Democracies are fragile. Now, more than ever, fake news, populist politicians and disenchanted voters are putting this fragility to the test. Against this backdrop, the Centre for Human Rights (Centre), Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, on 7 December hosted a one-day international conference on the theme ‘Democracy Under Threat’.
Professor Manfred Nowak, a previous UN Special Rapporteur on torture and currently Secretary General of the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation (EIUC), introduced the topic. From ‘state capture’ in South Africa to the immigration crisis troubling Europe, Nowak sketched an intricate image of the varied — and global — threats challenging liberal democracy.
Dr Veronica Gomez, from the Universidad San Martin in Argentina, chaired a panel of academics reporting on the situation across the globe. Professor Hector Mazzei of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina, examined the problem through a Latin American lens. Mazzei described how a continent, once ruled by staunch, yet sometimes, charismatic dictators embraced the democratic model, shaking off its authoritarian past.
The discussion then moved to Europe, with Ms Nino Lapiashvili, of the University of Tbilisi, Georgia, exploring the impact of socio-economic inequality on the promotion of democracy. She argued that widening gaps between the rich and poor undermine democracy’s legitimacy, and inspire the populace to look for solutions in more radical, but less constructive, spaces.
Dr Dennis Gratz, MP, zoomed in on a looming education crisis in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. ‘Two schools under one roof’ is a government-sanctioned policy of segregated schooling, designed to keep students of different ethnic groups separate. Learners attend school in shifts, separated by iron fences and a long break in between to minimize contact. They use different textbooks, have different teachers, and are even taught conflicting curricula in their history and geography classes. Professor Geeta Pathak Sangroula from Nepal touched on the challenges and shortcomings of the South Asian human rights system,
With the focus shifting to Africa, Prof Johann Van der Westhuizen, retired judge of the South African Constitutional Court, gave some introductory reflections on developments in South Africa and the role the judiciary can play in defending democracy. Professor Michelo Hansungule of the Centre then chaired a panel focusing on the theme of democracy in Africa. Ms Nonhle Mbuthuma, of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, touched on the contemporary challenges to traditional leadership in South Africa. Traditional leaders, she said, had evolved into stumbling blocks that frustrate the democratic agency of South Africans in poorer, rural communities. This, pitted against the right to culture, and the constitutional protection that traditional structures enjoy, creates an uneven tug-of-war, where democracy always ends the loser.
Threats to democracy are not only experienced by rural communities, as the presentation of Dr Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua, of the University of Ghana, made clear. He shed light on the issue of State recognition at the African Union (AU) level and the effect it has on the legitimacy of governments. To illustrate this, he commented on the AU’s tacit approval of the recent ‘soft-coup’ in Zimbabwe. Here, regional actors had to strike a delicate balance between a peaceful transition in leadership, and the military’s intervention in the political arena.
Ms Yousra Arourabi, from the University of Rabat, Morocco, touched on a provocative topic: the influence that international donors have on democracies in Africa. Foreign aid has always been politicised, and Africa has always been a key recipient. She observed that an over-reliance on aid packages, from Europe and elsewhere, bodes poorly for regional autonomy. If African democracies are to endure, Arourabi proposes a radical emphasis on self-reliance.
Professor Joseph Kiarie Mwaura, Dean of the School of Law, University of Nairobi, Kenya, noted a worrisome pattern facing democracy in the East African giant: elections, election violence, elections. This cycle, he observed, is becoming typical of the political process in Kenya, and is severely affecting its legitimacy. In Mwaura’s view, political rights should encourage peace, not disrupt it. There is still hope, however, that the cycle can be broken. He observed this hope in Kenya’s brave judiciary, which overturned the re-election of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta as a result of electoral irregularities.
Discussions steered towards the concept of democracy itself. Suggestions about how the concept could be made more autochthonous to Africa included the idea that presidential terms should be extended, but that the presidential candidates who had received the most votes should each serve a part of the cumulative term proportionate to the percentage of the votes each of them had received.
At the Conference’s conclusion, the take-home was clear – democracy is under threat, but is robust enough to weather the storm. Active involvement from all stakeholders will be required: silence, apathy, and even acquiescence, are poor medicines for the ailing patient. If the tide of populism is to be turned back, civil society, and political influencers will have to move beyond rhetoric and launch an unwavering defence.
The Conference formed part of a week-long series of events, leading up to the graduation of the Centre’s master’s and doctoral students on 8 December. The events brought together the seven partner Master’s programmes constituting the Global Campus of Human Rights. The Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa, hosted by the Centre and presented in collaboration with 13 partner institutions across the continent, is one of these programmes. Most of the presenters at the conference were associated with one of the Global Campus programmes.