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AD39: Political freedom and interest have yet to translate into Mandela’s vision of participatory democracy in Africa

16 Jul 2015

Nelson Mandela International Day (18 July) honours the ideals that underpinned Madiba’s actions – freedom, universal enfranchisement, and participatory democracy. As Mandela once said, “We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.” More than a quarter-century after grass-roots pro-democracy movements began replacing authoritarian regimes in many African countries, and despite marked progress toward democratic governance, many new democracies continue to suffer from a number of democratic deficits. One of these is low levels of civic participation.

Democratic political systems rely on citizen participation, building wider channels of integration and richer networks of association, for their consolidation. Citizen participation can range from the bare minimum of voting to more active modes of citizenship, such as campaigning or being a member of a community organisation or social movement. In Africa, participation may also focus on powerful informal and traditional networks.

In the formal political sphere, participation empowers citizens and is a vital part of democratic governance. In the context of a new democracy, a strong and engaged civil society is desirable for its ability to legitimate the state’s authority, to hold the government accountable, and to allow citizens to engage in decision-making processes that ultimately affect their lives.

Data from Afrobarometer surveys show that large majorities of African citizens are interested in public affairs and feel free to express their views and associate as they wish. But tracing political participation across the continent suggests that awareness of political freedoms and interest in public affairs have not translated into an actualisation of these freedoms through widespread civic engagement and political participation in Africa’s democracies.