Pambazuka News

Southern Africa: Democracy without the citizens

Ndumba Kamwanyah

2012-01-12, Issue 565

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Southern Africa’s ‘democracies’ do not produce citizens but subjects controlled by governments due to the hierarchical nature of the region’s politics, which demands obedience. But for how long will this go on?

The year 2011 for southern Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa in general, will probably be remembered for what did not happen in the light of the people-powered uprisings and protests that swept the globe.

In the Arab world, in particular North Africa, what is being now referred to as the Arab Spring made 2011 a tough year for the dictatorial regimes of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and of course Gaddafi, who was killed in Libya. In the Western world, a movement that started as Occupy Wall Street in New York stirred up similar protests across major cities in the US, Britain, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Asian countries as citizens fought back against growing greed and inequality. Public anger over the debt crisis brought down prime ministers George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi in Greece and Italy respectively.

Yet, despite the southern African region’s high level of poverty, unemployment and inequality, we did not see a wave of public anger similar to what we have seen across the globe. In a case study of five southern African countries, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa has found that poverty and inequality is tearing apart Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa and Angola, with many citizens living on a mere US$1 per day. The irony here is that some of those countries, such as Namibia and South Africa, are resource-rich with some of the highest GDP in the world.

Amidst this global backlash against greed and inequality, why were most southern African streets (apart from isolated and sporadic protests in Malawi and Swaziland) empty, quiet, and business as usual? What happened to the militant spirit that sent many young people to the streets of Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa against colonialism, poverty and social injustice in the 1960s and 1980s?

One answer given for this widespread citizenry indifference in southern African has been explained in terms of the belief that some of the governments in the region would not hesitate to use harsh measures if confronted by Arab Spring-like mass action. True to this, in Zimbabwe some 45 activists were rounded up and charged with treason for watching a Mid-East uprising video. In Malawi, the security force launched a violent crackdown on the protestors, leaving at least 18 of them dead. In Swaziland, pro-democracy activists were banned, arrested, tear-gassed and sprayed with water canons.

It is also true that when the uprising was under way in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, none of the southern African governments (well, South Africa maybe did but flip-flopped later to save face with the radicals within the ANC and other hawkish Africanists in the region) picked up the phone to urge Mubarak, Gaddafi, or Ben Ali to exercise restraint in dealing with the protestors. Instead, what we heard from the southern African governments was the usual song of complaints about Western interference in Africa’s internal matters.

But here is another explanation: Southern African citizens’ indifference can be explained as a ‘been there and done that’ syndrome. This is because in some ways southern Africa is a little bit ahead of north Africa in terms of democratisation, meaning that most governments in southern Africa are products of democracy and came to power through elections, whereas north Africa might have been stable and economically advanced but did not have democratic governments. However, a distinctive characteristic of the southern African democracy is that not only do we have a democracy without democrats but also a democracy without citizens. Southern Africa’s democracies did not and do not produce citizens but subjects controlled by governments due to the hierarchical nature of the region’s politics, which demands obedience and loyalty from citizens. Why? Although they claim to have fought for democracy (such as SWAPO in Namibia, ANC in South Africa, MPLA in Angola, FRELIMO in Mozambique and ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe), most ruling parties in southern Africa don’t operate as democrats. Their politics and decision-making are highly centralised. By the way, the same can also be said about most opposition political parties.

It is against the backlog of this unquestioning and uncritical citizenry, that we understand why Mugabe is still in power today and why most ruling parties in the region have won elections with a landslide victory. This is why the Namibian president can place a moratorium on public discussions about the SWAPO presidential succession. And the ANC-dominated National Assembly in South Africa can pass a law (reversing the gains made against apartheid) to limit free speech.

On the flip side, events in north Africa made the world forget (as the international media and world governments shifted attention to the Arab Spring) about southern Africa, especially with regard to what’s going on in Zimbabwe and Malawi

Here are a few predictions for 2012: The ruling party SWAPO’s 2012 election campaign to replace the incumbent Namibian president when his term expires is shaping up to be between Geingob (who is the vice president of SWAPO) and Pendukeni Ithana (who is the secretary of SWAPO). One is believed to be a technocrat and the other a populist. But both are insiders, so expect less change here if either of them wins. What is clear, however, is that another potential split (this would be the third split if it happens) from the ruling party is looming as the in-fighting has already started. More is to come as we inch closer to election day.

In Zimbabwe, it is clear that the opposition party MDC (MDC has lost the mojo and has been weakened by in-fighting) is not the party that will bring down Mugabe (as it was hoped), but expect a potential split within the ruling ZANU-PF party. As Mugabe’s health continues to deteriorate, we expect infighting as members vie for control and Mugabe’s position.

On the other hand, South Africa will continue walking the populist road and, of course, with less transparent governance. Unless restored, expect the worst from Malawi because its lifeline, which is aid from the international community, has been cut off, which is going to make life difficult for ordinary citizens. Angola and Mozambique (riding on oil) will continue unabated because we don’t really hear much about these two countries in terms of international coverage anyway.

The remaining question is, will Swaziland eventually collapse economically or has it already collapsed?

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