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Op-Ed: Southern Africa: Democracy Takes Root

Southern Africa: Democracy Takes Root
May 2000 - published in Mopheme/The Survivior, Lesotho, The Nation, Namibia, The Nation, Malawi

The wave of democracy that spread throughout the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s impacted no region perhaps more dramatically than Southern Africa. Zambia, Lesotho and Malawi ended one-party rule; Namibia gained independence Mozambique held successful multi-party elections; and South Africa ended apartheid and moved peacefully towards democracy. These welcome developments raised expectations for peace, stability and a transition to democracy in a region long torn by colonialism and apartheid.

Nearly a decade later, much remains to be done before democracy takes root in the region as a whole. Zimbabwe's current crisis is only the latest case in point.

Building sustainable democracy, in Southern Africa as anywhere in the world, is never easy. It requires the right mix of enlightened leaders, an active civil society, and institutions that work. Most of all, it requires time. Democracy must not be seen as a quick-fix solution that can be imposed on a country from without. Rather, it must be valued as a long-term process of building trust from within.

The stability of any democracy depends largely on the strength and character of democratic institutions and processes. For Southern Africa, three important challenges will be central to democratic consolidation:

  • Elections. There is a pressing need to ensure that elections are transparent, efficient and acceptable to all political parties as well as to voters.

  • Political parties. Genuine pluralism needs to be established by ensuring that political parties are free, democratic, financially sound and publicly accountable institutions

  • Women's representation. Women's political participation should be actively supported and encouraged, to ensure that democracy is representative of and accommodates a cross-section of interests.

Electoral bodies

Regular competitive elections are an essential step in the democratic process and a feature of every democracy. Although many Southern African countries have passed through second multi-party elections smoothly, much still needs to be done to improve the conduct, management and administration of elections. Towards this end many countries in the region established independent electoral commissions to facilitate efficient elections and promote political participation.

Much has already been achieved, not least the actual establishment of independent commissions themselves, embodying as they do the aspiration of free and fair elections. But more also remains to be done. Electoral management bodies are facing a number of problems. First and foremost, in several countries a perceived lack of independence from the authorities undermines their public credibility.

The problems are further compounded by a lack of human and financial resources, which seriously impairs electoral bodies' ability to do their job properly. In addition there is a pressing need to inform the general public about the rules of the political process, especially in relation to elections. And when it comes to continued funding of democratic transition processes beyond the first or second election - an issue of concern for regional governments and the international community - there is still a major debate on how to combine reasonable efficiency with reasonable cost. In this context it is necessary to combine firm adherence to the basic principles and values of democracy with a clear recognition that the precise form of their implementation is always a local matter.

But the fact remains that elections, while not synonymous with democracy, are nevertheless a vital element of a well-functioning democratic system. Thus, strengthening electoral management bodies and making sure that elections are efficient, transparent, well administered and cost-effective must be a fundamental priority for all countries in Southern Africa.

Political parties

Political parties - one of the most important institutions for democracy - still have a long way to go towards achieving a secure footing in Southern Africa. The problems, while not specific only to the region, are many: lack of institutionalization, lack of funding and gender inequality in leadership are some key causes for concern. In the case of opposition parties, the inability to articulate clear alternative policies is another major hurdle to political development.

Active, vibrant political parties are indispensable to a well-functioning democracy. The need is all the more urgent in a region long dominated by single parties. Ensuring that political parties are free, democratic, financially sound and publicly accountable institutions - true custodians of democracy - must also be at the top of the region's democratic agenda.

But building institutions is not enough. Democracy's success and sustainability depends to a large extent on representing and accommodating a cross-section of the population's interest. The difference between democracy and other political systems, after all, is the ability of the former to deliberately accommodate divergent viewpoints, interests, and broad categories of citizens. In this regard, the importance of ensuring women's active participation must not be underestimated.

Women's role

Research indicates that the single largest barrier to women's participation in decision-making, whether in Western or African societies, is deeply engrained cultural and traditional stereotypes concerning the role of women. Ensuring that women's participation in the political process has a real impact requires a persistent nationwide and region-wide campaign to shift mindsets.

Formulating strategies to address these democratic challenges is the focus of a regional conference in Gaborone, Botswana from 8-10 May. Titled 'Towards Sustainable Democratic Institutions in Southern Africa', the conference is jointly organized by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), the Government of Botswana and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary and Election Fora.

Representatives of governments, political parties and electoral commissions from the region, alongside a number of regional and international institutions will discuss how to translate the hope for democracy that prevailed in the region in the early 1990s to a reality based on these three democratic pillars: efficient elections, strong political parties and broad representation.

Underpinning the discussions in Gaborone is a firm grasp of another fundamental reality of democratic development. Lasting democracy is a home-grown, not imported commodity. In Southern Africa as elsewhere, building democracy thus takes time. The Gaborone conference will provide options, choices and examples of good democratic practice both from within the region and without, that can inform the debate on how to model and develop democracy in each country.

Following a long struggle Southern Africa achieved its first liberation, from colonialism and apartheid. The time is ripe now to complete a second liberation - that of human potential - begun amid such high hopes at the start of the 1990s.

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh, Secretary-General, International Institute for Democ-racy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).

Press contacts:

Mark Salter
Senior Press and Information Officer
International IDEA
103 34 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22
Monika Ericson
Assistant Press and Information Officer
International IDEA
103 34 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22



International IDEA
Tel: +46 8 698 3700, Fax: +46 8 20 24 22
International IDEA, Strömsborg, S-103 34 Stockholm, Sweden