Steven Friedman: Forget about leaders, democracy is strengthened when people act together

Democracy's prospects in Africa depend not on finding better leaders but on ensuring that more people can act together to ensure that government serves them, writes Steven Friedman.

It is common to complain that the biggest problem facing Africa in general and South Africa in particular is poor leadership. It is very uncommon to explain why this should be so.

The leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa – and his political supporters and opponents – is probably the most often discussed issue in South African politics. There is nothing new about this focus on leaders – academics, journalists and public commentators, in Western Europe and North America and Africa itself, have been writing and talking for decades about how important leadership is in Africa – so much so that this view seems to most as plain common sense.

It is anything but common sense. In fact, it is strange that people whose job is to explain politics fall back so easily on leadership as an explanation for what happens in Africa. 

If most African leaders are not good for African countries, why? Unless we fall back on prejudice and trot out the false claim that Africans somehow don't know how to run governments, there must be a reason why African countries produce leaders who are blamed for their problems. But simply blaming or praising leadership does not tell us what these are. 

In my just-published book Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Justice, I argue that, if we want to understand African democracy, we need to move beyond the "leadership" explanation and find reasons why African leaders often seem unwilling or unable to help build stronger democracies.

One explanation on offer – ironically from scholars on the left who accuse Westerners of using their favourite ideas to colonise Africa – is that African culture rejects democracy's values.

The core idea behind democracy is that citizens themselves should decide what is best for their societies. If Africans reject this, it must be because they don't want to decide and want leaders to decide for them – which is exactly what these scholars argue. But even their own evidence points in the opposite direction, showing that the Africans they interview want accountable government, free speech and the right to a say in decisions, all of them core democratic values.

Other evidence shows that Africans value democracy's values at least as much as citizens of very old democracies.

A stronger argument, according to the book, is to see leadership in Africa as a product of something which virtually never appears in discussions of African democracy – collective action, the academic term for working together with other people to achieve political goals.

The book argues that the key to understanding democracies is to know who can act effectively with like-minded people to influence decisions. It argues that democracy is born when groups who are excluded from decisions become able to act together to force themselves into decision-making. Once a country has democratic rules – because better-off people who were excluded act together to force themselves in – democracy becomes deeper and stronger only when more and more people can act together to demand a voice in the country's decisions.

This idea can help us explain what really limits or strengthens democracy here, in Africa and everywhere. My book puts the idea into practice by showing that Africans are now much better able to stop governments violating their rights and unfairly telling them what to do. But in much of the continent people are still far from being able to get government to do what they want it to do. The reason, it argues, is that most citizens lack the muscle and resources which would enable them to act together to ensure that government serves them.

South Africa follows this pattern but in a particular way which reflects its history. There are more people here willing and able to act together to press government to do what they want it to do than anywhere else on the continent. Opposition parties, citizens' organisations and independent media routinely take the government on and try to move it in their favoured direction – the reaction to the Zuma presidency is an obvious example. But most people here do not enjoy this power and so they are often forced to accept what they would prefer to change.

Contrary to prejudices which claim that most South Africans are happy to let government do what it likes, the vast majority would like to get government to do what they want it to do. But only some have the power to do this at least some of the way, many others do not. Democracy will strengthen here only when there are far more people with the power to do this.

This surely means that leadership is a symptom, not a cause. If leaders are interested only in themselves, not those they are meant to serve, this is because most citizens do not have enough voice to ensure a different form of leadership. Democracy's prospects on the continent depend not on finding better leaders but on ensuring that more people can act together to ensure that government serves them.

And so, the book insists that Africa – and South Africa – are fertile ground for democracy. But democratic potential will be realised only if more and more people in this country and on the continent are able to act together using their democratic rights to ensure that the government knows what they want and serves their interests.     

* Steven Friedman is the author of Power in Action: Democracy, citizenship and social published by Wits University Press: 2018. This is an edited extract from the book.