Socialism and western democracy alien to traditional African culture


As far back as the 9th century, the fortunes of great African empires such as the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire, the Mossi and Mutapa Kingdoms, and the Great Zimbabwe Empire, were based on free trade and enterprise. Trade routes criss-crossed the continent, and market towns were found all along these routes.

When Africa gained her independence in the mid-20th century, she did everything in her power to start afresh and shun colonial influences. The writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin regard capitalism as an extension of colonialism, and this cemented most African countries’ resolve to adopt socialism as their political ideology.

Furthermore, there was a widespread belief that no traditional African ideology could fit the modern-day world, and a misunderstanding of “Ubuntu”, which incorporates compassion, humanity and sharing, resulted in the idea that socialism was the best fit for African people.

What can history tell about African culture and political economy?

As far back as the 9th century, the fortunes of great African empires such as the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire, the Mossi and Mutapa Kingdoms, and the Great Zimbabwe Empire, were based on free trade and enterprise. Trade routes criss-crossed the continent, and market towns were found all along these routes.

A socialist economy requires a high level of state participation, but there was little of this to be found in traditional African culture. African chiefs did not set market regulations and price controls, and they did not run dominant enterprises (State-Owned Enterprises).

The “means of production” were owned by the citizens – the fishing canoes, nets, hunting and farming equipment, tools and the livestock, were all privately owned. Individuals went about their economic activities at their own initiative and not at the behest of the chiefs. When a person produced a surplus, he took it to the market to trade, and the profit belonged to him.

It is a common misperception that African chiefs were dictatorial and ruled their citizens with an iron fist (King Shaka being a possible exception). In a tribe, the heads of each extended family would combine to form a council of elders, and the council would choose a chief. Chiefs were thus appointed through a participative, or deliberative, type of democracy.

When deciding upon matters of governance and law-making, a chief and his elders would need to come to a unanimous decision, which they did by means of lengthy discussions or “indabas”. If no decision could be reached, a village assembly would be called to decide the matter.

Traditional African culture incorporated decentralisation of power and a non-monetisation of political positions. If a chief became unpopular, the council of elders could depose of him. This maintained accountability and prevented the chief from abusing power or proclaiming himself as a leader for life. Furthermore, Africa had a rich tradition of freedom of expression, and chiefs did not lock up and punish dissidents as African dictators do now.

Anything could be discussed without fear of reprisal, and African women, especially in West Africa, participated in public decision-making. Gender equality is a long-standing tradition in Africa. Women were prominent in agriculture and the marketplace, which can be seen today by the strong participation of women traders at taxi ranks and in the informal sector.

The colonial rule replaced these traditional checks and balances, and when the colonial powers withdrew from Africa, the adoption of socialism exacerbated the situation no end.

Colonial statues and portraits were replaced by statues and portraits of Marx, Lenin and Chairman Mao, as one alien ideology was substituted by another even more alien ideology. Governments tweaked socialism somewhat to make it more “African”, but this ended up as a disaster, and Africa went from being self-reliant on its food supply in the 1950’s to importing 40% of its food by 1990.

Socialism requires a high level of state participation in the economy, and African governments tended to overdo this, at times taking complete ownership of the economy. Nationalisation, strict price controls, regulation and red tape led to large and unwieldy state bureaucracies characterised by waste, inefficiency and mismanagement. Political elites and state enterprises bled countries dry, and no matter how much aid was poured into Africa through the IMF, World Bank and foreign governments, it all leaked out of the “cup” because the system was broken from within.

Western democracy, also called “direct democracy” has largely failed in African countries because it inevitably leads to a “winner” (majority) taking all. Africans tend to vote along tribal lines, and a majority win often means “our tribe has won”, and the usual democratic checks and balances are ignored. A greater level of social consent is needed in Africa to stem political majorities from making laws which suppress minority groups or tribes, and this will only occur if there is a minimalistic, or weak, government.

To create a minimalistic government, government salaries need to be low, and free-market principles need to be strong. African wisdom throughout the ages shows non-monetised leadership positions, where elders and chiefs held prestige but had comparatively no wealth when compared to kings and rulers in other continents.

African wisdom shows participation, “indabas” and debates, kindness, inclusiveness and involvement of women. It offers a system where leaders do not desire control and let the people and the free market do the work. Africa has wandered so far from her roots that she has forgotten this wisdom. Her state of turmoil is exacerbated by political parties that bombard people with non-African ideologies.

South Africa could step towards participative democracy by having a number of short debates on national television and radio every evening. The debates might involve contentious political decisions and policies, with carefully chosen representatives of opposing viewpoints.

Newspapers and television are often biased and do not involve indaba-like discussion, and listening to speakers from opposite sides of a debate would do far more to keep the population informed about political matters and allow citizens to make up their own minds. The technology could be used for frequent electronic referendums, which would make participation possible. A humble and weaker government would be necessary to allow this to happen.

It might also be beneficial to create various coalitions of elders, who don’t have any political ties and can monitor government and political parties’ actions. The Constitution would need to provide the elders with the power to reach out to all opposition groups and bring them into an alliance.

Indaba-like discussions, facilitated by the elders, would allow opposition parties to do away with their differences and divisions, and come together through participation and deliberation, to keep the ruling party in check.

By Geoff Embling.