‘Grinding’ democracy in postconflict societies

Duncan Scott

University of Aberdeen



Many times in the past few years the news media, political commentators, and politicians have described South Africa – unemployed youth in particular – as ‘a ticking time bomb’. I refer to South Africa because it’s the context I’m most familiar with, but the causes of unrest in the most deprived areas of society are similar in many postconflict situations: lasting unemployment, inadequate service delivery, disenchantment with politicians who repeatedly break their promises, a lack of hope in long-deferred structural changes to society. What’s more, the people living their lives in degrading and dispiriting environments, the people politicians fear hold the match to the fuse, these are very often the same people who made considerable compromises during peacebuilding processes and the transition to democratic rule for an equal-rights society. People inevitably ask the question: ‘How long do we have to wait before we see the change we hoped for?’


I recently attended a fascinating lecture (a launch event for the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice) by the Canadian academic-author-politician Michael Ignatieff, in which he described the democratic project in divided societies as different to peaceful ones. It is not enough for politicians to show good faith and a democratic ethic, they have to transform relationships previously based on fear, to ones based on trust. He described democracy as a work in progress in which political opponents continuously have to take risks to push for change. The depiction fits well with his earlier comments that democracy is ‘timeless’, ‘interminable’, ‘grinding’. At the time and reflecting on his words later on, I thought he was probably correct – democracy is all those things. But there is an overwhelming sense that for citizens in postconflict societies who opted for peace and the hope for something better, time marches relentlessly onwards. They feel the grind of democracy more acutely than others, as a gristmill, perhaps, that somehow never seems to turn the grain into flour.


shake hands


In a manner of speaking, victims of conflict shook hands with adversaries years ago and were willing to be moral beacons of change, but politics and politicians have failed to follow their lead. There is no doubt that there is a difference between a ‘timeless’ democracy that delivers benefits to citizens and an ‘interminable’ system run by parliamentarians unwilling to form and transform relationships with those on the other side. Professor Ignatieff described politics in its purest form as ‘a vocation’ – ‘a


calling’ to which individuals respond in the service of voters. It’s clear that politics does not resemble this ideal in South Africa. John Brewer posed this question in an earlier post [http://blogs.qub.ac.uk/compromiseafterconflict/2013/06/07/what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-moral-beacon/]: ‘So do we take our lead from the victims, the very moral beacons we claim to be supporting, or do we let their spokespeople set the agenda?’ In postconflict representative democracies, parliamentarians are meant to support and speak for victims. To do this properly they need now to listen to what victims – and their families – are saying. Furthermore, since relationships and identities change continually in postconflict societies, sometimes for the worse, politicians would do well to take a retrospective look at victims’ hopes at the time of transition. The guiding light many of them provided at the time may have grown faint in the intervening years. But if politicians can discern it, they will hopefully realign and invigorate their political goals. It’s surely the only way people who continue to suffer from the injustices of the past could begin to see democracy as a long process of change and not an interminable stalemate.


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4 Responses to ‘Grinding’ democracy in postconflict societies

  1. John Brewer says:

    This is a very powerful statement. Americans are fond of saying that all politics is personal. In a political system where political parties count for little and hide within them widely different wings, it is easy to see why they think this. The presidential system further encourages the cult of personality that pervades US politics. But there is something to this adage in transitional democracies emerging out of conflict. The ambition, vision and courage of the generation of politicians who negotiated the deal and were brave enough to step into an unknown future of peace makes it seem that politics was personal – and that there personal vocation was critical to the transition. No better example exists of this than Mandela. But there were brave and visionary politicians in Northern Ireland. The ‘grind’ to which Duncan refers, in trying to make post-conflict democracy work, can make us lose sight of the personal vision and courage. In the ‘grind’ there is often the personal without the politics, as politics gets reduced to personal insult and insinuation – often about the past. Perhaps a solution to the ‘grind’ is for post-conflict politicians to regain their courage and vision, the ambition that fired the settlement in the first place, and to pass them on to the rest of us. But the rest of us have a responsibility too. We are all responsible for making peace work. We need to be asking ourselves, what courage, what vision am I displaying?

  2. Duncan Scott says:

    Thanks for your comment, John. I found your question at the end most challenging – one of the thorniest issues years after a settlement is how to describe with some consensus, and then accept, continuing personal and group responsibility for the past and present. The ‘born frees’ probably feel this most sharply – the under-20s were all born into a compromise society and will likely share the perception (rightly or wrongly) that they face denied opportunities rather than chances to thrive. Obviously in South Africa this perception will have very different and disputed meanings for white and black youth, not to mention those from economically poor and affluent situations. In moving forward though, I think we’ve got to the point in SA where responsibility for the status quo can no longer be apportioned only according to historical injustices along racial lines (though the effects endure!). Nineteen years after 1994 the responsibility question now goes deeper than it ever did, and is more complex than it ever was.

  3. Clark Shiels says:

    It is surely impossible in the North of Ireland to move forward when both sides expect to win the territorial claim. Until this is settled there will always be a so called legitimate claim by each side to cause death and mayhem in the name of their cause. At present we talk a good peace , but the great saying the dog,s in the street know its no really true. Eg. Just last night wether we like it or not our Cultural minster opposed a march which I suppose marks British Culture while she herself may not agree with this display of Orangeism I believe as Cultural Minister she should have at least stayed away. Again her reaction proves the point peace in name only. In this country peace will never exist whilst both sides believe they have legitimate claims over the other. Daily politics will not cover this problem up we need to look outside the box do away with both aspirations and start N.I anew as a separate state neither owing alliance to Britain or Ireland . Let the younger generation start a fresh vibrant state where all can exist.

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