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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .

Consolidation of Democracy in Africa: A view from the South
Hussein Solomon and Ian Liebenberg (eds.),

Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000
380pp. Biblio. Index. Hb.: 49.95; ISBN 0-7546-1174-4.

This book is a collection of writings by academics, researchers and political analysts, who are nearly all based at universities and research institutions in South Africa. So, what it gives us, as the subtitle suggests, is a view of Africa from mostly a South African perspective. The authors of the different chapters explore a range of questions about the meaning and reality of democracy in contemporary Africa. Issues such as constitutional frameworks, the changing roles of civil society, civil-military relations, gender, globalisation, human rights and intergovernmental relations are examined in relation to the consolidation of democracy (or not) in a number of African countries.

One of the key hypotheses of this book is that "democracy in its various manifestations in Africa is closely linked with notions of civil society (or the civil community). Indeed, democracy and civil society are locked in an interactive relationship which may manifest itself differently in Africa." (p.9) There is an explicit assumption on the part of many of the contributors that democracy and civil society in Africa are different from democracy and civil society in other continents. I would add, and I think the authors have said implicitly, that there are also wide differences in the experience and practice of democracy in the different parts of Africa.

Since the authors are nearly all based in South Africa, many of the examples and cases they cite are from that country. I am not convinced that the South African case can be taken as indicative of what is happening in other parts of the continent. Having said that, I found the wealth of examples from and the application of theories to the South Africa context give the reader a very in-depth understanding of how questions of democracy and civil society have played themselves out in that context. For example, Elke Zuern, in Chapter 4 on "The Changing Roles of Civil Society in African Democratisation Processes" gives a very good summary of the changing role of South Africa's "civics" from the pre-transition period of protest action and informal justice to the transition period including both violence and negotiation in the early 1990s to more current difficulties for civics to have a role in the consolidation and institutionalisation of democracy in South Africa. (see pp. 119-130)

Ethnic identity and ethnic relations appear in relation to various issues explored in the book. For example, in Chapter 5 on "Civil-Military Relations in Africa: Soldier, State and Society in Transition", Mark Malan touches on the matter of "ethnic manipulation of recruitment and promotion, so that key elements of the armed forces are of the same ethnic/tribal group as the chief executive". (p. 146) And, in chapter 4, Zuern points out that "ethnic and village-based groupings are normally excluded in western definitions of civil society" and argues for the inclusion of ethnic associations in our understanding of civil society "as long as participation [in these associations] is voluntary." (p.109)

One of the key conclusions made by the editors in the final chapter is "that not one, but many possible pathways can lead to reconstruction of African economies and polities." (p. 301) They also assert "that for the particular condition(s) in Africa, no set model exists - and even should some claim that it exists, such models are open to adaptation and transformation." (p. 302) I would agree that political and economic systems need to be designed for and adapted to the particular social and cultural context, but I also believe that one country can learn from both successes and failures in the experience of other countries that are struggling to consolidate democracy in a form that is suited to their situation.

In this review I have only been able to very briefly touch upon the range of issues and topics that are explored in this volume. I would recommend the book for anyone who has an interest in questions about democracy and civil society in Africa. And, for those who want to delve further into the topics and issues raised in the book, there are extensive references given with each chapter as well as a lengthy list of bibliographic references at the end of the book.

Steve Williams

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