Once the elections are over, the educated elites retreat into state institutions where they proceed to govern through a system the vast majority of their people do not understand. The proceedings in parliaments are in a colonial language, the laws are framed in the same foreign language and the various organs of state conduct their affairs in a language understood by a minority that was fortunate to receive colonially designed education. This means that for the most part the masses do not understand what is being said and done in their name.

While the principles of democracy are universal, it appears African societies are hugely disadvantaged in their application, to the extent that they are rendered meaningless. For instance, if democratic governance refers to “the capacity of a society to define and establish legal order — which requires institutions based on the principles of equity, freedom, participation in decision making, accountability, and promoting the inclusion of the most vulnerable sectors of society”, how would we see this happening if the majority of the people have no idea of what is going on in the governance of their country?

Mosibundi Mangena, “Introduction.” In: Political Parties in Africa, edited by Ebrahim Fakir and Tom Lodge. 2015. More info.

  • This is definitely a problem in Namibia. It’s arguably becomingd less of a problem, because English-first education means an increasing number of people do speak the language of government. (Though education is not nearly doing as well as it should, and too many folks come through the system with an inadequate ability to write and read english)
  • I still think SWAPO made the right decision when they opted to go for English as the official language. I don’t think the state could cope with the translation and interpretation required to translate in a truly multilingual society. Instead, what would have likely happened is that people who speak minority languages would be marginalised in the name of saving resources.
  • In other words, I think one language represents a better shot at giving everyone access than several languages.

 

  • More Broadly we have to wonder what the current state of affairs means for democracy. Can we claim that Namibia is a democracy when most people arguably can’t follow what politicians are doing?
  • Or is it enough that people vote based on whatever incomplete information they do have? (and let’s face it, in no country do voters have all the information — government is complicated, that’s partly why we outsource it to politicians in the first place!)
  • For now, government has to do a lot better at communicating what’s going on. Bills debated in parliament should be summarised in easy-to read language. State-owned media should talk about policy in a neutral manner rather than simply parroting what government is saying. Opposition parties need to work to explain policies to voters, and give details on what they would do differently.

update: an example from yesterday