Friday, September 18, 2020

The State of Democracy in Botswana

Democracy is an often used but highly contested concept which writers have struggled to find consensus around.

Democracy has presented a great definitional challenge to writers on the subject, leaving it open to numerous interpretations that have given many including less than democratic regimes an opportunity to claim to be democratic.

In this piece, an effort will be made to appraise the state of Democracy in Botswana highlighting the similarities between Democracy and Christianity in an effort to illustrate how perceptions are key to the success of the democratic project.

This is informed by a trend particularly in official pronouncements and speeches in Botswana where both senior government officials and their political superintendents repeatedly cite the numerous accolades that Botswana has been awarded for good governance, transparency, low corruption levels and record economic growth.

Positive and welcome as this may be, it presents a problem on two fronts a) It creates a sense that all is well in the country b) Which results in a culture of complacency especially in other spheres of the body politic. Ultimately lacunas emerge which accumulate and burst, culminating in anger, social exclusion, contempt, apathy and the emergence of unpatriotic sentiments.

Considering Christianity and Democracy
There should be general agreement that all Christians as a rule, abide by certain universal values as enshrined in the bible despite their numerous denominations.

The Biblical 10 Commandments and other teachings which all Christians are expected to conform to regardless of whether you are Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, African traditional, etc are a case in point. These values give all Christians the world over, an innate character, identity and order which is self evident and uncontroversial.

Put differently, upon identifying myself as a Christian, there are certain activities, utterances, virtues and actions which are expected of me by virtue of being a Chrisitan. Others would doubt my religious credentials if I were to be associated with unchristian behaviour, language or conduct unbecoming of a Christian.

In other words, there shouldn’t be much debate really on whether or not I am a Christian, both I and those around me would know from my deeds, behavior and language that I am a Christian. The image and posture I project should at all times be Christian.

I wish to submit here that like Christianity, Democracy is an enterprise much driven by perception. This means that all nation states claiming to be democracies should possess certain basic attributes that all democracies possess and over and above that project an image and a posture befitting a democracy.

Such democracies should in deeds, speech, character, demeanour, policy choices and value systems reflect that they are for all intents and purposes a democracy. Most of the above characteristics would be intrinsic and not requiring of any sort of justification. For democracy though, the experience of the people and their perceptions about the veracity of the democratic dispensation should be the single most important factor that will vindicate the political leadership on whether or not they are presiding over a genuinely democratic state.

This means that no amount of propaganda or rhetoric would sway the masses if their experience of democracy is unsatisfactory. In order to enjoy legitimacy and a minimum of dissent from the led, governments therefore need to ensure that in all ways possible, the masses of their people experience democracy in a real, meaningful and adequate manner relevant to their conditions.

What is Democracy?
For the earlier stated reason on the lack of consensus about the true definition of democracy, many have settled for its attributes and indicators as being a sufficient definition of the concept. The most common is that of popular representation or “Reprocracy” which is distinguished by the holding of free fair and regular elections (also judged as such by international observers), a free and vibrant media enjoying unfettered editorial freedom, the enjoyment of other rights and freedoms, enshrined in a bill of rights and the rule of law guaranteed by a constitution and an effective separation of powers with sufficient checks and balances.

The most fashionable type of democracy which embodies all the above attributes is the liberal democracy, widely practiced in the western hemisphere and increasingly in the global south. Democracy is a much celebrated concept which everyone wants to be known to be upholding, it is a social construct of the manner in which people want to be ruled and governed according to their own will.

Others have described democracy as a work in progress best depicted by a continuum of a scale of 1 ÔÇô 10 with some nation states being democratic to a greater or to a lesser extent than others. For our purposes in this article however, we will not dwell much on the various strands of democracy.
The Two Turnover test.

For Political Scientist, Samuel P. Huntington, “when a nation transitions from an “emergent democracy” to a “stable democracy”, it must undergo two democratic and peaceful changes of ruling parties (not only presidents), according to the theory, “after the first handing over of power, the new administration usually reverts to authoritarian rule, trampling on democratic institutions and undermining the rule of law, hence the need to undergo a second peaceful and democratic transfer of power to a different political party the second time around”.

This has come to be known as the “Two turnover test”. Only after passing this test, can an emergent democracy graduate to the next stage of being a stable democracy.

Against this backdrop, it would seem Botswana’s democracy is still very much in its infancy stages since it has not as yet been put to the test to see if the nation-sate can survive the peaceful transfer of power between two different political parties, two times over without experiencing any instability or resistance to the idea of relinquishing power.

One would wonder then, if the recent split in the ruling party should be embraced as one step closer to growing Botswana’s democracy towards graduating to Huntingtons’s “stable” democracy category. This is especially since a number of opposition parties have hinted at resuscitating the opposition unity project to unseat the ruling party.

To what extent could we then say that Botswana is Democratic?
Do the ruling party and political leadership provide us with a model definition of the democracy that exists in Botswana, to afford the nation a chance to take them to task when they stray or fall short of meeting the promises they made about presiding over a democratic republic? In short what are the hallmarks of Botswana’s democracy, which set it apart from others who lay claim to the democratic label?

The Americans readily talk about liberty, freedom, self determination and related values drawing from their Judeo-Christian heritage. The political leadership needs to interrogate more deeply what Democracy means for Batswana and clearly define the type of democracy Botswana ought to be. This definition should be reached through wide consultation with Batswana from all persuasions to ensure ownership.

Nurturing the growth and Sustenance of Democracy; what needs to be done?

There is an urgent need for a periodic audit of Botswana’s democratic credentials entailing a frank and candid appraisal of the state of the country’s democracy in content, deed, flavour, guise, appeal, experience and image, this should be undertaken, possibly by an established think tank of the ilk of BIDPA but with a mandate strictly on democracy and governance.. The ruling party and the political leadership need to set in motion a process of a National Democratic Revolution (NDR). This should entail outlining objective targets of disparities and impediments to people’s “lived experience of democracy”, and setting phases / strategic objectives at which these will be achieved.

To consolidate its democracy, Botswana needs to undergo Huntington’s “Two turn over test” as a guarantor of democratic maturity. This can also be achieved by engendering and deepening a culture of consultation and participation and candid debates in all spheres of national life in Botswana including within all political parties.

The political space also needs to be widened through tolerance of divergent views by those in power. There is need for Botswana to create and invest heavily in Social capital (understood as the glue that sticks communities /societies together).

Democracy should be experienced; like justice it shouldn’t only be proclaimed but rather it should be seen to be done especially by the most important stakeholders in the democratic project, the electorate.

All political parties, ruling and opposition should set up and publish policy documents / positions and discussion fora (E.g. Umrabulo, (ANC), BUA KOMANISI (SACP).
At the end there is need for a display of maturity in our public and political discourse; opposition parties also need to debate policy based issues more than dwelling on cow boy tactics of freedom square salvos and innuendos.

*Gabriel Malebang is a Student of Political Science and currently works as a researcher at the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Botswana. (He writes in his personal capacity)

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