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Democracy - a Pedant's View
I keep seeing Nelson Mandela referred to as "the first democratically elected president of South Africa", because he was the first to be elected after the franchise was extended to non-whites. By that criterion, Ulysses S. Grant was the first democratically elected president of the USA - although, since half the adult population was still excluded from voting at that time, perhaps the honour really goes to Warren Harding. The ancient Athenians, of course, were never democratic at all, despite supposedly inventing the idea.

You'll have guessed that I don't think it's very helpful to talk about Mandela in that way. Not only does it conflict with the latitude the word "democracy" is normally accorded (some people even think the House of Lords is democratic, for goodness' sake), but it narrows the scope both of his achievement and of apartheid, which was about much, much more than voting rights. Journalists have to use shorthand, I suppose, but I wish they'd reach deep into their word hoard and find another phrase.

Well, you and I know all too much about the journalisting classes, n'est pas?

(Deleted comment)
Interesting essay - thanks!

There is an argument that can be made that these are not equivalent situations, but it's a terribly convoluted argument and ultimately unsatisfactory, so I'm not going to attempt to make it.

I'll just point out that the history of segregation in the US is also messier. A constitutional right to vote didn't mean it actually existed. Black voting rights in the South were whittled away between the 1870s and 1890s, and were not, in practice, restored until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which even at that took a while to implement.

And, as with apartheid, segregation was about much more than voting rights. It was just that that, along with schools, was one of the easiest things to point to, to begin to address the problem.

This is all true. Perhaps then the "first democratically elected" president was Lyndon Johnson, or even - gulp - Nixon.

But, as you say, it's really a matter of voting rights being the easiest thing to point to (and also the least controversial from the West's point of view). At best, it's lazy journalism.

I wasn't thinking so much of the journalists pointing at it but the activists and legislators working for civil rights. You can change laws; attitudes and customs are much harder and less amenable to rules.

I would concur with that, Lyndon, not the crook Nixon.

Journalists, by their very nature, have to make it glib and simple to a populace that have an attention span of a gnat.

I would be on board with a much narrower definition of democracy, actually. If only white male landowners are voting, after all, isn't that more of an oligarchy? It could be a democratic oligarchy, of course--the reigning oligarchs decide things among themselves democratically--but in that case, calling the entire country a democracy, or democratically governed, seems misleading at best.

"Democratic oligarchy" would indeed be a fair description of the US in its first years. (For different reasons, it's also an increasingly good description of the US and the UK in the 21st century: these days, practical restrictions in terms of wealth and social background on the constitution of the political class may be more effective for this purpose than legal restrictions on the constitution of the voter base.)

My pedantic worry is that two quite different definitions of "democratic" are in play here, without the difference being acknowledged. My ideological worry is that this becomes a way to co-opt only the parts of Mandela's legacy that our current rulers find least disruptive of their own complacency.

Oh, yes, absolutely. I think that's a foregone conclusion--our current rulers are going to be scrambling to bury and ignore the actual history of their relationships to Mandela and his radicalism in order to assimilate him into a narrative of harmless-teddy-bear-wise-black-leaders. This is one way to make that narrative happen--"Mandela brought America-Approved-Democracy (TM) to South Africa and we supported him all along!"

I would throw some form of "plutocracy" into any description of current US rule, too.


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