Africa: A New Day in America – Lessons for the Continent

Published on allAfrica.com, by Ross Herbert, 28 November 2008.

… My eyes grew misty from the realisation that it is possible to overcome the most intractable divides. That white Americans could vote in huge numbers for their first black president affirms Obama’s refrain on the audacity of hope. As an American living in South Africa for 15 years, this election reminds me of my home country’s ability to reinvent itself and adapt to adversity. But it also raises important questions and comparisons with democratic practice in Africa, which ought to particularly concentrate minds as South Africa itself heads into an important election next year …

… Too many African democracies have unravelled because leaders simplistically think that democracy means that the winning majority gets to do whatever it wants. Rather, democracy must be a combination of majority leadership and rigorous protection of those with minority views, different religions or varied ethnic backgrounds. Minority protections are also vital to service delivery and progress. The ‘we won so we can do what we want’ instinct is the same one that ignores public protest, incessantly blames the media and dismisses citizens appealing to government for redress. A system that truly respects minority views starts with government that listens and responds positively to complaint from any quarter. That has been increasingly lacking in South Africa these past years and it is feeding uncivil and vengeful currents.

Maintaining civility in parliament, at the postal counter, in the press and in every encounter with others is part of preserving public trust, which is vital to economic and social progress and peace. Parliaments and courts maintain elaborate rules of decorum because the early pioneers of democracy recognised that without conscious efforts to maintain civility, tempers can easily flare and conflicts can spiral out of control …

… Affirmative action without scrupulous attention to implementation and conflict of interest can be a recipe for corruption as politically connected elites always have better access to information and manipulate quotas and regulations to divert the good intentions of affirmative action. Those who sponsored affirmative action laws inevitably deny administrative problems and conflict of interest among elites. Problems fester under the denial and new forms of grievance are spawned. Africa has tried myriad schemes to supposedly ensure that power and benefits are shared out to all groups, but all have eventually failed, leaving much cynicism behind. The only long-term stable solutions are based on two things that must be combined: heavy investments in building opportunity – through education and provision of public services – and heavy emphasis on merit based hiring, which must sharply limit hiring opportunities based on political connections.

Obama won because he steadfastly refused to run a campaign angrily demanding more for his group. He argued instead for more and better government for all. I firmly believe that Hillary Clinton would have lost if she had been the Democratic candidate because she appeared unable to move beyond the language of conflict and partisan division. I hope that all of those who hope to lead South Africa consider those lessons and follow in Obama’s footsteps. (full text).

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