Rwanda’s story is more complex than clean streets and effective governance


2019-01-07 13:42

Just like our Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, I was also struck by Rwandan society, particularly their work ethic and the cleanliness of the capital city, Kigali. Rwanda is fast becoming a model post-liberation society characterised by less red tape and a very investor-friendly policy environment. There are those who believe that a country cannot create an investor-friendly environment whilst equally pursuing its own development agenda. 

Here in South Africa, there are those among us who believe that any attempt to find policies that would attract foreign investment amounts to abandoning the historical development agenda. Rwanda’s story shows that government is capable of attracting foreign direct investment to the benefit of local development. This is no longer debated in Rwanda.  

When I visited Rwanda about 8 years ago, I was taken aback by the infrastructure development taking place around Kigali. Construction was booming, and skyscrapers were being built around the city. When you drive outside the capital city towards Lake Kivu, bordering the DRC, the Rwandan hills are an amazing sight displaying a massive agriculture sector. Nearly every acre of land that can be ploughed is being ploughed. Rwanda looked like a country that has just discovered crude oil. The bedrock of Rwanda’s economy is that its agriculture and farming seems to be a national pride, if not the most practical solution. 

In terms of cleanliness, Kigali is indeed a world apart from the dilapidated downtown Johannesburg. So, bravo to Mboweni for putting that out there. The story of Rwanda, however, is way more complex than the clean streets of Kigali and an effective government led by President Paul Kagame. Rwanda is gradually becoming an economically prosperous society; yet it is not becoming an open society or a more democratic society.       

Kagame is a national figure in Rwanda. Kagame is the state, and the nation cannot imagine leadership beyond him. He infamously amended the Constitution to pave way for him to attain a third term as the president. Despite the opposition’s resistance and condemnation by the international community, Kagame went ahead and became the president for the third time. Whenever the importance of open democracy and the principle of multi-party democracy are discussed as basis for building an equal society, the question of Rwanda is brought up as a rule testing experience. Why is it that Rwanda continues to prosper economically and enjoys some international legitimacy despite Kagame’s continued dictatorship in the country?

It would be unfair to say Kagame is an outright dictator – he plays by the rules and he goes to the elections as well. Yet, it would be inaccurate to say Kagame is a democrat. He does not admire some of the basic tenets of liberal democracy, e.g. the periodic rotation of leadership. Critics of liberal democracy – particularly its emphasis on leadership rotation – often point to Rwanda to argue that changing leaders at regular times brings instability in relation to policy implementation. People also show a fascination with the idea of a strong leader needed to nudge societies into shape. The idea of a guardian or a king as a source of higher moral authority has always been one of the big fascinations shown by humankind throughout history. This brings me to the question regarding the type of obedience that may define Rwanda as a society. 

During my visit to Rwanda I attempted to use a plastic bag to carry some of my belongings in the street. A hotel staff member told me that I was not allowed to use a plastic bag in Rwanda. Rwanda introduced a ban on the use of plastic bags because they cause pollution and are also not biodegradable. That make sense. South Africa also attempted to introduce a punitive levy on the use of plastic bags. Alas, revenue has been collected from the purchase of plastic bags in stores, yet the habit of using plastic bags continues. The difference between Rwanda and South Africa in this regard is the ability of society to obey and follow the rules. 

Why do Rwandans follow the rules while South Africans relish in breaking the rules? The only factor that separates Rwanda and South Africa is how leaders are seen and perhaps the system of rules employed in each of the two societies. Democracy is a system of rules that essentially requires that participants enjoy their rights and honour their obligations to each other. The system of rules in a democracy is largely self-regulatory, except in situations of policing and peace-keeping where the state has authority to act in the interests of all. 

Rwanda is succeeding in terms of policy implementation and development, despite the fact that the country adopted a system of rules that is not in compliance with the requirements of a liberal democracy. Some of the leaders here on our soil have voiced concerns with democracy; that it is better to implement policy under a dictatorship. I am bound to ask if Rwanda succeeds and avoids rampant corruption because the country is distinctly not a liberal democracy or not a democracy at all? 

Those who often mention Rwanda as a case model of development often forget to deal with the question of whether Rwanda’s development trajectory is built on feudal societal relations, instead of a modern open society. It is important to ask if Rwanda has made a choice between democracy and economic prosperity. To discuss Rwanda without discussing the system of rules adopted in that society is to miss the other part of the story. 

Indeed, Kigali is one of the cleanest cities in the world. Is it because of a sense of obedience across society, or a widely shared value system that results in the common commitment by all Rwandans to keep their country clean? One wonders, if Rwanda followed the principles of liberal democracy, including multi-party democracy, would the country be where it is in terms of development?

– Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg, and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa’s Turn.

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Publish date : 2019-01-07 12:02:10

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