3. Understanding the System of Governance

Two systems of democracy exist in a juxtaposed position in Botswana. These are direct and representative democracy. The former operates at community level through the system of the kgotla where decision making generally and theoretically takes the form of popular participation by all community members. This system compares to the Greeks' classical direct democracy of the cities of Athens and Sparta.

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Direct democracy has limitations of its own. However, because of its historical roots and acceptance in Botswana, it forms part of our modern system of governance. Linked to the latter is the system of representative democracy. The two systems are briefly described below:

3.1 Direct Democracy

Direct democracy is a government by popular acclamation. Members of the community participate directly in the decisions that affect them. Historically, it is documented across the world as having Greek origins and as the ideal system of government. However, democracy "...is like a tree with roots anchored in almost all cultures of the world" (Sachs, 1993). Direct democracy or its essential elements existed in pre-colonial African and Asian societies with major semble to pre-industrial American and European societies. Despite its historical universality, direct democracy was feared by the founding philosophers and political theorists such as Locke, Plato and Aristotle for what they perceived as its mob characteristics and consequences. Its overall strengths include:

  1. Open debate on issues,
  2. Direct communication - verbal hence limited distortions,
  3. Relatively quick decision making,
  4. Tolerance of different viewpoints,
  5. Relative cheapness with no cumbersome bureaucracies and intervening institutions, etc.

Critics of direct democracy, however, point to the following limitations and practical problems:

  • (i) It is potentially riotous, as it is susceptible to mob rule without proper expert guidance,
  • ii) Rushed decision making may lead to serious negative implications which due to lack of evaluation might not have been anticipated,

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  • iii) It is never quite fully participatory as barriers such as gender, age, ethnicity, etc., were often used to limit some people from full participation.
  • iv) It is limited in its applicability to small and geographically confined communities, etc.

It is in the context of the shortcomings of direct democracy, especially the point (iv) above, that direct democracy has limited usage in a modern large multi-cultural population spread out over a large landmass.

Representative democracy emerged as an innovative system where community interests are represented by one or a few individuals operating in the House of Representatives.

3.2 Representative Democracy

The other component of the Botswana's democracy is representative democracy. The leaders of the independent state of Botswana chose representative democracy to be the system of governance at independence. Representative democracy operates through specific key components, which are:

  1. Regular competitive elections – which is but a process of selecting representatives;
  2. Entrenched party system - competitors are generally better placed to make sense and impact if they are grouped into political parties than acting as individuals;
  3. Well defined and specialised institutions, which include parliament, executive (cabinet), judiciary, administration and local government;
  4. Supremacy of the rule of law - nobody is above the law. The law binds even those who make it, irrespective of their position;
  5. Elected representatives as spokespersons with direct participation limited to elections.

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The advocates of representative democracy hold the view that under this system, for a leader to be effective he/she must not necessarily be a messenger. That is he/she must be able to interpret the immediate situation and take a stand that is justifiable. They must provide ideas for both constituents and the institution that they represent.

In a representative democracy, institutions provide checks and balances for the system - these are the Judiciary, the Executive and Parliament.

It is important that these institutions are clearly understood and accepted by the people in order for representative democracy to thrive. There must be a full understanding of the rules.

3.3 Weaknesses

The weaknesses of representative democracy include:

  • a) Alienation of the representative(s) from the represented. There is always a tendency for some social distance to develop between the representatives and the represented. This situation invariably leads to conflict of interests and dissatisfaction on the part of the electorate.
  • b) There often develops institutional alienation - when institutions become inaccessible to the represented. This is currently the major criticism labelled against democracy countries of the West that is, UK, USA, Germany, etc. In these countries major problems of participation relate to the electorates' loss of confidence in the institutions of governance. They feel helpless, voiceless and intimidated by huge bureaucracies and a mosaic of rules and regulations.
  • c) Poor communication and links with the electorate often results.
  • d) The dominating views are often those of the most articulate and strategically located groups such as the media, lobby and other organised interest groups.

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  • e) Low participation of the population in elections, referenda, consultative processes, etc.
  • f) Conflicts and dis-articulation between the central and local government on issues of policy and development priorities, etc.
  • g) A strong tendency to exclude some sections of the population using wealth, age, sex, etc., as determining factors.

This type of democracy is institutional and procedural. Effective representatives must monitor and work hard to improve its content. Over time one can identify institutional constraints and suggest modifications because institutions are by nature dynamic.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Juni 1999

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