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Africa Dreams of Democracy

Coen van Wyk

Posted on June 23, 2018 10:21

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Our political culture contains contradictions, dreams and aspirations. The feudal tribal structure still lies close to the surface in many cases, but colonial burocracy has left a brutal memory. Liberation heroes copied colonial governors and European dictators, while many hark back to ancient kings. Bu,t a vibrant democratic ethos is growing.

African Kings still bestride the political veld in our dreams: Shaka Zulu who ruled over more territory and more people than Napoleon, who killed on a whim and who honored the death of his Mother with enforced celibacy of his subjects, remain a cult figure. Mveba a Nzibga of the Kongo Empire, whom the Portuguese named Alfonso, elected to the throne, is still remembered. Accounts of his reign tell of embassies from tribespeople asking him to call sub-chiefs and headmen to order, of peacekeeping troops, of diplomatic efforts to stop Portuguese exploitation of his people. Some venerate the Kabaka whose capital in Uganda housed 40 000 souls in good order, or the Shongai emperors who could manipulate gold prices world wide.
 
Colonial ghosts joined them: David Livingstone, who trekked to his death in Central Africa, striving to end slavery. Liberation brought a crop of activists, guerillas, philosophers, often unsuited to government, often becoming dictators. Many copied an extreme form of the colonial bureaucracy, many gravitated to the inevitability of Scientific Socialism.

Habré and Mobuto. JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images

Today, many Presidents cling to power by manipulating Constitutions and Parliaments, latter day kings claiming divine right to rule. Ugandan President Museveni, known for his claims that he was going to retire to farm at age 56, is now approaching 74 and has just won a repeal of the age limit on holding the Presidency, which he has occupied since 1986. Opponents claim that he is resurrecting the mythical Hema Kingdom. Sassou Nguesso of Brazzaville, Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, Conte of Guinea all seem to be eternal.

Emperor Bokassa of Central Africa. AFP/Getty Images


Popular opinion seems to support or at least tolerate such feudal tendencies. Democracy is sometimes seen as creating public uncertainty and conflict. Thomas Sankara protested elitism, and promoted of women’s rights and governance austerity. Mobuto of Zaire dispensed diamonds to his friends and threw wads of notes to adulating crowds, but suppressed elections.

And yet the spirit of democracy, of popular participation, is alive. The African Union, seen as an association of “Heads of State and Government” and not of nations, in 2017 called previous dictator of Chad Hissène Habré to account for his misdeeds before a special continental tribunal, and sentenced him to life in prison.

Tanzanian President Mangafuli getting to work. BBC photo


President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa has been seen flying economy class. Tanzanian President John Mangafuli, facing an unprecedentedly strong opposition, has reached out to the public by joining clean-up drives, made unannounced visits to hospitals, and reduced his own salary.

President Ramaphose jogging in Cape Town. Photo AP


Public participation in African political life is growing apace. Democratic opposition had much to do with the end of Didier Ratsiraka of Madagascar and the palace coup that ousted Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

In an era where nations are withdrawing from global commitments, Africa is inching in the opposite direction. Slowly, and, hopefully, surely.

Coen van Wyk

Posted on June 23, 2018 10:21

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