Saturday, May 14, 2011

Poverty, ignorance and our elections

Poverty, ignorance and our elections
By The Post
Fri 13 May 2011, 04:00 CAT

It is clear that a lot of work needs to be done to raise the political culture of our people if democracy is to work in this country. It is also clear that while the desire for freedom may be innate, the practice of democracy must be learnt.

Whether the hinge of history will continue to open the doors of freedom and opportunity in our country depends on the dedication and collective wisdom of all our people themselves – not upon any history’s iron laws, and certainly not on the imagined benevolence of self-appointed leaders.

And contrary to some perceptions, a healthy democratic society is not simply an arena in which individuals pursue their own personal goals.

Democracies flourish when they are tended by citizens willing to use their hard-won freedom to participate in the life of their society – adding their voice to the public debate, electing representatives who are held accountable for their decisions and actions, and accepting the need for tolerance and compromise in public life.

The citizens of a democracy enjoy the right of individual freedom, but they also share the responsibility of joining with others to shape a future that will continue to embrace the fundamental values of freedom and self government.

Democracy and freedom’s apparent surge in our country over the last two decades by no means ensures its ultimate success. That people naturally prefer freedom to oppression can indeed be taken for granted. But that is not the same as saying that democratic political systems can be expected to create and maintain themselves overtime. On the contrary.

The idea of democracy is durable, but its practice is precarious. While this fact is cause for neither pessimism nor despair; instead, it serves as a challenge. While the desire for freedom may be innate, as we have already pointed out, the practice of democracy must be learned.

For this reason, the observations made by Dr Alex Ng’oma, the president of the Foundation for Democratic Process, that there is need for non-governmental organisations to focus their civic education more in poverty stricken areas where the majority of the people are prone to political manipulation deserves favourable consideration. It is true that most Zambians cannot enhance their human development and remain independent from political manipulation due to high poverty levels.

It is also true that some politicians have taken advantage of this to manipulate the poorest of our people in a bid to influence their choices of leaders during elections. Food stuffs, farming inputs, bicycles, chitenge materials, T-shirts, mealie-meal, sugar, salt, money and so on and so forth have been used to influence the poor on how they should vote and whom they should vote for.

This being the case, there is need to raise the political culture to a level where people in our rural areas, in our poor communities, would vote for a political party or candidate not because they have been given material things, they have been given foodstuffs but rather because they believe in the policies being floated to them by a particular political party or candidate.

This will require a lot of work both on the political and economic front. This will require good political leadership. It will also require meaningful economic development. These are the two most decisive factors affecting the future consolidation and expansion of democracy in this country.

We say this because judging by the record of the past and by what is going on in our country today, the two most decisive factors affecting the future consolidation and expansion of our democracy will be economic development and political leadership. This is so because economic development makes democracy possible; political leadership makes it real.

With poverty, it is very difficult for most of our people, for the great majority of our people living in abject poverty to set themselves a political agenda. And elections in which the great majority of our people, the poor people, cannot set themselves a political agenda cannot be said to be democratic.

We know that there is no regime in the world, even the most autocratic, that has ever claimed not to be democratic. Even the worst tyrants have attempted to claim popular support by pinning democratic labels upon themselves.

Poverty is often, if not always, accompanied by ignorance. And where there is ignorance, people are taken advantage of. Informed public opinion is the most potent of all restraints upon misgovernment.

Those who want to take advantage of the people always try to keep the people in ignorance so that they can easily manipulate them, abuse them, exploit them. It’s only the people themselves, the electorate that can protect their rights. And the electorate is the ultimate custodian of its own freedom.

And from this perspective, democratic government, which is elected by and accountable to its citizens, is not the antagonist of individual rights, but their protector.

It is to enhance their rights that citizens in a democracy undertake their civic obligations and responsibilities. Poor people, ignorant people, cannot be expected to meaningfully, effectively and efficiently undertake their civic obligations and responsibilities.

And broadly speaking, these responsibilities entail participating in the democratic process to ensure its functioning. At a minimum, citizens should educate themselves about the critical issues confronting their society – if only to vote intelligently for candidates running for high office.

The essence of democratic action is the active, freely chosen participation of its citizens in the public life of their community and nation. Without this broad, sustaining participation, democracy will begin to wither and become the preserve of a small, select number of individuals and groups.

But with the active engagement of well-informed individuals across the spectra of society, democracy can wither the inevitable economic and political storms that sweep over every society, without sacrificing the freedoms and rights that they are sworn to uphold.

Clearly, democracy is more than the sum of institutions. A healthy democracy depends in large part on the development of a democratic civic culture. A totalitarian political system encourages a culture of passivity, apathy and ignorance. The regime seeks to mould an obedient and docile citizenry.

By contrast, the civic culture of a democratic society is shaped by the freely chosen activities of individuals and groups.

As Dr Ng’oma has correctly observed, education is a vital component of any society, but especially of a democracy. And as Thomas Jefferson once observed: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never shall be.

In contrast to tyrannical societies which seek to inculcate an attitude of passive acceptance, the object of democratic education is to produce citizens who are independent, questioning and analytical in their outlook, yet deeply familiar with the precepts and practices of democracy.

We say this because people may be born with an appetite for personal freedom, but they are not born with knowledge about the social and political arrangements that make freedom possible overtime for themselves and their children.

Such things must be acquired. They must be learned. But such things are very difficult to acquire, are very difficult to learn in societies or communities where people are very poor, are ignorant and illiterate. Therefore, to move forward, they have to overcome poverty simultaneously with ignorance and illiteracy.

In a democracy, it can fairly be said, democracy enables freedom itself to flourish overtime. Where there is an enlightened citizenry, the power of those in power to abuse people is reduced. And government is best when its potential for abuse is curbed, and when it is held as close to the people as possible.

And we have already pointed out, voting in the election of public officials is the most visible and common form of participation in today’s democracies, and also the fundamental. The ability to conduct free and fair elections is at the core of what it means to call a society democratic.

One cannot say there are free and fair elections in a society where the voters can be bribed with mealie-meal, sugar, salt, fertiliser, seed, bicycles, chitenge materials, T-shirts, caps, money and so on and so forth to vote for a particular political party or candidate. But we know that where people are very poor and ignorant, this type of manipulation is common and easily takes place.

We see it in this country whenever and wherever there are elections. We have seen even the President of the this country distributing sugar and mealie-meal to the electorate to a point where we had to nickname him ‘Sugar Daddy’.

As the election date draws near, you will see those with deep pockets, especially those in government, distributing relief food – maize, rice and so on and so forth – to the electorate. And these poor people, these hungry people, out of fear of being seen to be ungrateful, will vote for them.

This is the type of “free and fair elections” we have in this country. This is how the poor of this country are abused, exploited and betrayed. This has to stop before we can have meaningful democracy in this country, before our people can truly and freely choose their government.



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