In about 1962, it is said, Tanzania had the same GDP per capita as that of South Korea. Under Julius Nyerere, Tanzania took the route of social democracy or, more aptly, “ujamaa”, whereas South Korea, after the “April 19 Revolution” became a dictatorship under General Park Chung-hee. In 2015, South Korea’s GDP per capita was thirty times that of Tanzania.

The lesson is a hard one for political scientists studying development. The jury remains out in the literature about which one should come first: democracy or development. Yet what is clear from the case studies, especially from what came to be known as the “Asian Tigers”, is that one cannot have both at the same time.

If one were to look at the “Asian Tigers”: Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Singapore, and later the “Asian cub economies”: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, one could argue that where democracy existed, it was dominated by one party, as even is the case in Japan, but in the main these countries had dictatorships before the end of the Cold War.

Yet the argument also goes that these countries, under totalitarian regimes, will develop to such an extent that their middle class will start demanding greater freedoms and therefore development can well lead to democracy. 

We can hear the rebuttal though that the majority of developed economies in the west, for example the United States, United Kingdom and Europe are all countries which were democracies for ages. The United States, for example, with one of the world’s largest economies never had totalitarianism. Yet they were rather totalitarian to the slaves they imported and to the nations whom they invaded. 

The same applies to the United Kingdom and Europe, economies built on the unjust practices of slavery and then colonialism. Everyone in these countries enjoyed human rights and democracy, just not the subjects in the colony. They, the people in the colonies, were literally part of the possessions. 

One of the seminal texts used in democratic theory is the article by political scientists Phillipe Schmitter and Terry Karl, titled: “What democracy is…and what it is not.” What Schmitter and Karl make clear in their text is that democracies “…are not necessarily more efficient economically than other forms of government.” 

In fact, Schmitter and Karl, highlight something that South Africa, especially during its period of transition, can identify with. They suggest that the rights once secured by “propertied groups and administrative elites”, whether real or perceived, may be viewed as no longer being secured as they once were under the totalitarian regime. As a result, capital flight, disinvestment and even sabotage will occur because these elites no longer have the security of the non-democratic regime. In a democracy, it is held, too many have “equal” rights.

Secondly, Schmitter and Karl suggest that democracies are not “more efficient administratively”. In fact, they cannot even guarantee “orderly, consensual, stable or governable” states, as is the case in totalitarian states. If a quick decision has to be made into a change in state investment, as is often the case in a developmental state, this could take forever to cross the red-tape, seek consensus, among others, and in the end the opportunity is lost. We have only to think of the consensus on the National Development Plan in South Africa as an example. 

Usually, in global capital, foreign direct investors seek states which are stable and where investment outcomes are predictable. This cannot be guaranteed in unstable states and recently we have witnessed this most in democracies such as Italy and Greece. 

Investors want to believe that their rights and investments will be favoured over that of ordinary folks and that they will reap the benefits of their investment in a decade, because the country will still be stable in a decade (probably with the same leader and government in place). Predictability is what matters in investment.

Finally, Schmitter and Karl point out that while democracies are usually countries with open and transparent societies, this does not necessarily reflect in their economies. These academics indicate that the economies of well established democracies are often protectionist in nature and have closed borders in reality. 

Trump’s Mexican wall, his tariffs on steel and the United Kingdom’s Brexit are all contemporary examples of open and transparent societies but closed and protectionist economies. While there should be no doubt between the umbilical chord between liberal-democracy and capitalism, protectionism of markets, private property and from the state remain hallmarks of neoliberalism.

It is with all of this in mind that one reads the piece by Yonela Diko (ANC Western Cape Media Liaison) about the developing political culture of BRICS with a bit of scepticism; especially if we are wanting to reap the economic benefits of the partnership which he emphasises. It is a welcomed discussion now that South Africa places emphasis on the economics rather than the politics.

Surprisingly in his piece, “Political culture of BRICS is a concern”, Diko does not take issue with the politics of Michel Temmer nor that of Narendra Modi. In fact, he glosses over Brazil while suggesting that “India seems to have been the only country that has done well during the BRICS period…” He seems to not be familiar with the political culture of either of these two individual men in particular. Five minutes with a Muslim from Gujarat, India, will give him an impression of the politics of Modi.

Rather the brunt of his article is directed at Russia and China who have just re-elected their presidents for another term of office. It will be Russian president, Vladimir Putin’s, fourth term in office, while the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, will no longer have limits to his term in office, given the recent amendments to the Chinese constitution. 

At sixty-six years of age and as athletic as his public relations make him out to be, there is hardly any doubt that Putin will probably do what he did earlier and have another person serve as president while he serves at prime minister. He is barred, by the Russian constitution, from serving a third consecutive term and will therefore take a break as he did in 2008 to 2012. Therefore, it is possible to suggest that in a decade’s time, at 76 and 75, Putin and Xi respectively, will still be presidents of their countries; unless there is a palace revolt.

Yet it is fundamentally the economics that determine the politics in these countries. President Xi could push through an amendment of the Chinese constitution based on the sole fact that in his last report to the Congress of the Communist Party of China held in October 2017, he could report that his administration was able to lift fifty million Chinese out of poverty in a matter of five years. This is but one statistic that the Xi administration boasts.

Just to put that in perspective, the administration of President Xi Jinping was able to lift nearly the entire population of South Africa out of poverty in a single, five-year term. It is astounding. Yet it is possible based simply on the political culture of China. While one is not suggesting doing away with democracy, one is suggesting that you can either have a democratic lapdog or a totalitarian tiger. The choice is always ours, as the people.

Jessie Duarte is Deputy Secretary-General of the ANC 

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