As Libya explodes, the big question is; what comes next for those North African countries where people got rid of the dictators. It seems most of the people in these countries hope for true participatory democracy. Will their hopes for a transition to true democracy be realised?
South Africa offers the best guide to what is needed for peaceful transition to a functioning participatory democracy.
Consider its path to true democracy: The National Party which ruled the country from1948 to 1994 fought the first election against the party it banned for all that time, joined the ANC as minority party in a government of national unity and then limped into history; mortally wounded at the ballot box and finally wiped out by poor leadership. Today the official leader of the opposition is the Democratic Alliance (DA) that rules the Western Cape Province, but it has less than a third of the seats in the national parliament.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has by now successfully fought serial election campaigns at national and local government level, survived a messy leadership transition and maintained democracy in South Africa. It faces another local government election later this year.
While South Africa seemingly provides a hopeful road map for establishing democracy in North Africa and the Middle East, there is doubt about a similarly favourable outcome for northern Africa’s post-revolutionary era, for lack of the very pillars on which participatory democracy rests in South Africa.
These pillars are institutional capacity, good leadership and preparation for governing. Founded in 1912, the ANC was a well-established political machine by 1994, with an array of supporting organisations and organising capabilities domestically and across the globe. Its people and leadership had been preparing to govern for decades. Moreover, in Nelson Mandela, O.R. Tambo and Walter Sisulu(the latter two still alive at the time), the ANC top leadership had the vision, experience and stature to command respect across ideological and race divisions and to direct and manage the cadre of younger leaders whom they had long been grooming for government. Critically, the organisation and its leaders were unconditionally committed to true participatory democracy and human rights. As a result, there was never a void or a lack of democratic instinct.
Today, South Africa’s democratic credentials are widely accepted, its people participate actively in democratic activity, it has a free press and even if the opposition parties are weak, they are not oppressed. This success in transitioning peacefully to sustainable participatory democracy rests on the pillars of strong leadership, and institutional preparation for democracy and governance.
Which of these pillars of participatory democracy are present in Tunisia, in Egypt, or in Libya? The world’s democracies should assist these countries and others to develop the institutional and leadership capacity for transitioning to functioning and sustainable democracy.