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Democracy, development and our village neighbour

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By Tapiwa Gomo

A FORTNIGHT ago, I wrote about how and why African countries need to review the current practice of democracy. I argued that the current format is not fit for poor societies because it is prone to manipulation by capital power. I also contended that in its current format, democracy is one of the reasons why corruption has continued to grow unabated in Africa because it is now common that votes are traded for gifts and money before elections.

I further argued that part of the reason political leaders are compelled to loot national resources, to prioritise personal gains and to abuse power is because the current format of democracy does not guarantee them the security that is necessary to pursue national goals. Nonetheless, I am still a proponent of democracy, who believes that democracy should be an evolutionary outcome of several aspects of growth, mainly economic growth.

I am writing this instalment because one reader asked why I should express such views in an age when global societies have embraced democracy. I thought I should respond by sharing the story of our neighbour in the village and it may help shed some light on issues that look easy on paper yet complicated in real life.

When I was a young boy staying with my grandparents in the village, there was a young family that was one of our neighbours. They had three children the eldest of whom was my age then — roughly 10 years. I was convinced that they were struggling because their children used to feed from neighbours and we donated to them clothes and other items we were no longer using.

It was roughly during that period when the father of these children went around the village asking if his two boys aged eight and 10 could help with cattle herding in exchange for draught power during the planting season. For most boys of more or less my age in the village, cattle herding was how we spent the days during school holidays. But they were families that either did not have kids to help with that tasks or those that had sent their children on holiday. The boys did not protest but obliged.

So there was a “market” for that service. A few families enrolled for the service which in the lenses of today’s laws and policies is seen as child labour. Instead of staying home alone, the two boys joined several boys to herd cattle in the pastureland. They played games and read books with children of their age as was often the practice once the cattle took a break to chew the cud. The boys became part of a society of children in the village.

On the other hand, their father and mother spent their time providing menial labour to neighbours. Hard as it was, those were among their ways of making ends meet.

Their earnings were not always enough but they tried. The wife had the option of dumping the poor husband and get another one or just move on with her life. The husband too could dump the family as some did when under pressure.

They had a garden along the nearby river where they grew vegetables for consumption and for sale. As they say, there is no rest in a poor family’s life, that was the case with this family. It had a choice of blaming its poverty on someone — government, village head or anyone. It chose hard work.

Come planting season, they made use of the draught power acquired from cattle herding services rendered by the children. The cash saved from menial work and sale of vegetables was used to buy seed and other farming inputs. By harvest time, they had enough food for the family and were able to purchase two heifers for breeding. However, the two boys had to continue cattle herding for the second year during school holiday.

Hard labour and cattle herding continued until they acquired their own oxen for draught power as well as other farming requirements.

The economy of the young family was growing and becoming more sustainable giving each family member new opportunities.

The children continued to join the boys every school holiday to herd cattle but this time they were herding their own cattle. Their dignity and respect were restored.

The boys were also growing with the older boy sitting for his grade seven examinations. When we first met, he had no hope that he would complete his primary school education let alone go to high school due to the situation at home. He too could have protested to his parents against child labour.

As we prepared to sit for our final Grade Seven examinations, the story had massively changed.

He could choose from any of the boarding schools in the district — a choice he could not imagine three to four years before.

He started to see opportunities, growth and to dream.

What do we learn from this family? Choices, opportunities and democracy are associated with a stronger economy.

Without an economy with a stronger base, the ability of people to exercise their rights, to make choices and to access opportunities gets compromised.

Democracy is closely tied to economic sources of growth, like educational level and lifespan through improvement of institutions as well as healthcare.

A stronger economy will ensure taxes are remitted and fairly allocated to make stronger State institutions and pillars of democracy that can be neutral in the face of political and capital power.

  • Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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