A bittersweet farewell to the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa)

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa played a pivotal role in that country’s transition away from apartheid rule. Two “white liberals” – Alex Borraine and the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert – left their jobs as members of parliament in order to meet with exiled members of the African National Congress in various remote locations. Out of the spotlight of the media and everyday politics, they helped negotiate a series of ice-breakers between the white and black elites, initiating a set of discussions that would pave the way for Mandela’s release and the writing of a new constitution. Of course, many factors made such meetings possible, including the challenges and protests of so many ordinary citizens in South Africa and abroad, but few serious observers of that country’s history would discount the importance of these early, secretive, get-to-know-you retreats.

Following Mandela’s release, the unbanning of the ANC, and the first multi-racial elections, it was not exactly clear what role various anti-apartheid organizations might play given that their core mandates no longer seemed relevant. In the case of Idasa, it transformed itself in name (but not acronym) to be an organization that would help South African citizens build this new democracy with various information, awareness and monitoring functions. (Steven Friedman correctly highlights that the simple bridge-building work of the original Idasa is still needed today.)

Back in the early 1990s, I was lucky to meet a few of Idasa’s key program managers, including Robert Mattes, who would run the Public Opinion Service; and Warren Krafchik, who directed the Budget Information Service. These projects conducted pioneering research on citizen attitudes and the emerging budget process, and they communicated their findings to scholars, policy-makers, and ordinary citizens. A few years later, while I was a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, these folks kindly allowed me to serve as an intern in their units, provided me a desk and an internet connection, and most importantly, allowed me to be a part of the organization.

idasa cape town

My year was personally and professionally inspiring. The period 1997-8 was surely the height of the post-apartheid “honeymoon,” the year following the Springbok win of the Rugby World Cup (now of Invictus fame). Idasa had purchased a marvelous old building at 6 Spin Street, right around the corner from the nation’s parliament, the national library, and several key offices of the bureaucracy, including the South African Revenue Service. Each day the building’s corridors came alive with art and performances, as leading politicians and scholars from around the country and around the world stopped in for visits. At morning tea time, as I developed a taste for Rooibos tea many years before it would become an American rage, I learned so much from my colleagues about their respective cultures, and from their work in trying to consolidate democratic practice in this divided society.

In the years to follow, Idasa continued to generate a great deal of research, including in the area I began to study – HIV/AIDS policy – and the organization would extend the scope of its activities to the entire Southern African region. More recently, I discovered that the Cape Town office closed, and all of the operations were consolidated in the Pretoria office. The organization’s stature was clearly in decline. It was certainly not an activist organization, barely a monitoring organization, perhaps a research outfit, but not quite a think-tank. If donor support fell away, perhaps it was because the organization’s mission had simply become too ambiguous. In late March, the director announced that Idasa would close due to lack of financial support.

Idasa shopOn the one hand, I am so sad to hear of this great institution’s fall. I retain just a speck of hope that some angel donor will come in to resuscitate this once giant. On the other hand, perhaps I should just pay tribute to its incredibly important legacy, which gave hope to the most brilliant political story that I’ve observed in my lifetime – one which continues to animate my own life and career to this day. In just a few weeks, one of my old Idasa friends, Albert Van Zyl, who now works for our old boss, Warren Krafchik, will present the work of the International Budget Project to my class of Princeton undergraduates learning about the Politics of Development.

I am very proud to have been associated with this distinguished organization. Despite its current lack of a Wikipedia entry(!), I hope its role in contemporary South African history will be sufficiently recognized.

Myworld2015: The challenge of democratic global governance and prioritizing development goals

Myworld2015 asks all of us – that’s right, all of humanity — to vote for the changes that would “make the most difference to our world.” We get to vote online for the priorities that we believe to be most important – they provide us 16 options, and we are asked to select 6. And on our honor, we vote just once. Sometime between now and… 2015.

It’s a crowd-sourcing scheme for defining the “next” set of goals (presumably after we discover how many of the millennium development goals go unmet).

myworld

Good idea for participatory development? Interesting attempt at making all of us citizens in one big global democracy? It’s certainly well intentioned, but maybe not so well-thought-out.

It’s not clear from the website how the votes are going to be tallied or interpreted. At the moment, I see that there are almost 1500 votes from the U.S., and just 208 from Nigeria and 596 from India… let alone 3 from Congo.

What happens when voters from the global North click through that they want to prioritize climate change, gender relations, and freedom from discrimination; and those from the global South want jobs, clean water, and affordable food? Especially if those from the global North with exponentially greater access to the internet dominate voter turnout?

OK, maybe I’m taking this scheme too seriously, but if the UN, ODI, and others are going to make the case that they want to listen to the whole world’s views on such important matters, I hope they are prepared to deal with the messiness that much smaller democracies face. Not only are the world’s priorities likely to be highly heterogeneous, but their scheme is likely to highlight that the rich minority of citizens have quite different policy preferences than the majority poor — even if one assumes that the types who are likely to vote are going to be disproportionately cosmopolitan in outlook in the first place. And if the goal of the exercise is solidarity, one has to wonder if this all might backfire?

And of course if they take the vote and then hide the results because of turnout disparities or polarization of priorities, well, that won’t look very democratic after all.

More repression in Swaziland

As reported in the Times of Swaziland, armed soldiers roamed through Mbabane today, with the clear intent of repressing any attempts to demonstrate against the regime.

In a statement issued by Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini in the afternoon, “national security agents have been instructed to protect life and property against any protest action planned anywhere as it has been declared illegal by Cabinet.”

“The public should be aware that no person, persons or organisation has made an application to march or picket in terms of the law,” the PM said.

According to Swazi Media commentary, several protest leaders have been arrested. And in a report from the M&G,

A “no tolerance” warning was issued against the protests, imposing a ban on walking in groups of three people or more.

I still have yet to see any reports of the Swazi crisis in any American media outlet.

Avoiding a twitter revolution in Swaziland

Various scholars and analysts will continue to debate the role of social media within the Arab Spring. But Swaziland’s King Mswati III isn’t taking any chances: According to the M&G, he’s planning to ban criticism on facebook and twitter. I am guessing that the little kingdom state probably doesn’t have the capacity to track down its cyber-critics. But perhaps the relationship between Mswati and the largely South Africa-based mobile and internet providers is cozier than I assume it to be?

At the moment, the Swaziland facebook page is replete with nasty critiques: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Swaziland/48672481450, and renewed calls for protest on April 12.

Note to autocrats: don’t bother proposing a ban on free speech unless you can actually carry it out!

Philosophy as required high school subject in Brazil

A great piece in the Boston Review on Citizen Philosophers in Brazil, where since 2008, philosophy instruction has been compulsory in all high schools. A philosophy teacher in Salvador, a virtually African city in the country’s Northeast, explains its value:

 

The contrast between the new luxury hotels along the beach and Itapuã’s overcrowded streets gives rise to questions about equality and justice. Children kicking around a can introduce a discussion about democracy: football is one of the few truly democratic practices here; success depends on merit, not class privilege. Moving between philosophy and practice, the students can revise their views in light of what Plato, Hobbes, or Locke had to say about equality, justice, and democracy and discuss their own roles as political agents.

As one can imagine, not everyone thinks this is a great idea in practice. But what a bold idea for building a thoughtful and critical-thinking citizenry. Would be great if someone designed a rigorous study to test the impact of studying philosophy on citizen attitudes and participation.

Solid democratic trends across African continent

A new report from StandardBank does a nice job of highlighting positive trends in leadership alternation via elections in sub-Saharan Africa this past year, and previews some of the important elections to come in 2012. While the news we read and hear each day tends to paint a continent in perpetual crisis, a broader view suggests that, “Today, Africa is more peaceful than at any stage in its post-independence history.”

Africa rising, but not necessarily in democracies

This week, The Economist cover shouts, “Africa Rising: After decades of slow growth, Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia.” As it points out, this past decade, six of the 10 fastest-growing economies were African, and the IMF expects African growth to chug forward at a rate of about 6% this year and next.

Map from The Economist

It’s great to put a spotlight on the fact that Africa is not perpetually mired in stagnation and misery. There’s good reason to be hopeful, and while American investors are always slow to the party when it comes to Africa, in a world with few good investment options, maybe some greenbacks will flow to the continent.

As a political scientist, the obvious question I wanted to ask was, what are the sources of variation in growth, and what are the political factors influencing those patterns? Obviously in a few cases, most of the story is natural resources – Angola and Equatorial Guinea. But is the quality of democratic politics any predictor of growth outcomes?

I did a quick analysis: I calculated the average 10-year polity scores (which is a measure of regime type, ranging from -10 – hereditary monarchy to +10 – consolidated democracy) for the period 1997-2006. Then, I plotted the IMF average annual economic growth figures on the Y-axis for the period 2007-11. All sorts of caveats apply – for all of the countries, 2011 is a forecast, and for some countries, other years in the series are projections as well, and of course, the quality of data are pretty mixed. But are recent patterns of economic growth in any way predicted by prior patterns of democratic politics?

Ugly stata scatterplot produced by yours truly

It doesn’t look that way… there’s no real pattern in the data. Obviously, this is just a straight-up scatterplot and there’s lots of interesting ways one could do this analysis more seriously. In the lower left corner, the tragedies of Swaziland and Zimbabwe are clear, but several other pretty autocratic countries are doing just fine in terms of economic growth. Meanwhile, the Southern African democracies of South Africa and Botswana are advancing at a more lackluster pace, albeit from a much higher level of development than almost all the rest of Africa. Ghana is a real stand-out on the positive side, having enjoyed successful leadership replacement and high economic growth.

But in sum, there is no clear pattern at the country-level. African successes and failures are emerging in a wide range of manifestations.