What is democracy for?

Democracy is a wide and complex subject. In this discussion I am limiting its meaning to “electing leaders” on a periodic basis. The beauty of electing leaders, democracy activists tell us, is that those who elect them will hold them to account for their actions and omissions. It means that elected leaders will be motivated to pay attention to what their voters want, and act or behave in line with their wishes, aspirations or expectations. The corollary of this is that, where elected leaders disappoint those who elected them, they will be voted out of office and replaced by individuals who promise to do better, who will also be voted out if they fall short of voters’ expectations. Democracy activists and ideologues who labour to export ‘democracy’ to ‘authoritarian’ societies are good at pushing for elections on these grounds.

People choosing their own leaders and the implied ‘rule by consent’ cannot be a bad thing. However, the notion that regardless of context elections de facto produce public-spirited leaders who are motivated to do the right thing for those who elect them and that the voting public will necessarily eject those who do not deliver, is hopelessly naïve.  Things do not work out like this in real life. It is not at all unusual for elected leaders to pursue their own interests at the expense of the people who elected them. Nor is it unusual for elected leaders who behave this way to remain in office for long periods of time because they are re-elected by the same people whose interests they do not serve.

There is another twist in this. Elected leaders, local leaders especially, are not good at doing things their voters do not like, even if doing them would be in the public interest. Let us consider the example of local authorities. They are notorious for constantly asking for more financial resources from national governments. Their argument is always “we need more money to deliver services to our people”. The one thing they are keen to avoid, however, is devising measures to generate more revenue from local sources. They particularly want to avoid taxing their voters directly. There is a good reason for this. Nothing galvanises voters against elected leaders than being hit with taxes or compelled to do things they would rather not do.

In some rural contexts in Africa, one of the things ordinary people dislike is being compelled to take measures to improve hygiene standards within their physical surroundings. In a number of African countries that I have visited, open-air defecation is fairly common in rural areas, and is a major threat to people’s health and wellbeing. In trying to explain away these anomalies, local leaders often say “people don’t want to build latrines; they don’t listen”. Well, why are they not forced to do so, given public health regulations require it? The answer is simple: elected leaders do not want to antagonise their voters and risk being voted out of office. The perverse interaction between democracy and real life in communities is never considered by those who argue that the best way to improve the delivery of services is via elections. The fact of the matter is, while voting empowers people to choose their leaders, it does not necessarily make them civic-minded. These challenges do not occur only in rural areas inhabited by people of low levels of formal education, exposure to new ways of thinking, and civic mindedness. They happen in towns too.

Recently, a citizen of Kenya pinned up a photo on Twitter. It showed a young woman lying in a hospital, on a bed that had no mattress. The photo angered him and made him wonder of what use Kenyan leaders are to their country and fellow citizens. Two days later, I chanced upon a video clip in which the residents of a South African town, Harrismith, were dissatisfied with the quality of service delivery by their municipal authorities. They decried garbage that remained uncollected; blocked sewage pipes; power outages, and decaying infrastructure, including piping meant to deliver water to their homes. They blamed the situation on “corruption, money laundering” and other ills. A news reporter asserted that “mismanagement and plain old looting” had wrecked the town. To try and rectify the situation, some residents had staged protests, but that had not had the required effect. Neither elected leaders nor the bureaucrats they were meant to supervise, had responded and tried to fix the problems.

Eventually, a number of residents decided to organise themselves and “do something”. They repaired what they could, while also continuing to grumble about the service delivery failure. Why did they not take political action, say call for new elections? A resident, one of those engaged in trying to fix the broken infrastructure explained: “Unfortunately we don’t do politics here; we are just fixing our town”. The national government had intervened and removed and replaced non-performing technical personnel. This was odd, considering they they had supervisors in the form of elected politicians who should have also been held to account. However, these ones retained their positions and would in all likelihood continue to fail to execute their supervisory functions. But it seems no one thought about the connection between poor service delivery and the poor quality of political leadership and therefore the need to kick out the politicians. The would-be empowered voters were content not to “do politics”, clear proof that whether or not electing leaders makes them accountable depends on the context and whether it has the ingredients for making democracy work.

One reason these two situations caught my attention is that, in Africa, both Kenya and South Africa are considered to be democracies worthy of emulation by countries that are reputed to be dictatorships or authoritarian. Also, both have strong civil societies and free media, with freedom of speech and other civil liberties guaranteed. All these are usually presented as major contributors to the consolidation of democracy and to the entrenchment of all the good things that go with it. The discussion here, however, suggests need for caution in asserting what democracy is good for. As far as service delivery is concerned, it can be an enabler but also an impediment. In the end, it is context that really matters. 

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