Southern African edition of the stakeholder engagement on governance, democracy, and human rights in Africa, Cape Town 6 October 2022
Prof. Cheryl Hendricks
Distinguished Guests, Representatives of the African Union, Representatives of the Data for Governance Alliance, Representatives of Civil Society, Colleagues, good afternoon. Apologies that I have not been able to be here with you over the last few days. There are many projects underway at the IJR and I was therefore required to be in Gauteng for a Dialogue on Migration and Violence – a divisive issue in which we in South Africa can certainly do with more evidence-based data.
The IJR is pleased to have been your host for the last few days as you implement the project of “Enhancing pan African civil society participation and engagement with the African Governance Platform (AGP) in the protection of democracy, governance and human and people’s rights in Africa.” Africans have been complaining for many years that the AU is removed from the citizens of Africa that it is meant to be serving. This project assists in bridging those divides. In particular, it seeks to brings the AGP agenda closer to the people and for CSO’s to be part of its successful implementation. I am happy to see this finally happening and to see that ECOSOCC is becoming more firmly established among civil society organisations and that it has settled in Zambia.
I briefly attended a session yesterday in which I could see that this week was focused on capacity building – how to access data and to package and use it for advocacy. It is also about deepening the connections between civil society across Africa, between CSO’s and the African Governance Platform.
I admit that I only learnt to tweet a few weeks ago. However, I can already see the power of social media tools for changing the ways in which we not only publicize what we are doing, or to assist with advocacy, but for the ways through which we in future will be participating in the governance of our societies. I want to then push you to go further in what you are doing so that you can also begin to re-envision our democracies and forms of governance.
It is clear, as you also no doubt had heard over the last few days, that democracy is facing a crisis of legitimacy globally. There is a rising conservative nationalism and corresponding authoritarianism. Though we a far cry from the one party and one person states that was a predominant form of rule in the 70s and 80s on this continent, there is a growing sense of apathy with the multi-party democracies that mushroomed primarily because they did not yield the peace dividend of prosperity for the majority of citizens. Because they are focused on form rather than the content of democracy – hence the calls for new social contracts, the rising unrest, violent conflicts and military coups. The quality of our democracies have declined globally, and people are now more willing to entertain the idea of being led by a strongman again. High rates of inequality, unemployment, poverty, crime, gender-based violence, refugees and lack of service delivery, that is, rising human insecurity fuel these sentiments for a return to populism and autocracy.
So, we have been seeing a shrinking of the political space, especially for civil society participation, lack of access to information, a decline in civil liberties, increasingly disputed and/or questionable election results, and so forth. Worryingly, is that a large section of the youth, who have no lived experience of the authoritarian rule of the 60s and 70s, are the ones who are losing faith in the democratic project. Misinformation, disinformation, anti-intellectualism, corruption, greed, a lack of accountability and what can only be described as visionless leadership are some of the underlying factors causing this ideological pendulum swing.
The response, however, should not be an automatic want to further entrench democratisation by merely reasserting the same thing – rule of law, institutionalism, transparency, accountability, etc. We have been singing that song for the last 30 years. Our societies have changed and so we need to reflect on what forms of transformation are needed now to strengthen state society relations and therefore what the content and forms of those new social contracts should be.
Democracy is fundamentally about participation – rule by the people; political equality; rule by consent. Elections are the means though which we determine the will of the people. Elected government representatives are supposed to protect their citizens interests, rights, security and welfare. Democracies also put in place checks and balances so that those in governments do not abuse their power. However, are the systems that we have set up for participation, representation and checks on abuse sufficient in our current contexts? We have been working with the same systems of government for centuries even though our societies have been radically altered. Hence, we see the democratic project even been challenged in supposedly stable democracies, for example, the USA.
So, it seems that part of what this Data for Governance project must be doing is providing thought leadership for how else, especially given our technology, burgeoning populations, and multiple and complex crises, we can afford greater participation, freedoms, choice, accountability and responsibility. We need a rethink not on what democracy seeks to achieve, but how it can best be delivered on in our current contexts. What institutions, policies and practices are now needed? If democracy is a form for regulating how we will live together and share our resources, it is no longer living up to its expectations. This is primarily because the ways of making those decisions are no longer suitable to the majority. We have the technology to afford us more direct and meaningful participation, let us see how to use it more effectively.
The AU should be at the forefront of leading these conversations. They are difficult conversations that challenge vested interest. Nevertheless, we must be brave enough to ask the difficult questions. What kind of leadership? What kind of rule? Which forms of participation? What kind of states? Why do we want these and how do we get there?
The Data for Governance Alliance therefore needs to collate and analyse the data and use it to inform us about the kinds of transformative changes we need to bring about now to have a better Africa in a better world.
I look forward to the outcomes of the project and trust that your deliberations here this week have been productive, engaging and fruitful. I also look forward to many more robust exchanges in this regard.
I certainly applaud the AGP for the bold moves they are making to get closer to listening to the will of the people and to the engagement with CSO’s which the platform affords. It is better late than never.