About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Two epoch-making political transitions in Sub-Sahara Africa simultaneously dominated global news in April 1994, South Africa and Rwanda. South Africa’s was a transition from white minority rule to black majority rule; Rwanda’s from “Hutu majority” rule to “Tutsi minority” rule. The transition in South Africa was peaceful, achieved through a negotiated settlement and democratic elections. The transition in Rwanda was violent; achieved through military victory against the backdrop of genocide.

The African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa inherited a strong bureaucratic state with a well developed and modern industrial economy, properly developed infrastructure, the best human resource pool on the continent and great international goodwill. The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) inherited a backward economy that had collapsed; and a nation without a functional state. The pre-existing institutions of state had been dismembered, as over 90 percent of its human resources were either dead, in jail or in exile. There was little international goodwill.

South Africa and Rwanda provide us the most important insight into the major fault in which discourse on democracy has been structured in Africa. By most conventional accounts, the South African experience is presented as a classic case of a successful transition to democracy; that of Rwanda as entrenching a military dictatorship. Even the most committed supporters of President Paul Kagame of Rwanda would question the democratic credentials of his government.

My intimate interaction with the Rwanda system, coupled with my knowledge of Africa’s “successful democracies” like South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria etc has profoundly changed how I think about democracy. All too often, what is called democracy on our continent is actually a reference to its procedures as opposed to its substance. This way, governments in Africa are applauded when they constantly go through the motions of democracy even when these rituals serve little democratic function.

In South Africa, the ANC electoral victory marked the takeover of political control by the black majority. However, as part of the transition it had been agreed that the ANC would live intact the existing economic arrangement – with its accumulated economic privileges. Thus a small group of black elites who assumed control of the state were integrated into the existing economic structures left by the apartheid system. Meanwhile, the ordinary black masses were integrated into the new system as beneficiaries of welfare programmes, not as economically productive agents. (Today the number of people who depend on state welfare grants for their daily survival is 13m with the possibility of an additional 7m).

There is little to show that the coming to power of the ANC has improved the economic and social fortunes of the ordinary black person; most of them today are poorer than they were under apartheid. With a population of just under 50 million people, blacks constitute 80 percent i.e. 40 million. Today, 48 percent of blacks are unemployed; 33m live in poverty of whom 15m are “very poor” (and earn 7 percent of national income) and 18m are “chronically poor” (live off only 5 percent of national income). South Africa has thus overtaken Brazil as the most unequal society in the world.

Average life expectancy at birth for blacks has reduced by 13 years from 62 in 1990 to 49 in 2007 and is now below that of Rwanda at 52 which, has grown from 25 in 2000. The incidence of HIV/AIDs in South Africa is at 18.5 percent; in Rwanda it has fallen from 11 percent in 2000 to 3 percent today. As I write this article, 60 percent of the black population of South Africa today are worse off than they were under apartheid. Twenty four percent of adults are illiterate; the list goes on and on.

All this has happened in spite of (and I also think largely because of) South Africa’s “democracy” – with its regular elections, multi party system, “free” press and active civic associations. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that there is a problem with democracy in South Africa. Clearly, the conventional platforms for democracy above are not reflecting the wishes of the majority. In South Africa, elites have appropriated democratic platforms to enhance their own privileges.

South Africa is not an oddity as other poor multi ethnic or multi racial nations suffer a similar distortion. Take India as an example: In most of the standard “freedom” indicators, it scores alongside democracies like Norway and the USA – with regular elections and changes of government. But in public services like access to education, health, clean water, etc, India’s scores are similar to or worse than in failed or failing states like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Why has democracy in India failed to promote service delivery to the citizen in spite of (or because of) its “democratic” structures?

Elite in particular ethnic communities in India bargain for positions of power and privilege in both the central and state government using appeals to ethnic identity. They argue that appointing them to positions of power and privilege demonstrates “inclusion” of the wider ethnic group; that this confers “dignity” on the ethnic group as a whole; and that this “dignity” should come first; roads, hospitals and schools (that benefit the masses of poor people) come later.

These arguments are widespread across Africa’s multi ethnic states; that by appointing a minister from a given tribe shows that that tribe is included in power. This shows how elites exploit ethnic diversity to appropriate democracy for their own benefit. But it also teaches us that politicians even when elected can have interests that are different from those of their constituents; and that they can hide behind identity to obscure this reality.

It is obvious that the leaders of the ANC have interests that are different from those of their main electorate – the ordinary black masses. Ironically, their interests are consonant with those of the principal beneficiaries of the economic system under apartheid – big multinational corporations and their auxiliaries. When ANC came to power, it put in place policies that allowed a small black elite class to accumulate power, wealth and status through a “black empowerment” programme. By 2006, only 5,000 black South Africans earned more than $60,000 per year.

Therefore ANC leadership was “captured” by the system through its own enrichment. People like Cyril Ramaphosa and other ANC bigwigs used black empowerment to acquire shares in big corporations; they became instant billionaires hence their lack of a vested interest in change. How then does the ANC continue to secure support from its disenfranchised electorate? It enjoys historical legitimacy as the revolutionary party that fought for the liberation of South Africa. But most importantly, it leans on the racial identity of its leaders to win over the black majority.

That is “democracy” at work in South Africa and India; it is also democracy in Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia and Malawi. It is the model that Rwanda under Paul Kagame initially tried without much success. When the RPF captured power, its first strategy of political consolidation followed the pattern we have seen in most of Africa; co-opting a few elites by giving them positions of power and privilege and then using them to rally their co-ethnics to support the sitting government.

Thus, it appointed a Hutu president (Pasteur Bizimungu), a Hutu prime minister (Faustin Twagiramungu), a Hutu interior minister (Seth Sendashonga) – a Hutu this and that. This way, the RPF sought to show that it was ethnically inclusive. Yet the Hutu faces of the regime did not share an encompassing national vision with the Tutsi power holders behind it. Although formal power was placed in the hands of Hutu politicians, effective power remained in the hands of the Tutsi-led military.

This arrangement was not sustainable: the Hutu faces of the regime wanted to exercise effective power for purposes they felt were right. But the Tutsi leaders in RPF had their own vision of what they wanted implemented; hence a clear impasse. The only alternative to hostile stalemate would have been to give individual corruption a free reign – for then everyone would have been busy grabbing public resources to find time for ideological battles as has happened in Uganda today.

Kagame was either unable to recognise the necessity of corruption or was unwilling to accept it. This caused continuous sparks in government leading to a string of resignations and an exodus of many Hutu from his government, most of them running into exile. But it also stripped the RPF government of legitimacy. How would an ethnic minority (Tutsi) rule over a “sociological majority” (Hutu) and win their acceptance (legitimacy)? It is RPF’s response to this challenge that is already setting Rwanda apart from the general African experience.

RPF had some historical legitimacy of course – of ending the genocide. But it was legitimacy only in the eyes of the Tutsi (whom it had saved from slaughter) and the international community. For the majority Hutu, the RPF victory was a military conquest of “their” government. Therefore, it could not use ending the genocide to win their hearts and minds. RPF had to find different sources of legitimacy.

Initially, it was by stopping widespread revenge killings in order to reassure Hutu masses that Tutsi were not out to finish them off. As their safety was guaranteed, the second need was to ensure there is food for survival. As this became normal, RPF moved to ensuring service delivery especially in health and education. Today, as these too have become the norm, the RPF is involved in making Rwandas productive agents in their own right, not passive recipients of state grants and NGO charity.

Thus, unlike South Africa, Rwanda’s economic and social indicators for the most ordinary people show a continuous growth curve in social and economic wellbeing: increasing household incomes, better housing, 97 percent primary school enrolment, 92 percent of the people on medical insurance, 75 percent access to clean water; 97 percent of pregnant women attending antenatal care, infant and maternal mortality are all going down etc. How come it is a minority-led government in Rwanda, not a majority-led one in South Africa that has succeeded in implementing a life-changing programme for ordinary people?

Having been stripped of window-dressed legitimacy of a few Hutu elites, the RPF went down to villages and organised people in a grassroots participatory movement. Here, people meet in their local councils and draw up a check-list of things they want done. These are sent upwards through the local councils to form government policy. The president then enters annual contracts with local community leaders to achieve set goals. He holds community meetings where ordinary people ask him questions and hold his ministers to account on unmet promises.

Interestingly, the first thoroughgoing attempt to democratise politics in rural Africa was initiated by Yoweri Museveni in Uganda through the creation of local councils as platforms through which ordinary people could manage their local affairs and also place their concerns on the national political agenda. This collapsed when Museveni embraced ethnic elite politics of patronage. Thus local councils became vehicles through which NRM mobilises support for its own programmes.

Returning to South Africa and Rwanda, the ANC that was drawn from a racial majority today largely services elite interests. It remains popular because its elites can use identity (that it is fellow blacks in power) to rally ordinary people for support and legitimacy. On the other hand, the RPF that was drawn from an ethnic minority failed to consolidate itself by bribing a few elites from the ethnic majority. This forced it to bypass Hutu elites and seek support from ordinary Hutu masses, hence the evolution of a state that fosters grassroots participation.


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