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                                       AFRICA’S PROBLEM OF THE STATE AND DEMOCRACY




(Cambridge University: Malaysian Commonwealth Studies, 3-4          

  July 2003)



The prevailing African State, in all African countries, is an implant from the European countries whose colony each African country was. The present post-colonial State in Africa did not grow organically out of the body of Africa: it is an implant on the African body, hence the grotesque features of some, or many, of the elements of the contemporary African State, and of contemporary Political Parties in Africa, which are also implants on the African body: the African body is rejecting many of these elements of the Western State.


The other point to stress, which also explains subsequent history and events in Africa, is that the African Slave Trade, and the conquest of Africa by Europe, brought about, throughout the world, deep contempt and degradation of African civilization and culture, compared to other civilizations and cultures. This deep contempt for African civilization penetrated deep into Western civilization and into the psychology and education of the West; it was also absorbed in large measure by African intellectuals and the African elite.


The remarkable African scholar, resident in the USA, Ali Mazrui, has commented on this massive problem: “Who killed African democracy? The cultural half caste who came in from Western schools and did not adequately respect African ancestors. Institutions were inaugurated without reference to cultural compatibilities, and new processes were introduced without respect for continuities. Ancestral standards of property and legitimacy were ignored. When writing up a new constitution for Africa these elites would ask themselves `How does the House of Representatives in the United States structure its agenda? How do the Swiss cantons handle their referendum? I wonder how the Canadian federation would handle such an issue?’ On the other hand, these African elites almost never ask how did the Bunyoro, the Wolof, the Igbo or the Kikutu govern themselves before colonization?” [Ali A. Mazrui, “Who Killed Democracy in Africa? Clues of the Past, Concerns of the Future”, Key Note Address, Conference on Democracy, Sustainable Development and Poverty: Are They Compatible?, Development Policy Management Forum, United Nations Conference Center, Addis Ababa, 4-6 December 2001, p. 7]


This is the fundamental problem of the State and of Democracy in modern Africa. African political leaders and elites, upon gaining independence from Colonial masters, up to now, refused to accept and implement, in their own countries, that principle that seems to be observable throughout the process of historical evolution, the principle of continuity and discontinuity which reveals itself even in great revolutionary transformations in history. The historical past in the life of communities, in the form of traditions, culture, memories, language, etc, cannot simply be wiped out of existence, in favour of the new, or of something different. Real history is full of compromises.


The stubborn refusal to accept the principle of continuity and discontinuity in historical evolution, or of compromises, more often than not, leads in practice to massacres and genocide, to dehumanization and to tragedy. I would like to discuss and analyze the tragedy of Africa, played out in the refusal of African leaders and elites to accept and implement a compromise between African traditional authority, on one hand, and the form of State they inherited from their Colonial masters, on the other hand. African political leaders and elites exhibit an inclination to accept compromise and the principle of continuity and discontinuity on all major issues except that which relates to fundamental aspects of African tradition and culture. Let us focus on the issue of the form of State in South Africa, and on the issue of African traditional authority.


The question, of course, is whether African traditions of political leadership and political rule can be reconciled with modern democracy.


This issue is at the heart of the tension and disagreement presently existing between the National Government, led by the ANC, and traditional leaders. The first issue of serious disagreement was over the role of His Majesty, King Zwelithini, in the CODESA Negotiations forum, and the whole question of the status of the King, Traditional Leaders, and the of the Zulu Kingdom, in the “form of State” which was being contemplated and designed for the new South Africa.


In assessing and praising the so-called “miracle of South Africa”, consisting of the new democratic State, elected through universal franchise, the protection of minorities in the electoral system, through the adoption of the PR system, or Proportional Representation, and the new South African Constitution, which enshrines what has been called “the classic liberal State” enriched by concern for Human Rights, most people seem to forget that this so-called “miracle” was a compromise solution in the confrontation of two historical blocks/communities and interests.


I would like to present to you this whole process as a scholar, sociologist, and historian, not as a Commissioner of the Independent Electoral Commission. I am someone who is particularly concerned about the prospects for Africa’s development as a democracy and as a humane society. What does modern history, and the dynamics of society, tell us about our own presently peculiar compromise? How does this compromise relate to the challenges faced by the entire continent of Africa? How does this compromise, and gigantic challenge, relate to the issue of reconciling African tradition and modern democracy? I want to underline to the audience before me that I am addressing, not a South African audience, but the audience of the entire continent of Africa.


Let us start, then, with our “miracle”. The “miracle”, of course, was the avoidance of a horrendous blood-bath between Whites and Africans in the country; a race war which would have inevitably involved and polarized all the nations and peoples of the world; a blood-bath which would have left us all, the entire world, seriously scarred, mentally and emotionally, and spiritually poorer.


The entire world wanted Whites and Africans in South Africa to avoid that tragedy.


Let me remind you that the German philosopher, Hegel, defined tragedy as conflict, not between right and wrong, but as conflict between right and right. The tragedy arises when, as a result of this conflict, either both “right” are annihilated; or one “right” defeats, subdues, destroys the other “right”.


In the Negotiations of 1993-94, two historic blocks/communities and interests were in confrontation: the African people, who are the overwhelming majority of society, on one hand, and the White community, which is a minority.


What is crucial to understand is that both these historic blocks, the Africans, on one hand, and the Whites, on the other hand, were powerful, but not one had enough power to annihilate, destroy, and subdue the other.


The result of this stalemate, in which no one side could prevail, were Negotiations; and the result of that stalemate in power, and the Negotiations, was the Compromise which was reached between the leading negotiator of the African community, the ANC, and the leading negotiator of the White community, the Government of the National Party.


The essence of this Compromise was that both rights must prevail, the right of the African people to rule the land, to be liberated politically, on one hand, and the right of the White community, as a minority, and all other minorities, to participate in the rule of the land.


This is how Proportional Representation emerged as a principle in the Electoral System, along with the principle of the Government of National Unity, the particular form of State agreed upon, and a Constitution of `classic liberalism’ which protected equally the human person, Human Rights, the right to hold private property, the right of cultures and languages to exist side by side, the rule of law, and Multi-Party democracy.


I repeat, the right of both rights to exist was agreed upon, the right of the African people, and the right of the White community. In Hegel’s terms, a tragedy was avoided.


Let us step back in history, and look at what happened in England. From the 17th century, to the 19th century, two historic blocks/communities and interests were in conflict in England: the Aristocracy, or traditional land-owning class, at the head of which was the Royal House, on one hand, and the bourgeoisie, small urban property-owners, and urban intellectuals, who revolved around the bourgeoisie, on the other hand.


Again, both historic blocks were powerful, but not one had the power to annihilate, destroy, and subdue the other.


Again, there was a stalemate, and both sides together reached a Compromise: there was a new form of State, which accommodated both rights: on the one hand, the right of the Aristocracy and the Royal House to exist, and, on the other hand, the right of the Bourgeoisie and its allies to exist.


This took the form of the right of Parliament to exist and to be an important arm of government –but a Parliament with two chambers: a) the House of Commons, recognizing the principle and right of existence of modern electoral democracy, and b) the House of Lords, which is non-elected, recognizing the principle and right of existence of traditional political leadership; what is important also is the principle and right of existence of the Royal House: the Government was “His or Her Majesty’s Government”!


Ladies and Gentlemen, such was the Compromise between the Aristocracy and the Bourgeoisie in England, which recognized, in Hegelian terms, the right of both historic blocks and interests to exist: the right of modern electoral democracy to exist, and the right of English traditional authority to exist within the same new English form of State! In Hegelian terms, a tragedy was avoided.


(The fact that the English have recently demoted, almost abolished, the House of Lords as an effective organ of State, is merely a recognition that the society and people of Great Britain have changed sufficiently to the point where this institution no longer meets the needs of the time. This does not invalidate the historic justification and timeliness of the Compromise between Tradition and Modernity at the time that this Compromise was achieved. As the Book says, “There is a time for everything…”


Let us now turn to the manner in which most, in fact, all, African countries have dealt with African traditional political systems, in particular with African Traditional leaders.


Here, indeed, we have a tragedy in Hegelian terms. Remember Hegel’s conception of tragedy: a conflict, not between right and wrong, but a conflict between right and right: in the ensuing conflict, either both rights annihilate each other, or one “right” annihilates, destroys, or subdues, the other “right.”


Again, there has been a confrontation, here, between two historic blocks/communities and interests. In the conflict between Western electoral democracy, on one hand, and African traditional authority, on the other hand, is a confrontation between two historic blocks/communities and interests: on the one hand, the interests of the Western liberal State (Western society) and the power of Western concepts in the minds of African intellectuals, who are, intellectually, children of the West; on the other hand, the African Rural Community, where the overwhelming majority of African people live, and principles and patterns of African civilization, of which African tradition is part, grounded in African Rural Communities.

The defeat of the unorganized and weak African Rural Community,  and of principles and patterns of African civilization grounded in African rural communities, and our failure as Africans to bring about a Compromise between the Western form of State in Africa, and African traditional authority, means that we can never formulate a development strategy which is suitable to Africa. The Western form of State prevailing in Africa, and the power of Western concepts in the minds of African intellectuals and the African elite, shall not be able to move Africa forward, shall not be able to solve the fundamental problem of Africa.


The fundamental problem of Africa, including our own part of Africa, is the underdevelopment of the Rural African Community. The fundamental problem of Africa is the collapse of the African Village economy. The collapse and degradation of the African Rural Community is forcing millions of people to move to African cities and towns, which do not have the infrastructure and economic power to absorb these millions of people.


The collapse and degradation of the African Village therefore brings collapse and degradation and social pathology to African cities and towns. How can we end the collapse and degradation of rural Africa without using as building blocks for reconstructing Africa the principles and patterns of African civilization –including agreeing on a great Compromise between tradition and modernity in the form of State, as the historic blocks in England did from the 17th to the 19th century?


I am hoping that this detour of historic error, which has not taken Africa forward, shall soon come to pass; I am hoping that African intellectuals and the African elite, having been cleansed and purged of the poisonous attitude towards African civilization, which came with the African Slave Trade and Colonialism, shall

See the necessity for a Compromise between Western electoral democracy, on one hand, and African political tradition and principles of African civilization, on the other hand.


The current defeat of the African Rural Community, the bearer and source of African tradition, is due to the very peculiar larger historical context of Africa. To make this point clear in our minds, let us look at the Rural Community in England, in centuries leading to the compromise, and during the period of the compromise itself. The English countryside had been the scene of the emergence, development, and maturity, of a powerful social class, or estate, the Nobility or Aristocracy, which ended up being the ruling class of English society. This rural-based ruling class was based on the ownership of land, and the ownership or control of the mass of  labouring people in rural England, the peasantry, and the ability to acquire, control, and accumulate material wealth produced by the peasantry. In addition, the Aristocracy was effectively organized for warfare.


Even when the new class of the Bourgeoisie emerged and developed in the towns, it had to reckon with the organized, sizeable power of the Aristocracy. Over a period of centuries, the Aristocracy had won the respect and envy of the Bourgeoisie and of other urban classes. As the Bourgeoisie and other urban classes accumulated power, and stood as a historic block, they were not acting within a vacuum. There was an existing, opposing historic block with its own formidable power. Hence the need for a compromise. I must stress, too, that there was also a mutual interpenetration of the Bourgeois mindset and the mindset of the Aristocracy, so that there emerged a certain core of interests common to a certain section of the Bourgeoisie and to a certain section of the Aristocracy. [see Brian Manning, “The Nobles, The People, and The Constitution”, in Crisis in Europe: 1560-1660, edited by Trevor Aston, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965]


The English countryside was a sharply stratified community, with a well-developed ruling class which had the capacity and determination to fight for its material interests, as well as for its interest as a ruling class of society as a whole, including control over the power of the State. This picture and reality are in sharp contrast to the situation in the African countryside.


With rare exceptions, African societies were not as sharply stratified as English society was in the Middle and High Middle Ages. Until the conquest of Africa by Europe, there was neither a sharply developed concept of private property in land, nor a sharply developed land-owning class holding the rest of society in subjection. While Western Europe passed through the age of Feudalism, indigenous Africa never had feudalism, as we know it from Europe. African traditional leaders have never formed a class of feudal lords, or a land-owning class, exploiting the rest of the community through ownership and control of land. Professor Archie Mafeje warns: “In our view, it is a serious misconception to talk of land as property in any sense of the word in African communal social formations south of the Sahara.” (Archie Mafeje, The Theory and Ethnography of African Social Formations, London, Codestria Book Series, 1991, p. 97). What Professor Mafeje is stressing is the absence of the phenomenon of land as private property. Another scholar of African land tenure systems has written: “Most land tenure systems in Africa are `communal’ in character…`Communal’ means, in the great majority of cases, a degree of community control over who is allowed into the group, thereby qualifying for an allocation of land for residence and cropping, as well as rights of access to and use of the shared, common pool resources used by the group (i. e. the commons).” [Ben Cousins, “Tenure and Common Property Resources in Africa”, in Evolving Land Rights, Policy and Tenure in Africa, edited Camilla Toulmin and Julian Quan, London, DFID/IIED/NRI, 2000,  p. 152]


The property relationship between members of society and the most important productive force in traditional African society, land, had an impact on social stratification. The stress on equality and humaneness, Ubuntu, weighed more than the stress on the rights of sharply drawn social class lines. “In most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, unlike much of Asia and Latin America, land is relatively evenly distributed. The exceptions are parts of Southern Africa, where colonial settlers concentrated productive land into large private estates and where, as a result, land-related poverty is marked. Most rural Africans households have access to a plot of land, plus a wider area of common land for grazing, gathering and hunting.” [Julian Quan, “Land Tenure, Economic Growth and Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa”, in Toulmin and Quan, op. cit., 32] 


We must stress, though, that the subjugation of Africa by Europe, the migrant labour system, and the virulent Anti-African racism in the distribution of development resources, robbed land distribution among Africans of the power to shape the pattern of stratification. White supremacy brought about the neglect of the countryside inhabited by Africans, and unequal development between the African community and the White community. The collapse of the African village economy is actually the hidden foundation of the crisis of the African economy in the entire continent. This has resulted in millions of people leaving rural areas for cities and towns, thereby transporting the rural crisis to African cities and towns, to constitute the urban crisis in Africa. We must also comment on the gender issue. The question to ask and investigate is this: were women an oppressed group/class/ estate in traditional African societies? We know that Engels linked the emergence of female oppression inextricably with the emergence of class oppression. “Thus, monogamy does not by any means make its appearance in history as the reconciliation of man and woman, still less as the highest  form of such a reconciliation. On the contrary, it appears as the subjection of one sex by the other, as the proclamation of a conflict, between the sexes entirely unknown hitherto in prehistoric times…The first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamian marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male.” (Frederick Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State). What does historical and anthropological research on African society tell us on this issue? According to Engels’ formula, we would expect to see distinct female oppression as class oppression takes form and crystallizes in Africa. How far had African societies traveled on this road before the conquest of North Africa by Arabs, and before the conquest of Sub-Saharan Africa by Europe? Let me stress that conquest, by itself, is an imposition or implantation of class/caste oppression in the conquered society; and this class/caste oppression alters and deforms personality and character in certain, if not all, sections of the population. Sexual and gender relations are usually the first to suffer in this alteration and deformation caused by class/caste oppression occasioned by conquest. I must also stress that Europeans imposed upon the colonized Africans the oppressive, European, order of gender relations founded upon feudalism and the violence of early capitalist society (see Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977). This order of gender relations, which was implanted upon Africa by the conquering Europeans, was a most oppressive order, in which a female’s identity and rights were subsets of male identity and rights. There was nothing comparable to that order in most African societies before Arab or European conquest. (see, for example, the life of the senior wife to King Senzangakhona, Shaka’s father: Cecil Cowley, Kwa-Zulu: Queen Mkabi’s Story, Cape Town, C. Struik & Co., 1966) We must be careful about making historical generalizations, especially retro-active historical generalizations, from human behaviour that is occurring in modern historical conditions of advanced commodity production and capitalism, which are conditions already characterized by high levels of anomie, degeneration or degradation. Slavery, colonial domination, the migrant labour system, the ubiquitous violence which was the foundation of white supremacy, began at once to warp, distort, degrade, and to destroy the humanistic basis of pre-class societies in Africa. The violence inflicted upon African females by oppressed, brutalized, and harassed African males in urban ghettos and poor rural areas should not be conceptualized as a pattern which characterized gender relations in African societies at all historical periods before colonial conquest. (for a discussion of the link between the brutalization of males by society, and the brutalization of females by males, see Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, New York, Basic Books, 1992; William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage, New York, Basic Books, 1968. One should also study Franz Fanon’s work on the psychiatry of colonialism, in the following publications by Franz Fanon: Black Skin, White Masks;  A Dying Colonialism;  The Wretched of the Earth)


This is the overall context within which the rural African community has been in existence since the conquest of Africa by European countries. The coming of Islam into large parts of Africa, and conquest by Arabs, also affected the African rural community, and the functioning of systems of African Traditional Authority.


The existing crisis in Africa is multi-facetted, manifesting itself as the crisis of the State, the crisis of the Economic, the crisis of Education, the crisis of the Family, the crisis of Gender Relations, the Urban crisis, the crisis of African Civilization, etc. We are focusing in this discussion on the crisis of the State in contemporary Africa. The failure of Africans, so far, to produce a synthesis, a compromise, between African Traditional Authority and the Western Liberal State, has been, and continues to be, the seminal cause of the overall crisis of Africa.

This is the outline of the direction which the resolution of this seminal problem should take.


I propose, for all levels of government, a legislative assembly with two chambers, one elected through universal franchise, and the second non-elected.


The first chamber, the elected one, would satisfy the needs of modernity for democratic representation through elections.


The second chamber, the non-elected chamber, would satisfy the need of tradition for representation, and would also be an attempt to improve the quality of modern democracy.


The second, non-elected chamber would consist, in part, of Traditional Leaders, and also, in part, of other members of society deemed worthy through wisdom, experience, or education, by an independent commission, of participating for a specified term in the legislative body in the interest of society.


The elected chamber would have the same number of members as the non-elected chamber.


Both chambers would have equal powers: the responsibility of both chambers making up the Legislative Assembly should be to debate government policy and affairs of State in general; to propose, debate, amend, approve, or reject, legislation. I emphasize: the non-elected chamber should be an equal partner of the elected chamber.


The coexistence of the elective and non-elective principle seems wise as an attempt to synthesize tradition and modernity.


Along with the positive, modern elections have a negative aspect.

The essence of modern democracy is political parties addressing and manipulating masses of people in efforts to win votes.


The problem is that issues besetting modern societies are complex, and individual members of society no longer have the space and correct spiritual atmosphere conducive to thinking properly. The crowds addressed by politicians consist of people at varying levels of education and sophistication.


The inevitable tendency, then, is for extreme simplification of these complex issues.


A psychological factor also enters to complicate the matter. Given inequality, poverty, unemployment, misery, and the fears and anxieties rooted in modern social life, any mass audience consists of people suffering from varying levels of anxiety and anguish.


Again, the largest layer of any typical mass audience in a typical large election is beset with very high levels of anxiety and anguish, which must be addressed by the politician. The average politician often turns to demagogy, playing to the emotions of the audience, taking the shortest route from simple ideas to the anxieties and emotions of the audience. (Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”)


The other problem is that elections are expensive. This has often placed parties and politicians under the power of money, giving the wealthy, and business companies/corporations enormous power over politicians, therefore over government policies.


Thus, the influence of money, corruption, and the ups and downs of public emotion often make it very difficult for the average politician to be guided by the strength of his or her own convictions and independence of mind on any important issue. A certain sickness then falls upon most politicians, namely, the fear or hesitation to speak one’s mind honestly on certain major issues, the fear of the truth, the tendency to want to conform to the particular emotions of the particular moment on a particular issue.


These factors considerably lower the quality of democratic politics, or of modern democracy.


This, in my view, is the advantage of having a non-elected chamber within Parliament. The entrance to this chamber shall not depend on shaping one’s views and personality to suit the emotions and desires of voters and wealthy financial donors.


This should allow a sizeable proportion of these members to express views and propose policies uninfluenced to a large extent by temporary fashions of public opinion.


It should also free these members from the tendency of politicians to simplify issues for easy mass consumption and approval. In other words, a significant number of members of the non-elected chamber should be able to belong to what I call the “Party of Truth”. We are told, for example, that very valuable changes in Bills passed by the House of Commons in England, are made by members of the House of Lords, precisely because members of this non-elected chamber are generally not restrained in their public utterances by fears of the electorate.


I suggest that we seriously consider and debate the merit of having a Legislature with two chambers, one elected, the other non-elected, with equal powers, at all levels or tiers of government. That, I think, shall meet the needs of modernity, as well as the wisdom of retaining the precious elements of African tradition, as well as vastly raise and improve the quality of modern democracy. We, as Africans, should move beyond the boundaries of the Western form of State, without abandoning the valuable, progressive elements of Western liberalism. We should agree on a great Compromise between the historic block of African civilization and African political tradition, on one hand, and the Western form of State, on the other hand. This shall entrench democracy more firmly, and contribute towards bringing about genuine development to the entire continent of Africa.  







About Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi

Professor Herbert Vilakazi was born at Nongoma, KwaZulu/Natal, South Africa. He received his tertiary education at Columbia University, and at the New School For Social Research, both in New York City, USA. He has taught sociology and other social sciences at various tertiary institutions in and around New York City (City College of City University, Essex County College in Newark, Livingstone College, and State University of New York). He has also taught at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, and University of Zululand. He served as Deputy-Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission from 1998 to 2004. He has also served as Special Advisor to the Premier of KwaZulu/Natal (2005-2007). He is Chairperson of Vilakazi Development Strategies.
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