Opinionista Mmusi Maimane 20 April 2017

South Africa must stand up for democracy on the continent

The events that are currently unfolding in Zambia should be deeply concerning to those committed to democracy in Africa.

A week ago today, Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was arrested and detained on charges of treason, the maximum punishment for which is death.

The excessive violence of the arrest, and the inhumane treatment that Hichilema has received in detention confirms the political motives behind these charges. The arbitrary arrest of political opponents is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, which seek to systematically eliminate any potential threat to their rule. This is a reality that South Africans are all too familiar with given our history of political repression under apartheid minority rule.

The events that are currently unfolding in Zambia should be deeply concerning to those committed to democracy in Africa. The roots of this political crisis can be traced to the flawed election that President Edgar Lungu officially won in August 2016, following credible reports of the abuse of state media and public funds for the ruling party’s campaign, the shutting down of opposition newspapers, widespread voter intimidation and a lack of transparency in the vote counting process. In rubber-stamping this election, the international community – including election observer missions – missed an important opportunity to defend democracy and reject the abuse of power.

If elections are not substantively free and fair, they serve only to provide a false sense of legitimacy for undemocratic leaders. For decades, the bar for African elections has been set too low, allowing autocrats to get away with anything short of outright violence and to erect a façade of democratic rule despite fraud, manipulation and suppression.

For too long, business leaders, diplomats and international organisations have held back from criticism of African leaders who seek to quash opposition and impose their rule, out of fear of retaliation or a belief that more work can be done from within the system. What is happening in Zambia, however, is the natural consequence of this logic. It takes courage to stand up and defend democracy, and to call authoritarianism by its name. But this is the only way to ensure a truly free and open society.

It is time for democrats in Africa to speak out. Democracy is a necessary condition for sustainable development, for the protection of fundamental human rights and the creation of economic conditions which bring people dignity. We cannot accept anything less – because without it, we are all vulnerable.

In South Africa, as in Zambia and other countries, we are witnessing the erosion of the rule of law, the abuse of state resources and political power, and the circumvention of the democratic process in ways both explicit and subtle. It is becoming increasingly difficult for opponents of powerful ruling parties to make their voices heard and to hold governments accountable for their actions. If this trend continues, the future of democracy and development on the continent will be in jeopardy. As a result, apathy is no longer an option.

Without a doubt, the Zambian government will try every method of diverting attention and blame – alleging Western conspiracy theories, invoking national security, resorting to populist rhetoric and ethnic mobilisation. These are the tools in the autocrat’s playbook. It is up to principled African leaders in politics and business, diplomats and international organisations, civil society and the people themselves to expose these tricks for what they are and reject them resolutely.

Like many of our brothers and sisters in Africa, South Africans fought long and hard for the right to vote. We must play a leading role in the ongoing fight to protect it. Rest assured, the Democratic Alliance will continue to take a principled stance, to set a higher bar for African democracy, and to fight for better governance and human rights on the continent. DM

Mmusi Maimane MP is the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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