What use is a silent witness?

May 27, 2005

As he faces deportation from Botswana for speaking out on democracy, Kenneth Good looks beyond the tolerance of elected ruling elites for signs of a more egalitarian, participatory form of governance.

On the evening of Friday, February 18, three men arrived at my house in Gaborone. They failed to identify themselves. One of them was uniformed and one brandished handcuffs. I was coldly told that President Festus Mogae had declared me a prohibited immigrant (PI) and I had 48 hours to leave the country. Apparently, I was a threat to national security, all by myself, aged 72.

My work as professor of political studies at the University of Botswana over the previous 15 years was not unfairly summarised earlier this month in the Botswana broadsheet the Sunday Standard . It said that I have steadfastly dismissed as a myth the notion of Botswana as the best example of an African democracy. It added that through my published research I have been a leading critic of the huge disparity between the rich and the poor in the country, and of the predominance of the ruling party over the opposition, and that some of my strongest criticisms of the Government are centred on the recent relocation of Basarwa or San bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. So while I was devastated to be notified that I had been declared a PI, in a sense it also proved me right about the limitations of Botswana's supposed liberal politics.

Democracy has been in the ascendant globally since about 1990, especially the liberal, electoral or representative form where the emphasis is placed on free periodic elections and laws of free speech and association essential to the proper functioning of a competitive multi-party system.

The reality, though, is that this kind of democracy tends to favour elites of celebrity, status and wealth who can get themselves elected. But even in this elitist model, differences of equality, citizenship and tolerance, for example, exist between countries such as the US and Botswana, on the one hand, and more equitable and tolerant liberal democracies such as the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries and, in Africa, Mauritius, on the other.

There is also, in actuality and recurring aspiration, another form of democracy, more egalitarian and participatory, that can grow out of the electoral form, but that is also opposed by liberal ruling elites, whether they be led by Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton or Mogae. This problematic - the reality or otherwise of a liberal democracy, and the possibility of a more participatory politics extending out of it - is the focus of my position now and the burden of this article.

Since independence in 1966, and especially after diamonds came on stream a decade later, Botswana has enjoyed a very good press. It has been lauded by foreign academics, visiting journalists and latterly by a pleasing novelist, Alexander McCall Smith, who literally sees no evil. McCall Smith's stories are very entertaining, blissful tales about everyday folk that do not consider for a moment what is really going on in Botswana. That rosy picture is not true in the country's own political terms or by comparison with other liberal or electoral democracies. In Botswana, what the Government represents and outsiders see as regular, free and fair elections are not what one gets as a functioning democracy.

The patent constitutional reality is of a sovereign presidency - not parliament or the people - empowered to "decide alone", unsupported by any popular constituency whatsoever. Once chosen by the leaders of the ruling party, the President need consult neither cabinet nor parliamentary caucus.

This is standard political practice, although it receives publicity only on important occasions. One of the most recent presidential fiats was blatant.

During national parliamentary elections last October, Mogae declared that Parliament must accept his nominee Lieutenant General Ian Khama as vice-president. He was quoted in two newspapers as saying that "if the National Assembly comes up with another name, I would reject them (sic)", and those opposing Mogae would be "rebels". He declared accurately: "It is Botswana's style of democracy. The Botswana Democratic Party has to follow me as their leader, or I will dissolve Parliament."

The practice of politics, under the electoral veneer, is the intolerance of the ruling elite. When criticism occurs in this autocratic system, as in the wake of a series of corruption scandals in the early 1990s that touched those in the highest places, the irresistible rise of Khama since 1998 and the coerced removals of San from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, official condemnation is totalistic. Criticism is readily labelled as "abuse", "malicious", "uninformed and ill-intentioned", even when it is raised as a quest for information and debate from a reputable journalist or British or European parliamentarian. Survival International is a small London-based advocacy group that has been involved with indigenous people worldwide over some 30 years. But when it posed sharp questions about the San and about possible diamond mining in the Kalahari, it was denounced as a "terrorist organisation". The reinforcement of subordination and deference was the consequence of such intolerance, even as an independent media began to emerge and the country's small civil society showed some life. According to former editor and respected Botswanan journalist Outsa Mokone, "battered-wife syndrome", unseen by outsiders, prevailed in Botswana: when the leadership were guilty of arrogance and mismanagement, opinion-makers hurried to find excuses for them. The orthodoxy remained in place.

The myth of the Botswana "miracle" makes no reference to this intolerance.

It focuses on the supposed sufficiency of open elections, and on rapid economic growth based, as it was, on an overreliance on diamonds. The country readily became "the darling of the North", in the clear eyes of Alice Mogwe, the human-rights activist. Complacency was entrenched among the ruling elite, and their admirers at home and abroad. The unfairness of the elections, the fact that the ruling party was always by far the best resourced and the opposition divided and weak, and the immense powers of the presidential Tautona or Great Lion, went unnoted.

Botswana became one of the very few upper-middle income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and serious poverty and inequalities were lost sight of. The latest UN Development Programme figures show that 23.5 per cent of people receive an income below $1 a day and 50 per cent get less than $2 daily. Undernourishment (in other words, chronic food insufficiency to meet one's minimum energy requirements) affected 24 per cent of people, on the latest figures (1999/2001), up from 18 per cent a decade earlier. The Gini coefficient, a statistical tool that measures wealth inequality, was 0.63, one of the highest in the world. The country was unique in experiencing a fall in human development while experiencing high growth. But for its rulers and their acolytes, Botswana remained unquestioningly the best of all African worlds. Shortly after PI-ing me, Mogae spoke at Sussex University extolling freedom of speech in his country, characteristically rounding off his address by calling the Botswanan press "abusive".

But a new conjuncture exists today in Botswana, which perhaps explains the increased aggressiveness and intolerance of the leadership. The automatic succession of the vice-president to the presidency, introduced into the constitution by Sir Ketumile Masire to smooth the transition to his then deputy Mogae in 1998, is now widely disliked. As things stand constitutionally, Khama must become president on the departure of Mogae in or before 2008. But he is generally seen as inexperienced, with a proclivity to command rather than to discuss and debate democratically - his succession has been depicted by the cartoonist in the Mmegi newspaper as a tsunami towering over the country. Even ruling party MPs and junior ministers express doubts about free speech under him, and declare a new-found favour for the popular election of the president.

Democratisation in Botswana begins to become a possibility. Dissatisfied public opinion is invigorated in the wake of the October national elections. These saw a divided opposition winning 48 per cent of the popular vote, their highest ever, while the ruling BDP reached a historic low with 52 per cent. This was on a turnout of eligible voters of some 50 per cent, very poor by Dutch or Swedish standards, but higher than the 42 per cent recorded in 1999. The voting trend since 1994 clearly favours the opposition - their share is rising as the BDP's declines. This despite the BDP enjoying a number of advantages, from its candidates receiving a free four-wheel-drive vehicle (to give them enhanced electoral mobility), to getting favoured access to the government-owned national radio and television. When the President spoke, for instance, he was deemed to speak for the nation. But when the opposition parties made announcements, they were deemed party political and therefore were given restricted access to publicity.

The writing is now clearly on the wall in Botswana. If the opposition could end their divisions - based on old egoisms, outdated policy differences and repeated failure - and unite behind a common leadership and programme, they could establish themselves as a credible alternative government for the people and win in 2009. People indicated that they were tired of an unchanging elective autocracy that had rendered voting pointless. A good part of the electorate who did not vote in 1999 and 2004 were not apathetic but positive abstainers, reacting rationally to the BDP's long predominance. The country began its independent life without the contribution of any popular nationalist movement, and elitism thrived in such conditions. But these non-voters could become participants if a credible government was offered to them.

Regional and international trends have been favourable to an active and critical democracy for some time. Perhaps there is the potential for a movement towards an even more profound form of democracy. A remarkable example of this lies on Botswana's doorstep. Real participatory democracy had been closely approached in neighbouring South Africa through the 1980s.

The United Democratic Front, formed in 1983, had vividly shown the possibilities. This broad movement was notable for developing "principles of organisational democracy". This was a practical answer to the dilemma identified by Robert Michels, an elitist political theorist of the early 20th century. Organisation is "the weapon of the weak in their struggle with the strong", and real democracy is indeed impossible without organisation, he had noted. Yet organisation also breeds oligarchy - an "iron law", in Michels' notorious over-generalisation. So the UDF set out to construct their democratic organisational capacity without the domination of their own elites. Criticism of their leaders - along with self-criticism, collective leadership, mandates and regular reporting back to the membership - were upheld, famously against the touted Mother of the Nation, Winnie Madikizela Mandela. Democracy was understood in the UDF as an ongoing process wherein, in a fine formulation of the time, a democratic tomorrow was being built in the political practice of each day. At its height, the UDF represented about 800 civic groups with a combined membership of some 2 million. Majority parliamentary government was seen as necessary but also as insufficient by comparison with the self-determination of the people in their workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods.

But the UDF, precisely because it held such aims, faced enemies on two fronts - not only from the ruling apartheid state, but from the old guard of the African National Congress leadership - Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Joe Slovo, in prison and exile. The "aristocrats of the revolution", in the novelist Zakes Mda's words, steadily gained state power after 1990, and the UDF was marginalised and terminated as a threat to the ANC's vanguard status. Yet the UDF represents a world-historical exemplar of the participatory democratic aspiration, and its relevance remains. Criticism is loathed by President Mbeki, supported by a sycophantic ANC elite, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has perceptively described it.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, partner of the UDF from 1985 onwards, however, remains. And it is the largest popular organisation within Africa's most developed capitalist economy, and with some 1.7 million active members, is one of the biggest trade union federations in the world. Strong social movements, such as that of the Treatment Action Campaign and the Landless People's Movement, also exist. Prominent independent figures such as Mamphela Ramphele stressed, when she was vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, that "silence is a threat to democracy", and emphasised that black intellectuals failed to criticise their new leaders to avoid being called disloyal, while whites were rendered silent for fear of being labelled racist. An infant participatory democracy was undermined by elite domination. But its elements might yet be resuscitated. Its aims and organisations might yet be developed not only in South Africa but perhaps even Botswana and beyond.

My own criticisms of Botswana's restrictive liberalism have been broadly vindicated. Since my first appearance in the High Court on the evening of February 19, to stop the PI order due for enforcement the following night, and in two subsequent appearances to try to limit presidential prerogatives and the denial of due process, I have been widely supported by the people in the street, young and old, black and white, rich and poor. My final hearing is on May 31. More calls for the popular election of the president are heard. The Sunday Standard concluded: "Mogae's PI decision [against Good] attracted damning internal scorn."

There is an international impulse towards a more popular democracy. In Spain recently, millions turned out in the streets and then to the ballot box to oust a lying, elitist Government; Brazil elected the Worker's Party of Lula da Silva, some of whose new institutions include "participatory budgets" in which power over issues that affect local people is devolved to them; Georgia and Ukraine both saw sustained popular actions against fraudulently elected dictatorships; and Tony Blair and his new Labour received a century-low vote as an appropriate response to his repeated "You-can-trust-me", I-sincerely-believe-but-I-won't-explain, deeply undemocratic politics. Achieving a more participatory democracy demands sustained support from a strong civil society for its credibility and success. Old and young African dinosaurs remain strong. We are not seeing the "last kicks of a dying horse", as President Robert Mugabe's repressive actions were mistakenly depicted by pro-democratic groups in Zimbabwe in 2001. The Clintons and Blairs are no more disposed to participatory democracy either. Real democracy requires struggle, a pervasive sense of equality and organisations in the hands of the people determined and able to control their own leaders. By these means we can at least be ensured that, as the old adage has it, next time we "fail better".

Kenneth Good is professor of political studies at the University of Botswana.

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