Democracy as Multiple/Alternative Modernities in South Africa

This essay explores the distinct democracy practiced in South Africa as a part of multiple or alternative modernities. It primarily deals with Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom in order to justify this major argument.

Democracy as Multiple/Alternative Modernity in South Africa

South Africa practices unique democracy learned from its ancestors. People crushed under the grinding mill of apartheid are liberated to widen their subjectivity and the social change is also so practical that the majority of people living under the inhuman racial rule are ready to move together with their White brothers and sisters for a harmonious and developed nation. Despite its own unique features of a modern state, it shares some commonality with modernities evolved in different corners of the world. The modern values developed outside South Africa blended with typical African cultures shapes African Modernity. This is how Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is subsequently interpreted.

To begin with, in Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela presents an example of a distinct democracy. It was not the complete copy of the system of supposed motherlands of democracy rather a set of filtered African native values mingled with the universal norms of democracy. Although apartheid was rooted in the objectives of civilizing the African who was supposed to have primitive life, democracy was already there with the practice of hearing everyone’s voices regardless of social, economic and political status. Decisions concerning local affairs used to be taken not by the majority decision but by the frequent debates and discussions and the voices of even a single person used to be incorporated in such decisions. Since the concerns of everyone was equally heard, the meetings used to be generally longer than those which were practiced elsewhere.

The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa marks a departure from the conventions of democracy in the sense that it has introduced democracy in an unprecedented way. Before the success of the movement there was a hierarchy among people and access to the mainstream of social and political activities was determined by the colour of their skin a person had. The blacks were deprived of voting rights, property rights and access to education and health care. They were compelled to carry passes to travel even within their country. As per the experience of Nelson Mandela:

It was the crime to walk through a White only door, a crime to ride Whites only bus, a crime to use Whites only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites the Only beach, a crime to be on the streets after 11 p. m., a crime to not have a passbook and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to leave. (139)

These unequal provisions were changed after the establishment of democracy. Although Black leaders came into power, the voice of every minority was justly heard without any biases and equal respect to every culture was secured. Therefore, uplifting the status of people from inhuman suffering to respected citizen can be called as an example of modernity. D.V. Kumar opines that modernity is,

“As an idea, it represents a radical rupture with the past. It privileges progress, science, optimism, and universality. It critiques superstitions, blind faiths, and pessimism. It encourages us to adopt alternative ways of looking at the world and its possibilities” (241).

Moreover, S.N. Eisenstadt provides validity to multiple modernities. Although he accepts Western modernity as a base for other modernities, he refuses the idea of single and universal modernity. For him, Western beliefs only cannot be called modern values (2). However, after the end of apartheid, people were freed from all the superstitious beliefs and racial faiths that kept people in the darkness of inhumanity for centuries. It dismantled the discriminatory provisions veiled under the democracy, which only the privileged people could enjoy. End of apartheid showed up hope for people of each color, background, and faith. People got opportunities to practice their abilities regardless of their color, origin, and faith.

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Although the term democracy was introduced by Europeans, the spirit of democracy can be found in South African too. The ruling system is largely affected by the social, cultural and religious factors. However, hearing the voice of everyone before taking any important decision can’t be denied as an essence of democracy. In Africa, there was not the system of electing rulers, but the rulers were responsible to the people. They used to hear people’s voices before taking decisions and people’s interest was always at the center of their rule. As Mandela remembers his childhood in Mqhekezweni,

I watched and learned from tribal meetings that were regularly held at the Great Place. These were not scheduled, but were called as needed, and were held to discuss national matters such as a drought, the culling of the cattle, policies ordered by the government. All Thembus were free to come and a great many did, one horseback or foot. (19)

This paragraph clarifies that there was already democracy in South Africa. People of different social and economic backgrounds were heard. Their views were incorporated into the decision-making process. Turkish philosopher Arif Dirlik comments,

Modernity has assumed different forms and content in different historical and cultural contexts, where it is assimilated or “translated” to the very conditions being transformed under its impact” [10].

This shows that modernity does not remain the same all the time and everywhere. It is subject to change. It changes as time and space demands. Modernity developed in a certain part of the world may not be fit in another part. Modernity developed in one historical context may not be appropriate for another. Therefore, South Africa had its own modern values since the very beginning of its civilization thought unheard in the outer world.

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On the other hand, some unique democratic values were practiced in South Africa. People were given unprecedented freedom for the protection of their personal rights as well as communal rights. South African constitution had ensured different provisions of internal self-determination as per the needs of various communities. Varying degrees of rights were awarded to the people with the positive intention of promoting native cultures as well as protecting minorities. For instance, as Nelson Mandela tells his experience of incorporating the voice of group demanding for some extra rights for the Zulus,

“Now Chief Buthelezi knew the election would take place no matter what. On 19 April Chief Buthelezi accepted the offer of a constitutional role for the Zulu monarchy and agreed to participate” (602).

The Spatio-temporal location has so much impact on culture. Different cultural groups have their own creations which cannot be easily transferred to another culture. Therefore, modernity is produced differently in different cultural foundations. The scholar of Modernities, Komal Phuyal says that the significance of cultures information of modernity is:

Culture as a collective body of human endeavors to shape the structuring principles of society plays a vital role in the constitution of modernity. Historico-politico-economic reality as performed in one location cannot be repeated in other situations on the historical situatedness differs, whereby causing the diversity in human behavior and their practices. (7)

This shows that modern democratic norms and values cannot be universal. They can be changed, revised and reproduced as per the need of the society. Similar to the idea provided by this theoretical concept South Africa has devised its own modern democratic principles to incorporate the voices of the diverse populations, settle the disputes among different communities and to promote its own native values. Similarly, according to S.N. Eisenstadt, modernity changes political legacy sets new political order and processes. Existing political conventions are dismantled to replace them with new orders. Besides, it also opens every possibility for new changes to occur. And the right to challenge the old systems is secured (5). Different provinces have been given different degrees of rights. Some provinces have been granted rights to exercise monarchy and internal self-determination as necessary.

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Finally, since the western values have interacted with African local values, democracy seems a bit different in South Africa. South African democracy is not indifferent to the voices of minorities in the name of majority rule. Borrowed from their own tradition it hears everyone with keen interest and makes them participate in the decision-making process widening the ownership of the decision. Self-determination to some provinces and different degrees of power as per the need of the country is also a significant feature of South African democracy. The provisions my seem uneven to the people of another part of the world but are a useful tool to govern the local affairs.


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