The myth that is democracy – NewsDay

This post was originally published here

Democracy is not working! There. I’ve said it.

Opinion: Stembile Mpofu

Before condemning me for blasphemy, I’d like to ask dear reader, to suspend judgment and sentence for a while and hear me out. I’m aware that it is a big ask because the majority of people in countries around the world have spent most of their lives aspiring to reach democratic Shangri-La.

We have been brought up on a staple of inspiring speeches that outline the ideal of “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” as Abraham Lincoln defined it. In addition we have been inundated by Hollywood movies, whose heroes will take their last breath fighting to defend the very noble ideals of democracy.

I think it is time to stop and ask ourselves if the reality bears any resemblance to the ideal? Breaking from our default mode of thinking is not easy, because we at times fall in love with the idea of something and fail to see it as it really is. I remember when my son was around six years old and had watched his fair share of the Disney Channel classics like The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Wizards of Waverly Place, he knew his favourite food was pizza. This was despite the fact that each time he begged for a pizza treat and got it he could never actually finish a slice, it didn’t matter what type of pizza it was. He did not like pizza, but because it had been presented as the ultimate treat on the TV shows he watched, he had convinced himself it was his favourite food.

We all do this in different ways, where we fail to see that a relationship or work situation is not working, because we are projecting a particular image onto it that actually is not the reality. When things go wrong we come up with various excuses to explain away the difficulty. My son would say he couldn’t finish his pizza because it was too hot or was now too cold or the crust too burnt. I believe that this is how we have been dealing with the democratic system. We constantly formulate explanations for why it is not producing the outcomes that it should.
These excuses blind us from seeing that the democratic system actually is not working?

Democracy is not working in different ways for different countries. Africa has its issues, as do Western countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and France, some Middle Eastern and Asian countries are struggling with this political system in their own way. We witness this struggle in the analyses that are made of some of the democratic processes taking place in the world today. They outline a myriad of challenges, which include:

* The political elite has become so disconnected from the people that they are now out of touch with the common man’s reality.

* Politicians are serving the interests of business at the expense of the common man.

* Politicians can’t be trusted because they never tell the truth

* Politicians are corrupt and use political office to make money

* Politicians are more loyal to their political party than the electorate

* Voters are apathetic for either of two reasons, the first is that their lives will not change if A or B wins or loses or that the system is rigged in A’s favour, so voting won’t make a difference.

* The electorate casts protest votes when they suddenly wake up to discover their lives have changed for the worse, and are now angry with the political establishment for failing to meet their needs.

* There is poor political leadership because the electoral process was not free and fair, it was not a level playing field.

* Foreign interference influenced voters to think a certain way.

The list of excuses we make for the challenges experienced during democratic processes is long and varied, and the question to ask as we look at these points is: Are these just flaws in a system that is otherwise working well or are these the inevitable outcomes of a system that is fundamentally flawed? I would like to ask you to pause and examine this political system to see if it can possibly produce the outcomes it purports to.

Is the system designed in a way that can honestly produce a government for the people? Has the path that has brought those into government to sit in positions of power genuinely been determined by the people they represent, is their power derived from those who vote for them? And as for the voters, who are they anyway? Are they a group who are in touch with their country’s needs and have a clear idea on how those can be fulfilled? Are they well informed and aware of the innumerable issues at the global, national and community levels that impact their lives?

We have been told time and time again that an ideal democratic process is one where a free and fair election will result in the selection of competent upstanding individuals of integrity, who will represent the electorate sincerely and bring the country prosperity.

That the electorate if given a chance will make an informed choice based on what they feel they need to realise their full potential. It, therefore, follows that the real power lies within an electorate that has the ability to make a rational choice. When one considers real people in a real world context what is the possibility that this formula holds true?

In the face of the deeply-held beliefs we have about democracy and its ability to produce a better society, this piece may seem cynical. I would, however, like to assure the reader that my views are not inspired by cynicism, but a moment of clarity reached after Zimbabwe’s 2013 election.

I realised then that all the citizens that went out to vote in that election were mere extras in a movie whose script was written centuries ago. Each election we have participated in has constituted a different scene in the illusory system we call democracy. I realised that the struggle Zimbabwe has had with elections and the whole democratic process is not unique at all, but that it is a struggle being experienced by different countries in different ways. That perhaps this struggle is as a result of attempting to implement a flawed system and not a struggle caused by a flawed society.

Stembile Mpofu writes in her personal capacity.