John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Guest Post: Democracy in Africa: Form Over Substance

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
April 11, 2012

Expelled African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) President Julius Malema (R) and South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe gesture during an ANCYL rally in Limpopo province March 25, 2012. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

Events in Mali are very likely to be seen mainly as an outgrowth of those in Libya, but the heavy focus on reversing the coup, with less on the partition of the country, is stunning in its neglect of a more basic issue: namely, Western preoccupation with the trappings of democracy, e.g., elections, constitutions, etc., rather than its substance. The ease with which the country’s president was ousted and half the country’s territory lost, indicates a very weak government, lacking its population’s support and confidence.

Democracy’s thinness is also on display in South Africa, thanks to Julius Malema, who despite the ANC’s best efforts, continues to publicly condemn President Zuma, even calling him a “dictator.” Experts downplay Malema’s ability to stay on the attack, citing his loss of a platform, owing to his suspension from the party.

But Malema has an asset Zuma does not–the times seem to be on his side. “Power,” writes Philip Delves Broughton in a review of Barbara Kellerman’s new book, The End of Leadership, “has shifted decisively into the hands of followers rather than leaders.” Technology has aided the shift. “As a result, leaders are just not the stars they used to be. We know too much about them…. They do not have the same room for manoeuvre any more.”

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  • Posted by Maduka

    I agree totally with the author’s first paragraph and this is a trend that has been noticed as far back as the sixties.

    Before the sixties, the British, Belgians, French, Portuguese and Spanish had absolutely no problems with authoritarian rule. Suddenly (probably due to prodding from the US), everyone preached the values of “democracy” and “democratisation” was pushed imposed externally.

    The first contact Africa had with “democracy” failed woefully.

    The Soviet Union had a crackpot ideology to sell, but at least it was sold with a lot of elegant prose and it appeared that considerable effort was made in presenting a logically consistent argument for “socialism”. There was no such argument for “democracy” in Africa then and even today.

    I also wonder why the author is surprised that Western powers are silent on state failure in Mali. There are two reasons for that :

    (a) It would be tantamount to admitting that the Berlin conference was a failure and colonial project was a disaster – Mali illustrates the folly of building a state on arbitrary foundations, lines in the sand instead of ethnic affinity.
    (b) They don’t want to antagonise the African Union – the AU has a position on colonial borders.

    The author loses me when he veers off on a tangent to South Africa. South Africa is a much more stable state with much stronger institutions than Mali. Julius Malema is also overrated.

    Finally, is power shifting “decisively into the hands of followers rather than leaders” , not the essence of democracy? Or is the author genuinely surprised that a poorly educated mass of followers throw up leaders like Malema? Is he surprised that the Muslim Brotherhood holds sway in Egypt and Tunisia? What is his point? Is he having second thoughts about democracy?

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