Democracy in Retreat

Living in the 21st Century, we tend to think that democracy as it is practiced in many countries in the West has been around for a long time. Not so. It’s a relatively new phenomenon and does not have strong roots in our different societies. In Zimbabwe the struggle fought for freedom and human rights was fought in the name of “One Man, One Vote”. Many of us can remember the slogan “NIMBAR”, “No Independence before Majority Rule”.

In Europe many countries only came to be democracies in the post Second World War era when their shattered societies and economic systems were systematically rebuilt on the ashes of total conflict and on the basis of the emerging democracies of the USA and to a lesser extent, Britain. The same process took place in Japan under the tutelage of a remarkable American General who had the vision and foresight to craft a new Constitution and democratic disposition on what was left of the shattered foundations of the belief in an infallible Emperor.

When this process was underway, the prime example of a democracy, the USA, was far from perfect, non white citizens were denied many rights including the vote and it is only in the 60’s that we see a genuinely inclusive democracy established in the United States. In the UK women were denied the vote well into the 20th Century and had to fight for that right. Prior to that, Britain was a largely feudal society and the right to vote only became a feature of political life late in the 19th Century, and even then heavily prescribed.

In Germany it is within living memory that people lived in small autonomous States controlled by entrenched ruling elites who also held sway in many other Countries through family ties. It took the brilliance of Bismark to craft the modern German State and even then, the shocks of two World Wars to finally create what we see today in the new social democratic Germany.

In the Communist countries democratic values and principles only became established when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90’s and even after this genuine democracy is still a far off goal in many of the countries that made up the Soviet Union. In China the Communist Party has retained absolute power and allows only limited expressions of popular opinion. How much longer they can sustain this system of economic freedom with political oppression is difficult to read, but most observers say that the situation is not sustainable.

Churchill once famously remarked that “democracy may not be perfect, but it is the best of the options that are available”. Democratic systems can best be defined as being “a system of government that allows a given community or nation to freely elect, on a regular basis, the leaders who will govern them for a prescribed and limited period”. Sounds easy and simple but the practice is anything but simple or easy.

When I was appointed the Chief Executive of a large business when I was just 43 years old, I found a system of worker management entrenched where workers at the different factories elected their representatives in mass public gatherings on football pitches. I discovered that by these means only the radical and militant elements were elected to the different works Councils and as a result we had constant labour problems and disputes. We were also unable to deal with essential disciplinary issues properly because of worker solidarity and their militant attitude towards management.

I instituted a number of changes when I had been there a year, forced through a new system where nominations for the different posts were received by management from the workers and then elections were conducted on company time by secret ballot supervised by management. The result was a 100 per cent change in the character of representation and a sharp reduction in labour conflict and even staff theft.

As the tidal wave of independence movements swept down Africa, ending with the transition to democracy in South Africa in 1994, country after country came to Independence under constitutions crafted by the colonial State and adopted by each country during the transition. In many cases these constitutions did not stand up to the test of time and were revised, in others they were swept aside by coups and military takeovers. But slowly, the continent has started to sort through the mayhem and find its feet in both democratic and economic terms.

But as country after country has had to find its way and agree on what system to adopt to allow their citizens to control the process of leadership selection, so the ruling elites have sought ways of circumventing and subverting the democratic process itself in order to retain power. Now we have NIKOV, an Israeli firm that has discovered this new trend and made a business out of it earning hundreds of millions of dollars on advising ruling elites on how to subvert the system to their own ends.

As a consequence of these sorts of practice democracy is on the retreat throughout the world and this must be recognised and accepted if we are to counter the trend and bring the governance systems of countries back to some semblance of good order. This process might start with Zimbabwe.

We need to begin by asserting the basic fundamentals; the rule of law, equality before the law, freedom of expression and association, the supremacy of citizenship rights, the inclusive character of voting rights, the absence of coercion in any form. So long as a country like Zimbabwe can violate these fundamentals and get away with it, societies will suffer from poor governance, slow growth, extreme poverty, unaccountable government, corruption and violence. Stability and progress in such countries becomes almost impossible.

The global media gives maximum attention and exposure to physical violence – start shooting each other and you are guaranteed maximum attention. But exercise other more subtle forms of violence and oppression and no one pays any attention. Yet the suffering and untimely deaths from such governance failures completely dwarf the deaths from an AK47 in the hands of an under aged rebel. In Zimbabwe in the past 12 years, over 3 million people have died. In the Congo over the same period some 6 to 7 million have died, maybe more.

No one is held accountable, no one is brought to justice, the UN remains silent and ineffective and the international Community concentrates on physical violence and conflict as a barometer of instability. Foreign policy seeks to maintain stability at the expense of principle and the first victim is democracy.

That is what makes what is happening in Zimbabwe important, not because any other State has any vital interests at stake, but because in microcosm it represents the struggle everywhere for ordinary people to gain the right to choose their leaders and dismiss them when they fail or abuse their positions. If we want to turn the tide of retreat in democracy it could start in Zimbabwe, the process begins by paying attention, real attention, to what is going on.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 22nd November 2013