Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dreams of the people versus realities of governance

It’s often thought-provoking to read seemingly never-ending news stories and lamentations emanating from a cross section of societies of the world--particularly nations that fall under the umbrella of a group commonly referred to as “developing countries"--that tend to reflect a recurrent theme, namely a bemoaning of what’s usually described as a failure of governance.  As a form of governance through elected representatives of the people, democracy has a tendency to overly raise grassroots expectations about improvements in their standards of living. As they canvass for their people’s mandate, political office seekers make a plethora of promises of a better life for the populace. More often than not, such promises are made and trumpeted before the political office seekers have had a chance to familiarize themselves with the budgetary realities of the entity or society that they aspire to govern. The end result, all too often, both in the developing and developed countries of the world, is a gap between the dreams of the people and actual results of governance. This gap may trigger disillusionment.

South Africa is case in point. After a protracted struggle which cost many a South African life—a struggle that received ceaseless aid from the global community, with exceptions here and there--the oppressive apartheid regime led by the white minority segment of the South African population, gave way to a long-sought majority rule in 1994. Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years of political incarceration to become the first black president of a new South Africa that was based on a new constitution that promised a multiracial democracy. Apartheid rule had created a skyscraper economy which yielded disproportionate benefits to the white minority. Under the social and legal norms of apartheid, a white person was paid more for the same job—just for being white. Under apartheid, Africans , who constitute the majority, were limited to their so-called homelands (roughly 13% of the land), whereas the white minority arrogated 87% of the land to themselves.

A commonly-held opinion among close watchers of  South African affairs was that the demise of apartheid effectively meant a transfer of political power to the majority, while economic power still rested and still largely rests  with the white minority.  Based on a coalition that consisted of blacks (in the anti-apartheid political lexicon of South Africa,  the term “blacks” refers to  Africans, Indians/Asians and the colored community) and a handful of sympathetic whites, the African National Congress (ANC) inherited  political power in 1994 after many years of crusading against apartheid rule.

Trying, as it has over the years of post-apartheid governance to establish an egalitarian political economy, has not been an easy task for the ruling African National Congress (ANC). This is not to imply that anyone expected that it would take a short amount of time for any government to dismantle and re-structure the skyscraper economy that was created by apartheid rule.

True enough, South Africa has been conducting its political affairs fairly admirably throughout the post-apartheid era--as demonstrated by its continued conduct of successful free and fair elections as well as peaceful political transfers of power from one elected national government to another. Also affectionately called a rainbow democracy, South Africa is a multi-lingual country that recognizes six constituent languages  as official media of communication. They are English, Afrikaans, Sesotho, Setswana, Xhosa and Zulu. The post-apartheid regime has won world-wide admiration for its demonstrated spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation most aptly symbolized by the public truth and reconciliation proceedings that were conducted in that nation in the early years following the end of apartheid rule.

What seems to have eluded the post-apartheid government is its goal of bringing about an egalitarian political economy. Economic transformation has not apparently occurred at a rate that could lift every boat in South Africa. No doubt, change does not come about like a windstorm.  Baring a revolution, change, in reality, tends to take a trickle-down, step by step trajectory that cannot reach every nuke and corner of society at the same pace. Even revolutions themselves never bring smiles to the faces of all members of a polity. Human imperfection being what it's, no known system of governing populations of human beings makes everyone happy. No known system has completely eradicated poverty from its territorial space.

Thus, when news arrived yesterday that a South African political activist, Mamphela Ramphele announced that she has created a new political party in order to rest political power from the ruling ANC, she predicated it upon that theme that we hear so often from the developing world: "Our society's greatness is being fundamentally undermined by a massive failure of governance." As a political activist, it can be said that Ramphele emerged from the shadows of the late Steve Biko of the famous black consciousness movement that played a vital part in re-kindling the fire of anti-apartheid struggles during the last quarter of the 20thcentury. As a news report put it, Ramphele “was politically and romantically involved with the late Steve Biko” with whom she had two children.   

In announcing her formation  of a new political party (known as Agang), (, she promised to utilize it as a platform for reviving “… the South Africa of our dreams.” Agang, she was reported as saying, would field candidates for South African national elections next year.

While her aspiration sounds good, one wonders whether nineteen years (that is, the time period between the advent of majority rule in South Africa in 1994 and now) is a sufficient time-span for re-structuring apartheid’s skyscraper political economy. While it may be true, as she put it, that  "... the country of our dreams is yet to become a reality in the lives of ordinary people,"‏ a key question though is: what’s Ramphele’s Agang party going to do differently from how ANC has governed South Africa? What’s Agang going to do about the land question?

With a population of 50.5 million, South Africa has a per capital income of $6,960 and a life expectancy of 53 years for men and 54 years for women. To put these figures in some perspective, Nigeria, which like South Africa, is viewed as a major economic powerhouse in Africa, has a life expectancy of 52 years for men and 53 years for women. Nigeria’s per capita income of $1,200 pales in comparison with South Africa’s. One major difference between the profiles of both countries is the fact that Nigeria has a much larger population of 162.4 million.

Based on data related to life expectancy, educational attainment and income, the human development index (HDI) is a measure introduced by the United Nations for ascertaining the prevailing standard of living in a given country. It assigns scores to individual countries, based on how each one performed on this index. The scores are assigned in an asymmetrical fashion so that the higher a country’s standard of living, the lower its score on the human development index. Thus, on the current HDI index, Norway is represented as having the highest standard of living in the world with an assigned score of 1. The United States has a score of 4. South Africa and Nigeria have scores of 123 and 156, respectively. The highest score of 187 goes to the Democratic Republic of the Congo—that is, the country with the lowest standard of living in the world.

Thus, you can see that both South Africa and Nigeria have a long way to go in lifting the prevailing living standards in their countries. These figures perhaps may assist the reader in contextualizing the cries of failure of governance that are awash in both countries.