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Fallacy of better democracy

The claim that democracy fares better in the West than in Africa is a mistake

| STEVEN FRIEDMAN | One day, if they follow instructions, Africa’s new democracies will grow up to be “real” like those of Western Europe and North America. This assumption makes little sense – but it influences the way many people in the West and in Africa think about African democracies.

Challenging this myth is a central theme of my book `Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Justice’, which has just been published by Wits University Press.

Over the past two decades, the book notes, democracy has blossomed in Africa: in 1990, the continent housed, at most, four democracies. Today, countries in which the government is not at least elected in a free vote in which opposition parties contest are a small minority. But there is still a deep-rooted feeling among Western academics, policymakers and journalists that African democracies are not yet “the finished product” – that they are still on their way to becoming full democracies.

This view gave birth to a field of academic study in the West – the search for “democratic consolidation”. It emerged because academics assumed that the new democracies were not yet “complete”, even though they called themselves democratic. And so they set out to discover whether democracies in Africa (and Asia and Latin America) were “consolidated”, which meant that they were the finished product.

The academics have never said how we would know a “complete” democracy when we saw one. They don’t have to – it is obvious from their writing that, to become the “finished article”, democracies have to become like those in the West.

The academics are reflecting a widely held view. Western governments that set out to make the world democratic were trying to “help” democracies outside the West to become just like those in it. European and U.S. politicians who care about democracy elsewhere share this view. So do many Africans.

Colonial mindset

Academics on the African continent are keen to study whether their democracies are on the way to being “consolidated” and much commentary on the continent assumes that a “grown up” democracy looks like Britain, France or the U.S. This is particularly so in countries like South Africa which house a significant minority of people of Western origin, many of whom believe that the West is the home of civilisation to which the rest of the world should aspire.

This view has a distinctly colonial flavour. The moral excuse for colonialism was that it was bringing to the colonised “civilisation”, which meant whatever people in the colonising country valued. There is no difference between this and trying to persuade the formerly colonised that their democracies can only become “real” if they mimic those in the West.

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