Address at the AGM of the SADC Electoral Commissions Forum, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania – 1999/09/27

Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania 27 September, 1999

Your Excellency, President Benjamin Mkapa
Chairperson of the Forum, Justice Lewis Makame
Chairperson of the Electoral Commissions of Southern Africa Ministers, Ambassadors and High Commissioners Ladies and Gentlemen:

Throughout the post-colonial period, the so-called political class and the intelligentsia of our Continent have searched for ways and means by which our countries could achieve good governance and stability.

Representing as they did the truly popular impulse towards an end to foreign rule and the attainment of national independence, all our leaders could and did justly claim that what they sought was that the people should govern.

But as our independent states were being born, the Continent’s leadership, while proclaiming their adherence to the principle that the people shall govern, understood the complexity of the challenge of good governance and stability.

In most instances, these societies were multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious.

The overwhelming majority of the population was rural, uneducated and poor. The countries themselves were poor. Economically, they were linked to the erstwhile colonial power through the export of raw materials and the import of manufactured goods.

The relatively wealthy, the educated and the powerful within the new nation were a tiny minority. They were concentrated especially in the capital.

Many among these saw themselves having greater affinity with the former colonial power than with the villages from which they originated and where their extended families still lived. They accepted assimilation into the culture, the language, the mores and society of the coloniser as a mark of progress and civilisation.

Though they saw themselves as modern and superior, relative to the majority of the people, they and these masses had been socialised into acceptance of strictly hierarchical systems of government and authority.

The patriarchy, as well as traditional and colonial government all portrayed the structuring of society into the proverbial “chiefs and Indians” as part of a natural order of things. Everybody also understood that the new state, like the colonial state it was displacing, would enjoy a hegemonic position with regard to ensuring access to opportunities and resources.

Inevitably, therefore, the state had to be built into a powerful, venerated and awe-inspiring social institution. Necessarily, those who managed this institution had themselves to be seen to be powerful and therefore awe-inspiring. Inherent in this is the imperative that these powerful persons should remain powerful until death deprives them of the capacity to exercise power.

This becomes all the more important if these abused their power to gain undue wealth and advantage for themselves, their relatives and friends by illegal or immoral means.

In this situation, the simplicity of government, the reduction of protocol, the enhancement of transparency, accountability and accessibility are seen as the enemies of “good governance”, as it would be defined by those in power.

In these circumstances, the exercise of power must be accompanied by abstruse, solemn and meaningless state rituals, at times buttressed by the integration of fear-including superstitions with these rituals, to ensure that a great gulf is maintained between the rules and the ruled.

In many instances, the response to the complex of issues we mentioned as characterising many African countries, was that the only way to ensure good governance and stability was to establish one-party states, while allowing elections to take place within this system.

It would be correct to say that this system has now collapsed. I do not know of any serious contemporary African politician or intellectual who, today, argues in favour of such a system. Rather, the proposition that will be advanced is that even if free and fair elections take place within such a constitutionally entrenched one-party system, the mere fact of the confinement of political opinion into one political party, however permissive of divers views within the unique party, constitutes a denial of democratic rights.

For our purposes today, let us accept that this thesis, presumably born our of negative African experience, has become part of the established orthodoxy on our Continent.

The other part of this experience is that because of the hegemonic position of the state, control of state power by the power elites concentrated in the capital became a matter of life and death in many of our countries.

In this situation, the military also saw itself as a political player, as entitled as any other grouping to accession to political power by any means whatsoever.

Accordingly, where the objective of politics is the seizure of state power to use this power to address narrow interests, the aim of ensuring that the people shall govern ceases to be a meaningful factor in national political life.

Even where a pretence at holding democratic elections is maintained, it becomes nothing more than a charade to give as much legitimacy as possible to the capture of state power by one power elite or another.

Let us accept that the actual African experiences we have sought to describe, of an abandonment of the earlier principle that the people shall govern, arose out of the tensions and contradictions characterising our societies, which we mentioned towards the beginning of this address.

I am certain that all of us would also agree that any democratic settlement in countries such as Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan, to mention only some, would require that special constitutional and political measures are introduced to ensure both majority rule and the protection of national minorities.

In the past, both Ghana and Nigeria were victim to a succession of military coups. Since Ghana returned to democratic rule there has been no further recurrence of these coups.

On the contrary, Nigeria has experienced a seesaw of the restoration of democracy and of military rule. All of us hope with all our hearts that this cycle in Nigeria has now come to an end.

Nevertheless, our scholars and politicians and indeed our Electoral Commissions need to ask themselves the question – what happened in Ghana which did not happen in Nigeria such that these two countries began to diverge in their experiences!

We make these references to Rwanda, Burundi, the Sudan, Ghana and Nigeria to emphasise the point that we have no choice but to construct genuinely democratic systems of government within the specific context of our national realities.

It would therefore seem that the first thing we must do is to make an honest assessment of the situation in our countries. This assessment should seek to identify such distinguishing features as would be relevant to the specific architecture of the democratic system we seek to construct in each of our countries. In our own case, that assessment, combined with our convictions about ensuring that the people shall govern, led us to a number of conclusions which found both constitutional and political expression within our national life.

As a confidence building measure, we made a temporary Constitutional provision for an enforced coalition among the major parties, which come together in a Government of National Unity in 1994.

Some argued that this was inherently undemocratic as it would deny the elected majority party the possibility to govern, unfettered by parties which would have lost in elections that, hopefully, would be free and fair.

Our own view as the leadership of the ANC was that, in the interests of peace and stability and a common ownership of the democratic settlement by all racial groups, we were prepared to sacrifice any advantage that would derive from not being forced to govern as part of a coalition government.

In terms of our new Constitution, there is no constitutional requirement for us to form a coalition government. Nevertheless, both the ANC and the IFP thought that the invaluable prize of peace, stability and inclusive political processes required that they should continue to work together as government partners. Consequently, these two parties continue to serve together in both the national and the provincial KwaZulu-Natal governments.

We took a similar approach with regard to the possible prosecution of agents of the apartheid system who might have been guilty of gross violation of human rights. We therefore argued for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather that the institution of our own version of the Nuremberg Trials. We remain convinced that this Commission has done sterling work with regard to the guarantee of peace and stability and therefore the possibility to entrench the democratic system and to create a climate conducive to development.

This process resulted in two important developments with regard to our country’s jurisprudence.

One of these was that the state had to forgo the right to prosecute what were justiciable offences. The other was that the victims of apartheid repression themselves had to forgo the right to sue for civil damages.

Some might argue that all this did grave injustice to our established jurisprudence. But what cannot be questioned is that it bought our country and people the necessary stability.

In turn, this made it possible for the ordinary law to apply and the Constitution to come into force, which would have been impossible if we had had to declare a state of emergency to contain the violence of those who would have resisted prosecution for the crimes they committed in defence of the apartheid system.

In addition to all this, we adopted a constitution with an entrenched Bill of Rights and which also recognises group rights. We have a Constitutional Court whose essential task is the protection of the Constitution and therefore the rights of individuals and groups as reflected in that Constitution.

It would seem that in response to these experiences, by and large the African Continent, including the southern region represented at this meeting, has decided that a multi-party system of government is the only correct way to go.

Additionally, regular elections must be held. Preferably, these elections should be managed by independent electoral commissions. They should also be open to certification by domestic and international government and non-governmental observers as having been free and fair.

All of us draw comfort and encouragement from the fact that those who determine what is good and bad in the modern world, and have the resources to award prizes to the well-behaved, give us positive marks for having moved to multi-party systems of government.

And yet, the situation in our countries that gave birth to the concept of one-party states, has not changed qualitatively. Some of those who believe that this reality still makes it impossible to adopt multi-party systems have, for better of for worse, resorted to what they would describe as non-party democracies.

If we had the time, it would not be difficult to demonstrate that, in reality, these systems are not sustainable especially as we move beyond the most basic units of local government. Nevertheless, the fact of their adoption once more brings to the fore the challenge that, to be sustainable, our democratic systems must respond to the objective make-up and dynamics of our societies.

In other words, we who are gathered here at this AGM must dare to pose questions not merely about the conduct of democratic elections, but also about the very construction of democracy in our societies.

To get ourselves into the right frame of mind to deal with this complex question, we should, perhaps, recite a catechism at the beginning of all our sessions:

We are Africans!
We are not American!
We are not British!
We are not German!
We are not French!
We are not Belgian!
We are Africans!

Let me repeat what I said earlier on.

In most instances, our societies are multi-ethnic, mulit-lingual and multi-religious.

The overwhelming majority of the population is rural, uneducated and poor. The countries themselves are poor.

Economically, we are linked to the erstwhile colonial power through the export of raw materials and the import of manufactured goods as well as an intolerable debt burden which ensures that we, the poor, are exporters of capital to the rich countries of the North.

The relatively wealthy, the educated and the powerful within our nations are a tiny minority. They are concentrated especially in the capital.

Many among these see themselves having greater affinity with the former colonial power than with the villages from which they originate and where their extended families still live. They accept assimilation into the culture, the language, the mores and society of the coloniser as a mark of progress and civilisation.

Though they see themselves as modern and superior, relative to the majority of the people, they and these masses have been socialised into acceptance of strictly hierarchical systems of government and authority.

The patriarchy, as well as traditional and colonial government all portray the structuring of society into the proverbial “chief and Indians” as part of a natural order of things.

Up to now, everybody has also understood that the African state will continue to enjoy a highly significant position with regard to ensuring access to opportunities and resources.

Inevitably, therefore, the state will remains a powerful, venerated and awe-inspiring social institution.

Necessarily, those who manage this institution have themselves to be seen to be powerful and therefore awe-inspiring. Inherent in this is the imperative that these powerful persons should remain powerful until death deprives them of the capacity to exercise power.

This becomes all the more important if these abused their power to gain undue wealth and advantage for themselves, their relatives and friends by illegal or immoral means.

In this situation, the simplicity of government, the reduction of protocol, the enhancement of transparency, accountability and accessibility are seen as the enemies of “good governance”, as it would be defined by those in power.

In these circumstances, the exercise of power must be accompanied by abstruse, solemn and meaningless state rituals, at times buttressed by the integration of fear-inducing superstitions within these rituals, to ensure that a great gulf is maintained between the rules and the ruled.

Having said all this, nevertheless we need to go back to the principle that inspired the struggles for independence, that the people shall govern. At the same time, we must continue to address the issue of good governance and stability. Surely, what this means is that we must guarantee the development and permanence of genuinely democratic systems in our countries by ensuring that these democracies are properly founded within the objective realities which characterise our countries.

Accordingly, we have to grapple correctly with the issue of the ethnic, linguistic, religious and other diversity of our societies. Beyond our own Continental borders, the conflicts in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia as well as Northern Ireland emphasise the need to address these issues.

As required by the Constitution, we are in the process of establishing a statutory Commission for the protection and promotion of linguistic, cultural and religious rights. We have 11 (eleven) official languages and a Pan-South African Language Board specifically charged with the task of promoting all languages.

The three spheres of government, the national, provincial and local, exist as autonomous entities, again as required by the Constitution. This then makes it necessary that we function according to what is described as a system of co-operative governance.

At the same time each of these spheres of government has its own elected legislature to ensure that the voice of the people is heard at all levels of government.

More generally, we must make the point that regular, democratic, fee and fair elections must be an inherent component part of the architecture of democracy of which we have spoken. This goes without saying.

At the same time, we must also deal with the challenge of adopting electoral systems which are themselves sensitive to the stability we seek to achieve in our countries.

Our colleagues from Lesotho will not take it amiss if I mention the concern that was raised in that country and which is being attended to.

This arose from the fact that at the last General Elections, whereas the opposition parties together were supported by 40% of the electorate, they only secured one seat in a 90-member legislature.

The question that must necessarily arise is whether an electoral system which produces such a result is desirable, especially in the context of the evolution of an inclusive system of governance. Our region and our continent need permanent peace and stability.

That permanence can only be guaranteed if we establish the democratic institutions and entrench such democratic practices as would enable us to resolve conflicts and address contending claims by peaceful means, both within and among our countries.

Accordingly, the regular exercise by the citizens of the right to participate in free and fair elections indeed constitutes one of the basic guarantees of regional peace and stability.

Equally important is the fact that this electoral process must enjoy the highest credibility possible among the people as being free, fair and honest, with its results being respected by all participants.

This process issue must, of course, also include the compilation of an equally credible voters’ roll as well as the demarcation of constituencies according to fair and consistent criteria. But clearly, if the conduct of any elections is deemed to be fraudulent by the electorate, its outcome will similarly be considered illegitimate.

This must led directly to the imperative to remove such an illegitimate government by unconstitutional means. Equally, the illegitimate government would itself have no choice but to use force against the people to secure itself.

At the same time as we sue for free and fair elections, we must ensure that this right is exercised within a system that is durable because it is firmely grounded in and fully informed by the actual realities of our societies.

A principal slogan of our own struggle for liberation, which has continuing relevance was – power to the people!

We believe that indeed all true African patriots should in theory and in practice propagate the concept and the practice – power to the people!

This must mean that we work deliberately to ensure that our populations are politically educated and politically active. As politicians our strength and popularity should not derive from our capacity to mislead a politically uneducated electorate.

It must derive from our capacity to convince voters who are able to make informed choices and are therefore able to reject the demagogues, the charlatans and those who betray the fundamental principle that the purpose of government is to serve the people. This would also further strengthen the obligation of the elected representatives to account to those who elected them.

In any case, as our societies develop with greater exposure to the modern systems of communication, so will the citizens have the possibility to form their own opinions, resulting in a reduced need for them to depend on the politician to interpret the world for them.

Accordingly, the old politician who, relative to the rest of the population, was a repository of knowledge, wisdom and power must give way to the new politician, who truly draws his or mandate to govern form and through open interaction with the people.

Thus if we inscribe on our banners the slogans:

  • the people shall govern! and,
  • power to the people!

so shall we arrive at the situation in which, because the people have a right to speak, because they have the capacity to withdraw the mandates of those they have elected, we will take power away from those who, driven by selfish interests, once more seek to impose repression and violent conflict on our peoples.

In this way, as they were during our struggle for national liberation and independence, once again, the people will become their own liberators from repression, violence and war.

You who are gathered here, as the Electoral Commissions of our region, have a great and historic contribution to make to this outcome without which there can be no African Renaissance.

Thank you.

Share Button

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

our-entities

tmf_bottom_logo

rmpl_bottom_logo

sadet_bottom_logo