Today, thousands of people who call our region home feel they have been left behind by the forces of globalization and have been displaced from their homes by war, economic insecurity or climate change. Trust in the institutions of the public and private sector, as well as in the very concepts of multilateralism and democracy itself is at an all-time low, making it easy for the cynical peddlers of populism to win votes by offering false promises and seemingly simple solutions.
Let no-one think for one moment that the hurdles of corruption and unethical leadership are ours alone to overcome, unique to African societies, or indicate a lack of democratic spirit in our people.
When we were fighting for our freedom against the colonial powers and the racist regimes they installed, we became familiar to the claim, made with varying degrees of contempt and condescension, that we were “not ready” for democracy, and would “struggle to govern ourselves.”
But when, today we see on the other side of the world, one of the most ancient Parliaments in the world is arbitrarily suspended by royal decree, or when the leader of the world’s richest country denounces his critics in the media as “enemies of the people”, we need to recognize that democracy faces universal challenges, which can only be resolved through global solidarity.
Would anyone describe the citizens of the United Kingdom or the United States as “incapable” of exercising their democratic rights? Of course not. So, let no one say the same about people today in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or any other countries in our region.
Without a doubt, the democratic landscape can seem bleak. According to a recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, only 1 of the 15 SADC countries can be described as a full democracy.
A recent survey by Afrobarometer found that only 43% of African survey respondents are satisfied with the state of democracy in their countries, and only 34% feel they live in a democracy.
This in contrast with the optimism felt across this region and the world 25 years ago, when Madiba became the first black President of a multi-racial, democratic South Africa. These survey results are a glaring indictment of our politicians, institutions and instruments of government and democracy. And on ourselves as citizens.
History teaches us that change is always possible when courageous women and men stand together, speak out and take action to change the status quo.
Our Liberation heroes worked across gender, colour, age and philosophical lines to deliver freedom. From the likes of Patrice Lumumba and Eduardo Mondlane, to Gertrude Mongella and Kenneth Kaunda, to Miriam Makeba and the schoolchildren of Soweto— all types of change agents played a critical role in challenging their oppressors.
Leaning on each other across national borders, Southern Africa has always been a region where we have been supportive of each other. Not one country on the continent overcame the tyranny of its day without the support of its neighbors. Married to the idea of a common destiny and empowered by a strong sense of collective action, when needed, we extended the fruits of our lands to each other to ensure a better and brighter future for us all.
We need to revive that spirit today.
When the outcome of elections in Zimbabwe were contested in 2018, how many African civil societies and organisations raised their voice to support the people of Zimbabwe? How many?
When in the Congo, the outcome of elections was clearly manipulated in a way in which we had a President who was not democratically elected President, how many Africans stood together with the people of the Congo to say, ‘not in our name’? How many of us?
When we clearly see that democracy is not working, that a handful of people impose the result they want when millions of people have voted for the opposite, and we all keep quiet –and we did all keep quiet- who has the responsibility for things which are happening to democracy in Southern and Central Africa? Who has the responsibility? I am truly asking.
It is we, the citizens. And particularly the citizens who are organised, and many of us, including myself, who see ourselves as part of civil society organisations, where is our voice?
If my grandmother, or my mother, in deep, rural areas, has the conscience but doesn’t have the tools to make her voice loud and clear to say, ‘this is not right’, don’t we have the tools for her? But you know what, I feel we are paralysed. This is what we have to discuss. You can come with all the theories in the world of what should be done, the most important thing which is required now is active, conscious citizens. To stand for the principles of freedom. Freedom in all forms, in all senses. Freedom to our people, freedom to ourselves.
We are responsible for these things which are happening. It is our responsibility, and our societies which have to resolve it.
I don’t want to be diplomatic; I want us to know this truth. I don’t see and I don’t hear about the children standing up and protesting in Soweto, saying ‘we are not going to stand for this.’ I don’t hear about women’s movements which are doing that. I don’t even see unions, who are very concerned with salaries – which is okay, that is why they exist as unions – going beyond just thinking about salary, to really defend democracy in this region. Where are they? Students, where are they?
This is my anguish.
We must not tolerate living on a continent where: the outcomes of elections are not the genuine and legitimate expression of the will of the majority; political dissidents face a fate of assassinations, abductions and imprisonment; journalists and human rights defenders are intimidated and silenced; the judiciary is manipulated and co-opted; sexual violence is used as a deliberate weapon of war; or where desperate refugees and migrants are left helpless and vulnerable, fleeing to neighboring countries or European shores.
I urge you to recommit to democratic principles and practices, at home and abroad, and take action in your spheres of influence and within our networks to challenge and root out corruption, disenfranchisement and discrimination wherever you find it.
All sections of society – political parties, trade unions, churches, women’s and youth groups, business and academia – need to ensure that the values of freedom, social justice, the respect for human dignity that underpinned the struggle against our colonial oppressors remain at the heart of public life today.
This means respecting and bolstering democratic norms, giving space to diverse voices and allowing journalists to report without fear or favor in the interests of the public as a whole and not just vested interests. It is to respect, value and amplify the perspectives of civil society and social activists. It is protecting the physical safety and human dignity of those brave enough to speak out in opposition to the status quo.
I remind us of the words of the author and activist Toni Morrison, who joined Kofi and Madiba, as an ancestor of inspiration just last month. She challenges us, “Remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
I encourage you to draw upon the wisdom of our ancestors, the ingenuity of our youth, and the innovations of the present day, to chart a new future for democracy in our region.
One seed for thought I will plant that I believe is essential for progress, is the recognition that democratic values and the responsibilities of an engaged African citizenry know no national borders. True democracy implies solidarity with those to whom it is denied.
Every country in the region has tasted the bitterness of oppression. Therefore, we must all play an active role in supporting democratic values and peaceful transitions in other countries on the continent. Governments in the region must come together to demonstrate leadership within SADC and the AU and make these institutions powerful forces for progressive, peaceful change.
Madiba assumed this role in the negotiations that led to the Arusha Accords in 2000 that brought peace to Burundi. The Sun City Agreement in 2002 was another example of South African leadership in attempting to bring peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kofi also showed us the way by helping to mitigate political violence in Kenyan elections. So, I urge all stakeholders to think seriously about how we can take action in accordance with these same principles and help further the cause of democracy amongst our neighbors.
We cannot afford to be complacent. History teaches us that when citizens abdicate their responsibilities to remain engaged and demand social justice from their leaders and institutions, a deterioration of democracy and peace and security follows. This is why the threat to democratic freedoms and universal human rights needs to be challenged, loud and clear.
I am pleased the topic of this year’s discussion is a focus on “democracy and the road ahead”.
Public discourse and practice need to be redirected so that the respect for human rights is not seen as an impediment to a prosperous society or in competition with how leaders govern, but rather recognized as central to strengthening the fabric of African society.
In this road ahead, the quality of democratic culture needs to be strengthened. We also need to be more robust in challenging the lies and disinformation peddled by autocratic regimes. We need to be more skillful at using new technologies such as social media to mobilize the masses for the betterment of society, and equally vigilant that the companies who develop these new technologies understand their own responsibilities and obligations to the public good.
The internet has forever altered the structure and content of how we communicate with one another and how we consume news. Sometimes this has been emancipatory, but sometimes we have seen how social media can give a platform to the ugliest impulses in humanity, with an alarming rise in intolerant voices and vicious hate speech.
Kofi understood the importance of this technological revolution and its implications for democracy, electoral integrity and good governance. One of the last major initiatives he launched with his Foundation was a Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age, which is continuing to do valuable work in mapping this “brave new world” and exploring how to reconcile technological innovation with established democratic practices.
So, in conclusion, while the challenges of defending and upholding democracy are daunting, we must be confident in standing up for our values, assert the power of collective action and champion the voices of the marginalized, especially women and children.
All of us have a stake in democracy in our region. And if we join in a spirit of unity and unwavering determination, and take concerted action from our time here together this week, our beautiful continent will be a more vibrant, more peaceful, more prosperous, and more equitable home for us all.
Let us not fail ourselves in this noble endeavor.
International advocate for women’s and children's rights; Co-Founder and Deputy Chair of The Elders; former freedom fighter and first Education Minister of Mozambique.