Direct democracy has a role to play in Africa

The concept of democracy does not appear, to the average observer, to have found fertile soil in Africa. The reason is that protagonists of democracy insist on attempting to persuade Africans to adopt representative democracy, a version of the system that has evolved in Western countries. Inadequate attention has been given to the fundamental nature of African direct democracy and its successful functioning for many centuries before Europeans arrived in Africa.

This unfortunate situation appears to result from what Thomas Sowell in Conflict of Visions describes as the difference between ‘(1) systemic processes working through successive generations of individuals a through x, as expressed through living generation x, versus (2) the articulated rationality of y in isolation. The rejection of the concept of collective wisdom leaves individual comparisons as the standard of judgement.’

Friedrich Hayek expressed this caution: ‘The most dangerous stage in the growth of civilisation may well be that in which man has come to regard all these beliefs as superstitions and refuses to accept or to submit to anything which he does not rationally understand. The rationalist whose reason is not sufficient to teach him those limitations of the power of conscious reason, and who despises all the institutions and customs which have not been consciously designed, would thus become the destroyer of the civilisation built upon them.’

Africa Betrayed
George Ayittey in Africa Betrayed alerted the world to the general lack of understanding of the true nature of the African economic system: that Africans are not inherently socialist as is widely believed. He pointed out that within the African community there is an age-old tradition of private ownership of houses, implements, utensils, and livestock. Land ownership only became an issue, as it did in North America and on other continents, upon the arrival of acquisitive land-hungry Europeans. Nomadic peoples, living in vast open plains, had recognised tribal territories but had no need of systems of land title and registration of ownership.

So Africans had private property and markets and well-functioning forms of democratic governance. The colonial powers caused havoc in Africa by not only failing to give recognition to indigenous African institutions, but by subverting them and imposing Western-style highly-centralised representative democracies on diverse collections of peoples that had been cobbled together into ‘countries’ for purposes of exercising control over them. Many of the problems experienced in Africa stem from the imposition of these inappropriate governing structures on people with a totally different idea of governance built into their psyches.

Representative democracy has not functioned well in Africa
In African direct-democracy systems the people make decisions, usually by consensus, after thorough discussion of specific issues. It is not true that African democracy, properly implemented, allows kings, queens and chiefs to act autocratically and impose unpopular decisions on their communities. This is only possible in representative democracies where fifty percent plus one provides a sufficient majority to carry a decision.

There is a tendency among post-colonial African electorates to continue to vote for tyrannical and oppressive politicians, and to display an apparent reluctance to use their votes to remove unsuitable incumbents from office. It is possible that this reluctance is buried in African tradition: that political leaders become invested in the minds of voters with the same hereditary status as traditional leaders.

It is also possible that the reluctance to dismiss autocratic politicians results from a failure to appreciate the massive powers wielded in Western-style representative democracies as compared with the limited powers accorded to chiefs in African-style direct democracies. In other words, the people do not know why it is that their votes unleash so much misery on them. They do not realise that a better-designed system, more in keeping with their own sense of the way things should be done, would provide them with vastly superior outcomes.

The Western-style representative democracy that has been adopted in much of Africa is being applied across larger areas with more diverse populations than the traditional African areas of governance, not subject to the checks and balances that exist in the smaller areas with homogeneous populations found in traditional African communities.

Adoption by South Africa of a constitution based on representative democracy does not mean that Africa’s traditionally democratic forms of governance have no role to play in the government of our country. African-style direct democracy is particularly suitable for application to local government.

African decision-making is democratic
South Africa can obtain the best of both worlds, and ensure the retention of at least some of its African heritage, by continuing to apply African decision-making processes among traditional communities whilst applying the European-style majority-rule in national and provincial government. Some observers have contended that African decision-making is undemocratic and that traditional communities wish to deprive their people of their democratic rights by arguing for the retention of customary forms of government in traditional areas. This criticism stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding of Africa and its ancient and effective decision-making processes.

It is true that the colonial powers and apartheid governments attempted to pervert and destroy the best elements of African rule but they did not succeed in destroying the values and traditions of the people. After so many years of oppression the people are most happy when they can gather at an indaba and take part in decisions affecting them most closely: matters such as where a new school or clinic should be built or where a new road is needed. The closest that western countries have come to emulating African democracy is the Swiss referendum system, which naturally grew out of traditional Swiss community decision-making.

If South Africa’s traditional communities were allowed to follow the essence and nature of African democracy, properly practised, they would demonstrate to the world that African decision-making processes deserve to be preserved for the sake of future generations.

Cradles of South Africa’s heritage
If black South Africans wish to preserve their African heritage they need places where their young people can learn their languages, history, and cultures in environments that are steeped in every aspect of that heritage. They need places where the young can hear from their elders about the greatness of their forebears and can take pride in who they are and what they are.

They need places in which the ancient African decision-making processes can be re-instated as they were before the arrival of the oppressive regimes that prevented the processes from functioning properly for so many years. The places already exist. They are those pieces of land belonging to traditional communities.

The process of converting all community land into “owned land” as required by the Communal Land Rights Act should be carried out expeditiously so that the communities can never again be deprived of their property and the continuity regained that is so vital to the restoration of the ‘community souls’ of the people. Finally, their right to make their own community decisions in traditional African fashion should not only be returned to them but also enshrined in the country’s constitution.

Author: Eustace Davie is a Director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 21 June 2005
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