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Mthwakazi: majority rule and minority rights

How a nation makes its decisions is an integral factor and determinant of its socioeconomic and political fundamentals. The last generation fought colonial rule to eradicate a tyranny by the white minority over a black majority. Unfortunately, when independent Zimbabwe endorsed majority rule it systematically undermined provisions that limited that principle to ensure it protected the rights of individuals. Today we are witnesses to an absolutist form of majority rule with no regard to minority rights.

The idea of majority rule as applied in Zimbabwe is one political aspect that this blog has been consistent in its criticism. While tyranny by minority over the majority is in principle barred, tyranny of the majority against minority is jealously protected. The unchecked majority rule is systematically used to oppress minority ethnic groups and persons holding unpopular views.

We do subscribe to the principle of majority democracy and recognise the positive function of the principle of majority rule, e.g. its establishing of a simple and clear mechanism for making decisions that ensures when decisions are made more people are in favour than against and a privileged minority elite does not prevent the majority from making economic and political decisions.

Image Copyright: Sutori (n.d). The minority elite and powerful holding all the power over the public majority

However, we need not ignore the functional abuse and impact of the majority rule as a decision making tool in Zimbabwe; under the auspices of the majority, the tyranny of ethnic Shona people over groups identified as Ndebeles (who were recently sarcastically referred to as a righteous minority by an ethnic Shona ZANU PF legislature for daring to express their rights were being oppressed) is the pervading factor. 

Pro-Mthwakazi politics must learn and change; majority rule maybe a convenient template but we need to be aware of its vulnerabilities and contradictory factors that are or can be hijacked by holders of power and from which it must be protected for it to do what is intended of it. We need to go further and ensure all citizens are served equally irrespective of race, tribe, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, social class, etc.

This site does not own the copyright to this image. The majority imposing their will on a minority is not justice but tyranny

We must be clear that majority rule cannot be the only expression of “supreme power” in a democracy. The majority must not be allowed to tyrannize the minority, as such majority’s decisions must heed the protection of the minorities. In other words, while it is fundamental to democracy to allow the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it is equally important to democracy that we guarantee that the majority will not abuse its power to violate the basic and inalienable rights of the minority.

Fundamental to Mthwakazi’s democracy today is the establishment of majority rule with minority rights, a concept of democracy expressed by Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, in his First Inaugural Address in 1801,

“All . . . will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression.”

President Thomas Jefferson, 1801

It has to be noted that in every constitutional democracy, there is ongoing tension between the contradictory factors of majority rule and minority rights (Patrick, n.d). Our political space has to fearlessly grapple with the two questions:

  1.  ‘When and under what conditions’ should the rule of the majority be curtailed in order to protect the rights of the minority?’ and
  2. ‘When and under what conditions, must the rights of the minority be restrained in order to prevent the subversion of majority rule?’

READ MORE: Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide 

“If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, “Tyranny of the Majority,”

In a constitutional democracy, majority rule is only as good as the supreme laws put in place to limit it; if unlimited, majority rule is potentially just as despotic as the unchecked rule of an autocrat or an elitist minority political party. Rule by consensus should be the target, pro-Mthwakazi groups ought to work at building a political environment that ensures equality of citizens and involvement of citizens in the decision making process. The powerful elite minority should not subvert the rights of a majority, the majority should not have the predominant power; individual rights should not be subject to a public vote; minorities must be protected from oppression by majorities.


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