and will be over-run by Western and emerging market cultures and traditions.

A challenge for all African countries is to re-examine all their cultural, traditional and religious practises honestly. To reduce such a call as an all-or-nothing battle between so-called modernists and traditionalists; Western “civilization” versus African “backwardness” or an attempt to denigrate African ways, is simply short-sighted. Africa’s prosperity depends on this.

The debate over which African culture and traditions are appropriate for our times must be wrested away from those who argue for opportunistic reasons or to shore up their own influence and bank balances.

If not, African countries will continue to be stuck in poverty and underdevelopment and remain in a neocolonial relationship with Western and emerging powers.

*This article was published in the African Independent. To view the article on their website click here

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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