Many individual African countries since independence have been operating under two systems of governance: one, the country’s formal institutions, laws and values, and the other, the informal one, which often informs the real day-to-day behaviours.
The great African theorist Peter Ekeh in the 1970s called this phenomenon the “dual publics”, postulating there are often dual or multiple “publics” and rules operating in African countries, with the formal, or “official” ones, often at odds with the informal, but “unofficial” ones.
In the 1970s Ekeh called the formal and “official” laws, institutions and values, the “civic” public realm; and the informal and “unofficial” the “primordial” public realm, which are essentially the pre-colonial African traditions, institutions and norms.
Many Africans, according to Ekeh, may sometimes operate simultaneously in both these two realms. In their private lives they may act according to the rules of the “primordial” realm, embracing African traditional norms, while in their public life they may embrace the “civic” realm.
Others may totally reject the “civic” realm and only embrace the “primordial” realm in both private and public life. Yet others again may similarly reject the “primordial” realm, and only embrace the “civic” realm in private and public life.
Having two parallel governance systems operating in one country often undermines economic development, growth and building viable African democracies.
Since Ekeh originated his classic African theory in the 1970s these two realms remain existing in parallel in many contemporary African countries. The challenge for our times is how to create a new democratic public realm for Africans, which straddles both the “civic” and “primordial” realms postulated by Ekeh.
Such a democratic public realm must govern both public and private life. The basis of such a new envisaged joint-up common public and private realm for Africans must be that the elements of “patrimonial” structures which undermine individual human dignity, value and rights must either be abolished immediately or reformed.
The “primordial” public realm has been distorted and reconfigured by both colonial, apartheid and white-minority regimes, but also by self-interested African traditional authorities.
Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments in Africa deliberately ran a dual governance system.
Sadly, at the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority regimes, African liberation and independence movements adopted the dual system from these regimes, this time allowing traditional authorities to rule their local “subjects”, on conditions they get their “subjects” to vote for the independence or liberation movement governments.
Informal alternative social, cultural power structures, social relations, norms and values, especially in the rural areas, which are antithetical to democracy as well as to inclusive development and individual freedom, continues to dominate both the public and private realms of many African countries.
Post-independence African governments have created new formal overarching national institutions, such as parliaments, judiciaries and laws, which one can call civic structures. However, traditional but informal – the patrimonial realm – institutions, cultures and power structures regulate the behaviour of most citizens, rather than the formal ones.
The informal governance structures that often dominate real day-to-day lives of Africans include the “traditional institutions for regulating land tenure, family formations, labour relations, inheritance laws, credit institutions, and traditional guild organisations”.
Some of these traditional institutions, rules and customs, on occasion may be undermine both development and democracy; others can be adapted and harnessed to support both; and many others will have to be abolished.
Our challenge is that patrimonial structures which undermine individual human dignity, value and rights must either be abolished immediately or reformed.
The debate over what is appropriate African “traditions” for our times must be wrested away from those who argue culture for purely opportunistic reasons, self-enrichment and to shore up their own influence and bank balances.
China is one country where the dual realms were formally abolished, in favour of one “civic” realm, which governs both the private and public realms, albeit a communist one.
China equalised the social relations between supposed traditional authorities, chiefs and leaders and “subjects”, taking away the power of the former to be the arbitrators of culture, or to be the governors of the “patrimonial” and private realm.
But also as important, the Chinese government abolished the power of the traditional chiefs and authorities, whereby they have control over land, patronage and the social values. The Chinese set out a programme to equalise the status between traditional leaders and authorities and ordinary peasants, setting new common rules of behaviour.
Giving all citizens equal value is a prerequisite for African development. Furthermore, making the fundamental rules, institutions and behaviours – no matter the traditions, religions or cultures – applicable to all citizens of African countries are crucial for development.
Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. His latest book is South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination? Tafelberg