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December 13, 2012

Democracy: reinvented

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Written by: DW

By David Wisner

http://blog.lib.umn.edu/gray0239/architecture/invention.bmpI’ve been looking for an adjective with which to describe this recent op ed article by Bill Keller in the New York Times. Curious, perhaps. It’s not quite a celebration of a certain place where democracy has flourished. Hardly, in fact.

On the other hand, as a test case, South Africa, does have lessons to share. It’s okay to plagiarize in constitution writing. It’s important to find ways to leave the past where it belongs. But it’s equally essential to write into the system the precise safeguards one foresees will help rectify the egregious practices of those non-democratic regimes one seeks to replace — and to encourage judges and other representatives of government of bringing about changes in attitude which must accompany any successful transition to democracy, to a degree. Patience is a virtue.

Most important, a new regime requires a new sense of citizenship. “Make citizens,” writes Keller, and if need be, remake them again.

The curse of many transitional states is that they have no cohesive sense of nationhood, no common sense of purpose or responsibility. Instead of Iraqis or Syrians or Afghans or Egyptians, you have Sunnis and Shiites and Copts, Alawites and Kurds, Pashtuns and Tajiks. A generation past liberation, South Africa has had inspiring moments of unity, but it still has not fully coalesced. A new survey finds that fewer than 1 in 10 adults — and even fewer young people — identify themselves as “South Africans first,” over language, race or ethnic group. The country’s many peoples are equal under the law, but in some ways as “apart” as under apartheid.

Mamphela Ramphele, a wise and nonpartisan anti-apartheid activist and academic, attributes this in part to the sense of impotence that infected South Africans — and not just blacks — under the bleak tyranny of apartheid. And it is partly due, she says, to the cynicism generated by pervasive corruption under the African National Congress government. She has launched a new movement aimed at awakening a sense of citizenship, including through some institutional reforms, such as having most members of Parliament accountable to specific districts rather than answerable only to the ruling party. Freedom, she would advise the founders of new democracies, has to be won over and over.

“South Africans liberated themselves,” she told me, “and now they must do it again.”

Words of wisdom even for those who live in established democracies.

 






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