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The rise and fall of liberal democracy: Towards a developmental social democracy in Africa

On 2 October 2018, IPSS organized a lecture on the theme: ‘The Rise and Fall of Liberal Democracy: Towards a Developmental Social Democracy in Africa’ delivered by Khabele Matlosa (PhD), the Director of the Department of Political Affairs at the African Union Commission (AUC).


10 October 2018

The lecture focused on the contemporary trends of democracy on a global scale and in Africa. Dr. Matlosa shared that the state of liberal democracy is under threat and that developmental social democracy can improve the livelihoods of African citizens. He proposed that a developmental social democracy unique to each member state would be better suited for the needs of the continent’s citizens.

The lecture looked at the conceptual framing of democracy, the core crisis points of liberal democracy and how the continent can gradually move towards developmental social democracy. The consensus by field experts is that democracy is under strain worldwide and that a reinvention is necessary to build better governance. Dr. Matlosa phrases it as a ‘democratic standstill’, which has been imposed due to external pressures linked to the politics of aid. The elements of strain include inequality, exclusion, marginalization, lack of innovation/responsiveness, and narrow nationalist populism.


The few governments, particularly in Africa, that claim to be liberal democracies are known as ‘grey zone democracies’ due to their partial authoritarianism. He added that such governments begin with integrity, but eventually backslide into a democratic recession and become increasingly oligarchic and authoritarian. This might not solely be the fault of governments but due to fundamental problems with liberal democracy itself.


Furthermore, Dr. Matlosa categorized these core crisis points of liberal democracy as political decay, social degradation and economic deficit. The fallacy of electoralism (political decay), equates liberal democracy with electoral democracy, which fades true democracy into obscurity in between elections; leading to disenfranchised citizens and minority governments minimizing faith in the governmental system.


Elitism, marginalization and exclusion (social degradation) have usurped the power of citizens by stripping them of inclusion. Liberal democracy has been incapable of addressing six social problems: unemployment, health, education, poverty, water supply and infrastructure, leading to development failure (economic deficit). The paradox of Africa is of uneven globalization seen through extreme poverty yet having an abundance of natural resources.


Some participants mentioned that a hybrid of liberal and social democracy might be the solution for African governments. By injecting components of social democracy into liberal democracy, a ‘human face’ can be given to democracy, but the engagement and mobilization of institutions, leaders and citizens is critical. More so, the strengthening of states in a social democracy can lead to instability in an economic and social context.


Dr. Matlosa’s recommendations for Africa to move towards developmental social democracy included:

  • Ensuring democracy resonates beyond elections;
  • Restoring balance between the political, social, economic and cultural aspects of governance;
  • Ensuring developmental social democracy while emphasizing collective and individual rights;
  • Insisting that social democracy be driven by visionary and transformative leadership;
  • Increasing engagement in citizen activism;
  • Insisting on the inclusion of patriotic yet independent intelligentsia that undertakes critical and evidence-based research; and
  • Ensuring a balance of state interventionism and market forces.


In conclusion, the lecture envisioned practical steps for Africa that can be contextualized to any given country. Dr. Matlosa stressed that social democracy must address developmental challenges in order to be successful and unlock the continent’s full potential. This can be achieved without having to reinvent the wheel of governance but can be built upon the current state of democracy.


Click here to view photos from the lecture.