Many Africans have forgotten that they are African! In order for Africans to find solutions to the problems that plague Africa, they must understand the root causes, and apply appropriate homegrown solutions. The fundamental cause of the worst problems lies in the struggle for political power, exacerbated by legacies of colonialism. Colonialism is past history. The only part of it that is now worth focussing on is its conflict-provoking legacies, many of which relate to the fact that Africans have forgotten that they are African.
Two distinct forms of democracy
Democracy means, “power to the people”. However, there are two distinct forms of democracy. The one brought to Africa by the colonial powers, and the one that was here for eons before they got here.
The colonial form, representative democracy, allows the people during elections to vote for representatives who make decisions on behalf of the electorate.
Direct democracy is the highest form of participatory democracy. Here, the people either gather together at a public meeting (an imbizo, lekgotla, Indaba ) or vote in referenda to make decisions on a consensus-driven, issue-by-issue basis. Examples of this are Switzerland, with its canton system and places where Africa’s tribal system of direct democracy has been allowed to continue to function.
The colonial powers partitioned African territories often containing people who had been rivals and even bitter enemies for centuries. They undermined the local traditional African leaders and the age-old (participatory) decision-making process of the traditional African communities.
The African saga was made even more tragic with the transfer of the alien European system to elected majorities, along with its mechanisms of power such as armies and police. Representative democracy has not always functioned well in Africa.
Direct democracy has a role to play in South Africa
SA’s adoption in 1996 of a constitution based on representative democracy does not mean that Africa’s traditional democratic forms of governance can have no role in the government of our country. African-style direct democracy is particularly suitable for application at local government level.
Many elected African governments follow the example of the colonialists in their attitudes towards traditional leadership. Traditional communities are prevented from utilising their ancient, effective, and peaceful participatory decision-making processes. In many cases the resulting frustrations boil over into open conflict.
Therefore, we must devise a system that blends the original African direct democracy at the local community level with the representative democracy inherited from the colonialists at the national and provincial level. Doing this would give back to local communities their ancient decision-making systems in which everyone who wishes to participate can do so, and would dramatically reduce conflict across the whole of the continent.
George Ayittey’s Africa Betrayed alerted the world to the general lack of understanding of the true nature of the African economic system: in particular that Africans are not inherently socialist as was once widely believed. He pointed out that within African communities there is an age-old tradition of private ownership of houses, implements, utensils, and livestock. Land ownership only became an issue upon the arrival of the Europeans, as it did in North America and elsewhere.
Cradles of South Africa’s heritage
If South Africans wish to preserve their heritage, they need places where young people can learn their language, history, and culture. Places where ancient African consensus-driven, decision-making processes can be re-instated. But these places do already exist. These are traditional community areas where communities have lived for decades, even centuries.
The process of converting all traditional community land into “owned land” 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 for the restoration of the “community soul” of the people.
Africans can profit from the knowledge gained from non-Africans
We can no longer blame the colonialists for the oppression and domination that continues to pervade Africa. Post-colonial African countries did not return to their African roots when the colonial powers departed. We have to admit that we ourselves are responsible and that it is time to incorporate some of the ways of our forefathers in order to enrich our democratic dispensation.
Therefore, while pursuing modernisation, our identities should not be sacrificed for those of Europeans. Let us through communities, preserve those parts of our heritage that are of great value to us and borrow from the rest of the world only those things that can enrich us. Let each of us reclaim his own identity.
South Africa’s traditional communities and their leaders are presently in a position of powerlessness. New legislation has stripped them of their traditional rights and powers within their own communities. They cannot take and implement important consensus community decisions, as of old.
If the young are to learn to be proud of being African, they need to see African leaders functioning as Africans with decision-making through a direct democracy approach.
Creating this structure will require the following inter alia:
The constitution needs to be amended to reinforce the powers and functions of traditional and local structures in the context of the communities they serve.
Local and traditional leaders must not participate in party politics while in the service of their communities.
Laws must ensure that consensus decision-making processes are followed when deciding on all matters affecting communities.
A collaborative process must be devised in co-operation with the various departments of state whereby the communities play a real and influential role.
Proper institutional checks and balances must be in place to avoid abuse.
Benefits of community-driven structures
Total community involvement in all aspects of life will entirely transform rural and local communities and reduce their dependence on government. In this way, the decision-making will be effectively depoliticised.
Community-driven structures will ensure that all SA languages, customs, cultures and moral codes are nurtured and preserved. Communities will flourish and become showplaces demonstrating to the world how true African communities function. Then and only then, shall we truly have laid the platform for the African renaissance and our children and children’s children will know with certainty who they are and where they come from. They will be able to say with great pride: I AM AN AFRICAN.
Authors: Temba A Nolutshungu (director) and Vivian A Atud (researcher) of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the authors. The views expressed in the article are the authors' and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.
FMF Feature Article / 24 February 2009