Introducing Democracy Works Foundation

Why Democracy Works Foundation?

Alarmingly, a question being heard more and more often is whether democracy has failed in Africa. Some have even asked whether democracy is workable at all on the continent; perhaps the two are unsuited?

The context is that many African countries which are supposedly democratic are characterised by dreadful human rights abuses, ethnic conflicts, life presidents and economic chaos.

Some argue that democracy is “unAfrican”, “Western” or somehow at cross-purposes to African “culture”.

Some African political leaders try to claim there is authoritarianism implicit in African traditional values, and that respect for liberty, independent thought and tolerance are Western liberal implants.

Others say democracy is a luxury, given Africa’s developmental needs. Or that democracy undermines development. China’s economic rise without democracy appears to have emboldened this argument.

Such views are entirely misguided.

It is not that democracy has failed the continent. The truth is: Africa’s version of democracy has disappointed. Since the end of colonialism Africa appears to have developed its own peculiar brand of “democracy”.

African-style democracy has often been a minimalist, limited and elementary form of it. Citizenship is often constrained by gender, ethnicity, region, culture, religion and class. The sovereignty of leaders is often upheld at the expense of citizens.

Many African countries have democratic rules, constitutions and institutions, but these are often wilfully ignored by ruling parties and leaders.

Yet it is exactly because of their ethnic, religious and cultural diversity that African countries need democracy as a gel to hold them together. The lack of democracy in the continent has led to social turmoil and to religious, ethnic and cultural fundamentalism, spawning movements like Boko Haram and el-Shabab and preparing the ground for coups, civil wars and populism.  

At the end of colonialism and apartheid, African independence and liberation movements promised so much in the name of freedom, democracy and economic development. Yet, over the past years many of the new African governments – even though they sprang from struggle movements that had expressly committed themselves to transform their societies for the better – have struggled to establish quality democracies and inclusive societies, and to bring economic prosperity to their countries.

African liberation and independence movements, once in power, have often been seen to backslide. Even in some cases, where opposition parties later came to power under the aegis of democracy and shifted autocratic independence movements and leaders out of power, they more often than not behaved like their autocratic predecessors..

The late Zambian former opposition leader, Frederick Chiluba  – a  former trade unionist who formed the Movement for Multiparty Democracy  (MMD) on a democracy, anti-corruption and change ticket – won the 1991 elections against independence leader Kenneth Kaunda, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since independence.

In power, Chiluba became increasingly populist, attempting to change the constitution to stay on for a third  term – something he had strenuously opposed when it was the length of Kaunda’s reign that was in question. Chiluba crushed dissent and opposition within his own party, in the same way that Kaunda had in his United National Independence Party (UNIP).

Neither the independence and liberation movements nor the opposition movements that later came to power were internally democratic – which means they were always unlikely to properly oversee democracy building.

Most of the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles were led by African civil society organisations. At independence these organisations were often sidelined when liberation and independent movements took power. In Angola, for example, the MPLA incorporated and coopted the main Angolan workers’ union. In Mozambique Frelimo subsumed local ‘civic’, cultural and voluntary organisations into the party. In Tanzania trade unions actively campaigned against colonialism, but at independence, Julius Nyerere and his liberation movement demanded the trade union movement become subservient to the party.

The continent is increasingly seeing ordinary citizens use peoples’ power to dislodge autocrats who appear entrenched in their positions of power. However, seemingly as often, undemocratic forces return them to power.

In most cases, the autocratic African regimes ousted by peoples’ power are often soon replaced by similarly autocratic movements and leaders. Egypt for example, after the brief “Arab Spring” that ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has already returned to military rule. In fact, revolutions and popular power demonstrations intended to install democracy have almost never turned into genuine or lasting democracies.

One reason may be that up to now, many African autocratic ruling parties and leaders have manipulated the flow of information, either through the propaganda fed through state-owned media or by withholding information that would reveal to citizens the true state of their incompetence, misrule and corruption.

In more recent times, young people have increasingly been at the front of African change. New technology, which offers easy online access and social media platforms on mobile phones, has increasingly connected younger people to the wider world, where they can now see how their peers elsewhere are thriving in democratic societies.

In other words, technology has given young people across the continent new ways to express themselves, even if excluded from more traditional political platforms. This unprecedented access to alternative information sources and audiences is likely to change the politics of the continent, including in South Africa.

New sources of alternative information that break governmental strongholds on information could even be a powerful force for better governance on the continent.

Democracy cannot be imposed from outside Africa either – it needs home-grown democratic leaders, institutions, civil society and active citizens.

What we need are well-developed and organised civil groups – active citizens who hold leaders accountable – rather than people who abdicate or defer to leaders instead of insisting on democratic rights and economic justice.

Since the global and Eurozone financial crisis, independent funding for many African civil society groups has markedly declined. Many African civil society organisations have collapsed because of this.

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa (IDASA) closed down in April 2013 and the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE) closed down last month (July 2015) because of lack of funding.

Africa needs a new generation of indigenous civil groups, a new democratic culture, active citizens, and new democratic leaders.

Democracy Works Foundation is one such home-grown African civil society group aiming to counter minimalist assumptions of African democracy, to support and build democratic institutions and leaders, and to help foster democratic cultures in South Africa and across the continent.




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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