Reflections on perceived conflicts between culture and democracy in Africa: the South African case

OUTPUT TYPE: Conference or seminar papers
DEPARTMENT: Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES)
Intranet: HSRC Library: shelf number 3514
HANDLE: 20.500.11910/7089

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There is a widely held perception that democracy, at least some notion of western style democracy - is inappropriate for Africa as it is antithetical to African values and culture. It is this perception that underlies the idea of a clash of cultures (the theme of this panel discussion) and sets up democracy and culture in binary opposition to one another. To be sure, there are many examples in Africa where this very notion is successfully deployed to explain state failure, dictatorship and discrimination. And there is no denying that the road to democracy in Africa has been, on the balance, a rather rocky one. However, the idea that democracy is somehow fundamentally unsuitable as a form of governance in Africa, owing to its inherently western cultural bias, and that preference should be given to alternative indigenous arrangements, that perhaps do not hold states and societies to the same standards of governance and human rights, is a dangerous one. It is also one that is, I believe, conceptually flawed, and masks a whole range of strategic interests, which are not necessarily rooted in culture but rather deploy the discourse of culture and tradition in order to reinforce those interests. This paper aims to explore these arguments from the perspective of the South African example, although it is hoped that some of the discussion presented here will be relevant to other examples in Africa. The much lauded South African Constitution recognises both individual rights, in particular the right to equal treatment, and communal rights to cultural recognition. This dispensation is therefore itself one which harbours potential conflicts between different categories