Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

27 October–9 November 2008, Dakar, Senegal

Number of visits: 1708

The world-wide democratisation of politics is, without doubt, one of the most exciting projects of our times. It is a project that has been unfolded in every region of the world, including the countries of the South which, for differing reasons and lengths of time, came under prolonged authoritarian rule before their political systems were once again opened up. However, in contrast to earlier efforts at exploring it from different, multiple perspectives and vantage points that took full cognisance of history, context and culture, democracy has come, nowadays, to be reduced to a singular shorthand for multi-party electoral politics as stylised from the experiences of a few Northern countries. Multipartyism has, in turn, been made the primary yardstick for measuring “good governance”. The consequence has been the production of a one-size-fits-all notion of democratic processes applied everywhere irrespective of history, location, or environment on the basis of a set of technical criteria that are informed by narrowly defined and contestable Western experiences. So convinced are the proponents of this perspective that they have also transformed their version of democracy into a key component of the political conditionality that is applied to the developing countries of the global South in their endless rounds of bargaining with the international financial institutions, bilateral donors, and private lenders for development finance.

But it is not only officials and institutions of the North that have embraced and deployed a technocratic, pro forma notion of democracy and governance. In the hands of the officials of the South too, the limitation of democratic theory and practice to electoral pluralism has encouraged a culture whereby democracy is simply limited to periodic elections whose rules are sometimes rigged and organisation seriously flawed. This situation has created widespread discontents as much for the narrow political principles and pillars on which the contemporary democratic project has been pursued as for the complete neglect of the social, economic and cultural pillars on which a democracy that is truly representative and accountable can be expected to rest and endure. All over the world, including in the “new democracies” of the South, popular demands are in evidence for the institutionalisation of democratic systems that are able, over and above the licensing of multi-party politics and the convening of periodic elections, to respond to the quest of the citizenry for social justice and progress, economic security and personal dignity, and everyday participation and accountability. These demands have been further accentuated by the adverse consequences on countries, communities and people of contemporary processes of globalisation whose socio-economic underpinnings are propelled by neo-liberalist visions and forces.

The limitations of the democratic experiments and transitions taking place in the contemporary international system in general and the countries of the South in particular have made it necessary for concerted efforts to be made to go beyond the prevalent but narrow - and narrowing - notions of democracy and governance that have taken hold in order to retrieve the concept and enhance our understanding of the processes and challenges faced by the countries of the global South in building truly representative governments. Central to this task of retrieval and the opportunity for renewal which it offers is the notion of social justice. In whatever way the term may be grasped and employed, democracy cannot flower and endure if it is not founded on social justice, it being understood that in every political system, social justice is integral to the articulation and exercise of citizenship. The dimensions of social justice that require to be addressed in the construction of durable democratic projects are multiple. They include the basic social relations that underpin economy and society, the social contract between state and society, the welfare concerns of the generality of the populace, rural-urban relations, the human rights of the people both as individuals and as communities, the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples, the rights of women, gender equality, and protection for children and vulnerable groups. Participants in the fourth South-South Institute will be invited to explore these and other dimensions of the democracy–social justice nexus, doing so by critically assessing the gaps in the dominant theories of democracy and examining empirical experiences in terms of the extent to which they are able to accommodate and respond to popular pressures for inclusion and justice.

Democracy is a system of government. It informs us how the lives of citizens are ordered, how citizens interact with one another, and how they relate with the state and its structures. Governance entails more than the institutions of state: It also includes the strategies, tactics, and knowledge that underpin the state and inform political action. Many citizens have legitimate expectations that one of the dividends that should flow from democratic governance is the facilitation of access to a broad range of social services. So too do they demand that the democratic state which they help to bring about through their struggles should also be socially inclusive, responsible and representative. A comparative study of the struggles that have been waged around these issues is likely to reveal the emergence of new forms of popular participation and protest, new experiments in collective action among the new social movements that have developed, exercises in popular accountability, and innovative ways of organising, strategising, expressing solidarity and reinventing social ties. In order to be able to capture these developments and integrate their import into our analyses, it would be necessary to undertake in-depth analyses of “really existing” democratic systems. The fourth South-South Institute will avail participants an opportunity to undertake such in-depth analyses.

December 30 2009