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Africa is democratising; here is how

By Andrew M. Mwenda  

On March 16, 1989, over 6,000 workers at South Korea’s ultra modern subway system in the capital, Seoul went on strike turning the city’s morning rush hour into chaos. About 3,000 workers occupied the roundhouse from which the locomotives were dispatched. The strike took place in the context of 30 years of sustained economic growth and industrial transformation which had increased the financial, technological and institutional capacity of the state to crush any opponent.

The government of Gen. Roh Tae Woo (elected in a military orchestrated victory in 1987) responded with the full repressive capacity of the state. It sent in 6,000 fully equipped riot police to ‘re-capture’ the roundhouse. By evening, 2,300 workers had been arrested and taken to Seoul Central Police Station. Within a few days the strike had been crushed and the subway resumed the impressive efficiency of its normal operations.

As Peter Evans has noted in his celebrated book, Embedded Autonomy, crushing the strike could not erase the social and political changes that lay behind it. The state in South Korea had been politically authoritarian but equally, economically developmental. The industrial transformation it had fostered had produced new social forces with a vested interest in democratic politics ‘ a large working class, an educated middleclass, a prosperous private enterprise sector and a tenacious students’ body.

Therefore, defeating an individual strike was within the state’s capacity, but it could not stop the growth of insurgency among South Korea’s workers and students. The International Labour Organisation reported that the country lost 18 million workdays in the last three years of the 1980s ‘ a two hundred fold increase compared to the first three years of the same decade. South Korean industries were manufacturing labour militancy alongside semiconductors and other products.

Neither the state nor the private sector that had been allied with it could afford the economic losses resulting from endemic strikes by workers and students. By 1992, the military had won many battles crushing students and workers’ strikes but had lost the war of popular participation. It agreed to a genuine democratic election that saw the first civilian president elected in over 40 years. From hence, South Korea has not looked back.

South Korea’s experience mirrors that of the most successful democratising nations of the 20th Century ‘ Taiwan and Chile. In both countries, the military built an effective state that in turn engineered successful economic transformation. In both countries, this transformation produced social forces that gave birth to unstoppable democratic pressures. Finally, the military retreated bequeathing these nations with democracy.

Meanwhile, Argentina (by 1900) and the Philippines (by 1935) had some form of democratic politics but lacked its structural foundations. Each had an entrenched landed class that controlled politics, a small private sector and an equally small middleclass surrounded by poverty. Pressures of electoral competition tended to promote governmental corruption leading to poor public service delivery and acute income disparities.

These disequilibria led to military coups in Argentina and to Ferdinand Marcos declaring martial law in Philippines in 1972. Political upheaval also undermined the capacity of the state to promote the transformation necessary to produce the social forces that would undergird a genuine democracy. Today, both nations are struggling.

Africa has also gone through an almost similar experience. As the colonial state retreated, it bequeathed our nations with democratic systems. With the sole exception of Botswana, the transition faltered and Africa retreated to one-party, military or one-man rule. The democratic movements of the 1990s have produced some changes of government without altering how political power is organised, exercised and reproduced.

Yet debate on democracy on our continent has continually focused on its form rather than its substance. We have framed it as a moral virtue which leaders should pursue for the good of their citizens. Yet all historical experience shows that democracy is a result of specific structural changes within a country without which, it tends to produce gangster politics.

The debate on democracy is like the debate on development. While historical experience shows that development is a result of the activities of anonymous individuals seeking private gain in the market, Africa’s development has been constructed as an altruistic mission of the kind and generous in the foreign aid community..

On the face of it, tyrants are not friends of liberty: They scorn the rule of law, shun due process and run roughshod over rights in person and property. But as the experiences of South Africa, Korea, Taiwan, Chile and almost all democratic nations show, tyrants often convert to democracy. This happens when they have fostered economic transformation that produces the social forces that can undergird a democratic polity.

The most enduring democratic reforms in Africa over the last two decades have not been in the sphere of politics but the economy. Governments across our continent have liberalised our economies, privatised public enterprises and deregulated economic activity. These reforms have created sufficient economic freedom and with it, the structural and technological foundations of democracy are growing.

The growth of the private sector in Uganda, for example, is creating opportunities for many professional Ugandans outside of the state. Those who work for private companies have greater space to speak their minds than state employees. The spread of internet and telecommunications is rapidly liberating information flow from state control. The boom in education is producing an enlightened population who are using Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in and other social networking sites to debate public policy.

The international human rights organisations and western media that love to depict Africans as hapless victims of their rulers have missed this transformation. So they continue to report on Africa as if it is still the 1980s. Some elites on our continent buy into this stereotyping mistaking it for international solidarity. But real Africans are taking charge of their destiny.

Governments may win a battle or two in the struggle for participation. But the overall flow of history is favouring increasing democracy. And this revolution is not taking place where human rights organisations are looking ‘ state legislation. It is taking place on the streets, in bars, businesses, schools, factories, workplaces and markets.

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