Who Needs Democracy Anyway?

A couple of weeks ago I read a fascinating interview in a popular South African weekly, with Rwandan president Paul Kagame. The Kagame era has brought stability, development and unprecedented growth to the small nation of Rwanda and has turned a fledgling country into an exemplary model for African states of how to pursue the twin goals of modernisation and economic development. This has seen Rwanda become a darling of western donor nations and increased flows of aid and investment have come into Rwanda during this period. Amidst all of these positive developments however have emerged certain concerns about Kagame’s leadership style and the increasingly authoritarian, ruthless tendencies of the Rwandan government in its dealings with any form of opposition, which culminated in the attempted murder of an exiled Rwandan general living in South Africa as well as the subsequent murder of a journalist living in Rwanda who accused the Rwandan government of being behind the attempted assassination, being blamed on Kagame’s government. Upon being questioned about the increasingly undemocratic practices of his government and the apparent lack of regard for any opposition shown by him, in the above-mentioned interview, Kagame’s response was both alarming and enlightening to me. His argument seemed to be that Rwanda’s main concern at this particular moment was not necessarily democracy and instilling a democratic culture, but economic growth, development and job creation which would alleviate poverty and improve the lives of ordinary Rwandans, most of whom still live in abject poverty despite the miraculous turnaround engineered by Kagame and his regime after the genocide. To paraphrase Kagame’s words from that interview, “people don’t eat democracy and democracy doesn’t provide people with decent living conditions and shelter.” Whilst initially alarmed by Kagame’s response, the net effect was that it got me thinking about the concepts of democracy and development and the seemingly globally accepted paradigm (in a world dominated by the Washington Consensus) that democracy precedes development and is a pre-condition for economic growth and development. Having just recently completed a course on political development, where the underlying assumption seemed to be that democracy is the highest point of political development in any society and where democracy was presented as a necessary pre-condition for economic development, I found myself asking a lot of questions which had no simplistic answers but which are pertinent to us in the developing world as we seek to modernise and industrialise in the twenty first century. Should we seek to build and entrench democracy as a pre-requisite to economic growth and development or are our immediate socio-economic challenges so urgent that we need to focus on addressing them even at the expense of democracy and a democratic culture? Is democracy all that it is cut out to be anyway? What good is democracy if the socio-economic needs of the people are not met anyway? It was the legendary South American liberator and revolutionary Simon Bolivar who said that, “the most perfect system is the one that produces the greatest possible happiness, the greatest degree of social safety and the greatest stability.” What if the pursuit of democracy does not produce the social and political stability that is needed in order to create an environment that is conducive to economic growth and development? A glance at some of the Asian Tiger economies that have industrialised in the last sixty years or so would seem to disprove the accepted paradigm that democracy and development are inextricably linked. There are sufficient case studies in the newly industrialised Asian countries to show that growth and development is possible even in a country with an autocratic, closed political system and culture and one could argue that even in Europe, democracy and the democratic culture was an outcome of industrialisation and economic development instead of being a pre-condition for growth and development. It would seem that the necessary conditions for growth and development that will benefit the majority in a state are: political stability, bureaucratic efficiency, effective government, social cohesion and visionary leadership, all of which can be created even in a non-democratic culture. The fundamental idea of democracy is to give “power to the people” but one could argue that the effects of democracy have been the exact opposite. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that, “the power of a man is his present means to obtain some future apparent good.” Looking at the world around us we see many examples where democracy has not necessarily enhanced the ability of the masses to obtain some future common good through improving their present means, but instead has done this for an elite minority. The Greek philosophers always viewed democracy as rule by the majority, hence Aristotle’s words, “Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”  This is a perception that is still held and promoted today, even though empirical evidence proves otherwise. Most democracies in the world are nothing but oligarchies, geared towards the promotion of the interests of elite minorities even as they are masked as representing “people power” and they leave marginalised majorities with the same sentiments as those expressed by the poet Langston Hughes, “I swear to the Lord, I still can’t see why democracy means everybody but me.” Whilst proponents of democracy often hold it up as the best safeguard for the promotion and upholding of human rights, the reality is that democracy often leads to the rights of the elite minority being upheld even at the expense of impoverished majorities, a phenomenon described so perfectly by Plato in his Republic, “I say that right is the same thing in all states, namely the interest of the  established ruling class; this ruling class is the strongest element in each state, and so if we argue correctly we see that right is always the same, the interest of the stronger party.” In South Africa whilst the middle class, the economic elite, political elite and the opposition often express concern about the ruling party and its apparent lack of respect for democratic principles, the majority keep voting the ruling party back into power because ruling party politicians seem to have a greater understanding of the simple fact that impoverished majorities are not primarily concerned with democracy and democratic principles because, “you can’t eat democracy” as Paul Kagame put it. This understanding has enabled the ruling elite to plunder state resources for personal gain whilst operating in a “democratic culture” and pretending to represent mass interests. The question that needs to be asked is the question that was asked by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez upon careful analysis of Venezuelan society, “what kind of democracy is this that enriches a minority and impoverishes the majority?” As I reflected upon these things after reading the Kagame interview, I found myself with even more questions than answers. With all our developmental needs as a nation that is trying to modernise and industrialise, should we be primarily concerned with entrenching and upholding democratic principles in society or are there more pressing concerns? Does democracy really give “power to the people” or is it just another form of social organisation that promotes the exploitation of the masses under the guise of empowering them? Do our developmental needs require a democratic framework in order to be met? Is there anything beyond democracy? All these thoughts and questions arising from one simple interview. Who needs democracy anyway?
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Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

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