December 10th, 2013


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.