In 2010, I spent a month at the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Studies (STIAS) as a research fellow.
That month was the best my brain has ever spent in any place. I was like a child in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory because I had the opportunity to engage with scholars and intellectuals from home and abroad, including a scholar who had written on the topic I was there to research, that is, historical memory and politics in postapartheid South Africa. Do not panic – I am not about to go heavy on you so early in the year with a treatise on historical memory. I will reserve that for Easter.
However, what I will tell you about are two interesting encounters I had at the STIAS because they influenced the content of this article. The first was over lunch with a group that studies complexity by taking a multidisciplinary approach. All I will say for now is that I had a headache for days after that encounter. The second was with a group that was looking at the theme of global crisis and democracy. What they were investigating is whether the global economic crisis would present opportunities for, or impose threats on, democracy. There was concern among some of them that an economically resurgent China would pose a threat to demo- cracy all over the world, including those parts of the globe that are already democratised.
During the last quarter of 2011, I spent a lot of time thinking about the connection between the global economic crisis and democracy. In December, I was part of a discussion during which an American warned that developing countries such as South Africa should be wary of China. He argued that China is a hegemon and that its narrow political and economic interests are the centre of its universe. Well, he did not put it this well, but I am certain you get my drift.
There is nothing original about these warnings. People warn us dim-witted Africans about China all the time. What I find amusing – I no longer have the energy for anger – is the fact that these words of wisdom always come from Europeans and Americans and South Africans who are part of the Western sphere of influence. There are many ironies that are lost on these people. Because they are too numerous to mention, I will share just a few. Firstly, it is extremely problematic that, as a man who has spent almost half a cen- tury on this planet, I thought, for most of that time, that the English-speaking parts of the West were the philosophical, cultural and economic centre of the universe. This is a product of centuries of cultural and economic domination which, in many cases, was imposed violently.
Secondly, I did not experience China as a hegemon. It is America and Europe that imposed themselves and their ways on us.
Thirdly, my experience of the hegemony of the West has largely been that of a gap between its liberal democratic aesthetic and the moral content of its relations with the ‘Third World’.
That said, as a democrat, I recognise the gap between China’s economic resurgence and its very deep democratic deficits. This article is, therefore, not about waving the Chinese flag in your face. As I have said before, the global economic crisis and shifts in the global system from West to East constitute an opportunity for us to reconfigure the content of global economic relations and work towards a less unethical or more ethical global cultural, environmental and economic order. If this does not happen, it is highly unlikely that sub- stantive democracy will become a reality for most people on this planet.
What this means is that the Arab Spring, instead of giving birth to a summer of freedom and democracy, will mutate into a winter of discontent and betrayal of hope. Three things are worth noting in this regard. Firstly, it is not a given that shifts in the global system will deliver a new economic paradigm and a more ethical international system.
Secondly, we should not rule out the possi- bility of democratic reversals in some parts of the democratic world.
Thirdly, it is not a given that the current democratic order will yield to one that allows a diversity of democratic expe- riments and experiences.
If the experiences of Greece and Italy are anything to go by, we should be very worried because the application of economic remedies that are based on the ‘shock doctrine’ of imposing unpopular and undemocratic measures on a paralysed citizenry may subvert the democratic rights of citizens and the sovereignty of nations. Therefore, it is foolish to think that China is the only threat to democracy. We must also be wary of the tyranny of technocrats acting in the interests of the market.