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Democracy does not belong to the West

Democracy does not belong to the West
IF DEMOCRACY belongs to the West, why is it so quick to dump it in times of stress?

Building democracy in this country — and others outside Europe and North America — is complicated by the idea that it belongs to Western countries. Some South Africans admire democracy because it is assumed to be what Western countries do. Others rejects it because they agree that it is a Western idea and say it is being imposed on us. Current events in Belgium and France show, not for the first time, how flawed these views are.

Like the US after 9/11, both countries reacted to terrorism by suspending freedoms — states of emergency have been declared and scores have been jailed or placed under house arrest without a warrant. In theory, this is temporary but US detentions that followed 9/11 were also expected to last only a while. Fourteen years later, people are still being held without trial — not even the apartheid state detained people that long.

South Africans who see the West as the source of all that is civilised will reply that you can’t handle terrorists with kid gloves — if Western governments need to dish out some rough stuff to deal with those who threaten the innocent, why not? But the most important reason for the rule of law is that we have no guarantee that people held without trial have done anything wrong. It is remarkable that the French police’s claim that a person shot days after the attack was the “mastermind” is taken at face value even though he was never tried and never will be. Without an open hearing in court where evidence can be tested, we have only the police’s word that he was responsible. For those who believe Western countries cannot err, if the Americans could not find evidence against their detainees for 14 years, we must surely assume that they are innocent.

Despite the silence of the voices here who are quick to denounce rights violations in Africa, France and Belgium are unmasking the absurdity of French President François Hollande’s claims that his is the country of liberty: they are abusing rights. As long as they continue, their claims to be democratic are in question. This round of rights violations may be temporary but this is not guaranteed — a cycle in which terror attacks continue, and are met with escalating rights abuses by Western governments, is not out of the question. This raises the possibility that the world of the past century or more, in which democracy was considered part of the political furniture of the West, may be under threat.

The link between democracy and the West has always been more tenuous than we are told. This is not the first time “Western democracies” have behaved in deeply undemocratic ways. It isn’t that long ago that a US presidential election was decided in a state whose governor was the brother of the winner and whose voting machines didn’t work (imagine if that had happened in Nigeria). And, since France passes laws controlling what religious people can wear, and its courts very recently outlawed a peaceful boycott campaign, its democratic credentials were not in great shape before it cracked down.

Even the claim that democracy was invented in the West — in Greece — turns out to be wrong: scholarship has shown that the earliest popular assemblies where citizens gathered to take decisions were in Asia — the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.

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The basic democratic idea is that all adult humans have the right to an equal say in the decisions that affect them and to the freedoms that make that possible. This does not belong to any group — it proclaims the right of everyone, whoever they are, to the same powers and rights. Democracy is not about forcing anyone to change their culture — it is about the right to be what we are.

So democracy has never been a solely Western preserve and this may become more obvious if Western states continue to retreat from it. What does that mean to this country?

It will place on the defensive those whose belief in the superiority of the West has been masked as support for “democracy”. Are they silent about Western rights violations and loud about those of others because abuse is fine as long as the perpetrator declares a state of emergency and claims it is temporary? If not, what, besides prejudice, makes a rights abuse acceptable if Western governments are responsible but an outrage if the abusers are African or Asian? Those who claim democracy is a Western custom need to explain why Westerners respond to stress by ditching their cultural practice — and why it is “unAfrican” to insist that everyone has an equal say in all decisions whoever and wherever they are.

And it will give us an opportunity to see democracy as something we need and want, whatever Western countries do. We might then start to build a democracy that will last because it responds to our needs, not because we hope or fear that it may make us look like others.

• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy

This article first appeared in Business Day 

STEVEN FRIEDMAN
25 NOVEMBER 2015
www.rdm.co.za
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