Is pluralism attainable?

If any nation can be said to be pluralist it must be modern South Africa. The strength of South Africa lies in the richness and diversity of its cultures, but that ethnic diversity can also be a real impediment to the benefits of pluralism unless very carefully managed.
Former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, in a speech on Democracy in Africa: The Challenges and the Opportunities (delivered in front of the South African Parliament in Cape Town on 1 June 1998), noted that democracy can help to prevent or eliminate divisive pluralism. He noted that every African nation is a multi-ethnic nation, which can be a source of strength if it is protected in the right way.

Ethnicity is particularly dangerous to national unity when it becomes a blunt instrument exploited by politicians in their quest for power. An obvious example of this abuse is that of President Idi Amin who used a racist attack on Asian business people to drive them out of their businesses in Uganda, in the 1960s. This was meant to consolidate his own ethnic political credentials but badly damaged the Ugandan economy.

Some countries have banned ethnic politics. Another way of averting this danger is to provide for power-sharing arrangements in the constitution in such a way that no particular ethnic group can feel permanently excluded from government. This can of course be enormously difficult to achieve, as the situation in Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime exemplifies: the numerical dominance of Kurds and Shia has clearly raised the fear among some Sunnis that they will be edged out of power in any power-sharing arrangement.

Next, we look at the second of the principles underpinning democracy: citizenship.