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Deliberative Theory and African Philosophy: The Future of Deliberation in Transitional Societies

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Deliberative Theory and African Philosophy: The Future of Deliberation in Transitional Societies

Abstract

This article invites a conversation about the role of the media and the responsibility of journalists in post-colonial societies in transition to becoming stable democracies. It outlines some of the specific challenges such societies face in cultivating a discursive environment underpinned by complementarity and mutuality. The article introduces the African philosophy of Ubuntu, a normative basis for journalism and deliberative democracy, which exhibits a distinctly non-partisan approach and resolves some of the exigencies of diversely constituted democracies. It argues that, through the lens of Ubuntu, the media can be seen to act both in the public and the national interest. Overall, this article seeks to redefine the role of media from that of gatekeepers and watchdogs of power to that of mediators for the purpose of seeking consensus among members of society as well as between people and government.
Tavernaro-Haidarian, L. (2020). Deliberative Theory and African Philosophy:
The Future of Deliberation in Transitional Societies.
Journal of Deliberative
Democracy
,
16(1), pp. 20–26. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16997/jdd.389
RESEARCH ARTICLE
Deliberative Theory and African Philosophy: The Future
of Deliberation in Transitional Societies
Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian
This article invites a conversation about the role of the media and the responsibility of journalists in
post-colonial societies in transition to becoming stable democracies. It outlines some of the specic
challenges such societies face in cultivating a discursive environment underpinned by complementarity
and mutuality. The article introduces the African philosophy of Ubuntu, a normative basis for journalism
and deliberative democracy, which exhibits a distinctly non-partisan approach and resolves some of the
exigencies of diversely constituted democracies. It argues that, through the lens of Ubuntu, the media
can be seen to act both in the public and the national interest. Overall, this article seeks to redene the
role of media from that of gatekeepers and watchdogs of power to that of mediators for the purpose of
seeking consensus among members of society as well as between people and government.
Keywords: communication; democracy; deliberation; discourse; Ubuntu; media; journalism
Introduction
Building democratic societies entails informing citizens
of their rights and responsibilities. Citizens must know
how they can actively engage in governance. They must
have a platform to express their voice, hold the powerful
to account and collectively determine the common good
(Rodny-Gumede 2015a). The media play a key role in
fulfilling these tasks, especially in post-colonial societies
in transition to becoming stable democracies. But their
role faces a distinct set of challenges.
The first challenge derives from the diverse character of
post-colonial democracies. Take the case of South Africa,
where diversity of language and values and sharp economic
inequalities make it impossible to talk of ‘the public’ as
one homogenous or like-minded mass (Wasserman & de
Beer 2005; Gassner 2007). How can the media’s norms be
guided by their commitment to the public interest when
interests are so widely constituted?
The 2012 coverage of police forces shooting thirty-
four protesting mineworkers in a rural part of South
Africa is a case in point. Reports of this incident, which
has come to be known as the ‘Marikana Massacre’ (see
Rodny-Gumede 2015b) focused more on the violence
of the striking miners than the widely neglected and
fundamental problems underlying labour relations in the
country (Rodny-Gumede 2015b). This meant that a variety
of news channels serving a wide range of demographics
all focused on one angle, which ultimately reinforced the
narrow and privileged narrative of a suburban (white)
population, while neglecting alternative views, including
those of the miners themselves.
The second challenge concerns the need for budding
democratic governments to garner public support. The
post-apartheid government in South Africa accuses the
media of serving, under the guise of a liberal agenda, a
white elite that is averse to democratic transformation
led by a black majority (see Rodny-Gumede 2015a: 110).
Instead of focusing on what is wrong, the thinking goes,
the media should contribute to nation building and the
development of nascent democratic efforts — especially
considering the uphill battle of addressing all the
inequalities created by apartheid (Jacobs 2007; Fourie
2001; Netshitenzhe 2002; Wasserman & de Beer 2006;
Hadland 2007).
These two challenges imply a clash of values, narratives
and interests among citizens and a potential undermining
of a democratic government’s efforts by media that
sometimes inadvertently align with a problematic
oppositional stance. These nuanced and complex realities
require a rethinking of the often-assumed dichotomy
whereby the media act either in the public interest or
in the national interest (see Netshitenzhe 2002). As
Wasserman and de Beer (2006: 70) propose, the question
may not be so much about the public ‘versus’ the national
interest but rather about how the media conceive of the
‘nation’ and a diverse and complex ‘public’ in the first
place and whether they do so in mutually exclusive terms
or as complementary ideas. While the watchdog role is
important in societies that have come out of authoritarian
rule and where elites have not previously been held
accountable, new democracies must also supplement
accountability with the task of not destabilising the often
University of Johannesburg, ZA
leylahaid@me.com
Tavernaro-Haidarian: Deliberative Theory and African Philosophy 21
fragile legitimacy of a new regime (Voltmer 2006). At the
same time, the media also have an obligation to maximize,
rather than curb, the potential of a diversely constituted
public.
This article proposes a way to resolve these tensions.
It begins by considering the national and public interest
as bound-up rather than conflictual. Doing so, however,
requires a shift in the frameworks that inform not only a
theory of the press but also our normative assumptions
around democracy more generally. I propose the concept
of Ubuntu, a philosophy of complementarity and unity in
diversity, as a basis for such a framework.
From Adversarialism to Mutualism
Dominant normative assumptions about the role of the
media in society are often informed by an adversarial
realism, which refers to the premise that human interests
and social relations are inherently conflictual. Such a view
is embedded in media practice, as in the case of the 1947
Hutchins Commission or the Commission on the Freedom
of the Press, which laid out the role of the media in modern
democratic societies. In this landmark report, the social
responsibility of the press and an informed citizenry were
held as paramount values. While this commission was
convened for the United States, global media philosophies
have internalised the social responsibility ethos for the
media (Nordenstreng 1998), which includes the idea of
providing a platform for balanced information, comment
and criticism as well as projecting a representative picture
of constituent groups in society.
The normative underpinnings of this derive from an
adversarial realism which assumes that humans inevitably
organise according to various interests, that these interests
are mutually exclusive, and that contest and competition
are the best way to coordinate (Karlberg 2004). From
within this realism, democracy has become synonymous
with partisanship, even though there is no necessary
correlation between the two (Karlberg 2004: 43). Echoing
this approach, the media perpetuate assumptions of
partisanship by aiming to provide a ‘balance’ of views or
sides’ to a story, as well as by providing an ‘oppositional’
stance vis- à-vis government.
Partisan democracy, however, is a culturally specific
model of democracy that is naturalised in Western
societies and associated with the emergence of capitalism
(Lyon 1984; Tannen 1998). Capitalism and partisanship
presuppose that people are motivated by self-interest
and that societies are best organised as contests. This
is why social protest is thought of as an effective tool
in managing the excesses of self-interest and abuses of
power by creating dissent or, in the context of journalism,
by putting the media in the role of watchdog.
But while the watchdog approach has been instrumental
in the democratisation process of post-authoritarian
societies, the unique exigencies of contemporary societies
in transition bring attention to its many limitations.
These include, among others, the reduction of complex
democratic issues into oversimplified camps. Subsequently,
nuanced issues are diluted, and confrontation and conflict
are emphasised. This becomes particularly visible in the
field of journalism, where stories are frequently framed
in terms of (sometimes very false) binaries and, more
importantly, common ground is systemically obscured
(Hine & McLaren 2019; Tavernaro-Haidarian 2018a).
Combined with a hyper-commercialisation of media that
capitalises on a carefully curated taste for drama, division
and spectacle (McPhail 2006), much public discourse
devolves into a discursive battlefield (see Shah & Thornton
2004; Cottle 2006).
Where diversity is steadily on the rise and democratic
governments are still maturing, such types of public
discourse polarise and conceal commonalities, failing to
cultivate the complementarity and mutuality necessary
for joint progress (see Aslan & Ebrahim 2016). As a result,
and to create spaces for thoughtful and constructive
processes of democratic deliberation, proponents of
deliberative democracy advocate cooperative truth-
seeking and, by extension, models of public and civic
journalism and authentic deliberation where power is
equally distributed (see Bessette 1980). Traced to the
Habermasian ideal of the public sphere (Habermas
1962), the concept of deliberation has shifted from
the aim of securing consensus and agreement through
language to recognising pluralism and striving for
metaconsensus, ‘which involves the mutual recognition
of the legitimacy of the different values, preferences,
judgments and discourses held by other participants’
(Curato et al 2017: 31). Pluralism is channelled into
workable agreements rather than adversarial point-
scoring (Curato et al. 2017: 31).
As a contribution to such notions of deliberative
democracy, yet pushing some of its frontiers, the
normative theory of Ubuntu offers valuable insights,
especially in relation to the concepts of partisanship and
power. Specifically, while various models of public and
community media (see Habermas 1962; Filson 1992;
Dahlgren 1995) facilitate substantive and prudent partisan
debate, they seldom explicitly question the premise of
partisanship itself (Karlberg 2010). Ubuntu, on the other
hand, views all human interests as essentially and deeply
bound-up, engendering in this way a non-party polity.
Beyond this, deliberative democracy advocates an ‘equal
distribution’ of power (see Bessette 1980), which traces
back to predominant understandings of power in Western
social theory. Here power is conceived of primarily in
material terms as something that can be held, wielded or
at best shared/distributed (Tavernaro-Haidarian 2018a).
By contrast, Ubuntu, offers a conception of power as
immaterial ‘force’ or as mutuality between people, which
can only be co-generated (see Tavernaro-Haidarian 2018a).
In doing so, it begins to resolve some of the challenges
of democratic social practice, such as those related to the
role of media in transitional societies.
Ubuntu, Non-partisanship and Power
The challenges of contemporary democratic reality have
prompted many, especially in the Global South, to consider
alternative epistemologies for journalism and democratic
deliberation (Sass & Dryzek 2013). Post-apartheid South
Africa referred to the normative moral theory of Ubuntu
Tavernaro-Haidarian: Deliberative Theory and African Philosophy22
as a key philosophy underpinning governance and service
delivery (Rodny-Gumede 2015a: 110). Ubuntu vaguely
means ‘a person is a person through other persons’ or ‘I
am because we are’ (Tavernaro-Haidarian 2018b). It has
its roots in the Sub-Sahara and is frequently thought of
as a notion of ‘humanity toward others’ (Kamwangamalu
1999: 25). Ubuntu expresses harmony in diversity and
human reliance on ‘relations with others to exercise,
develop and fulfil those capacities that make one a person’
(Shutte 2001: 12). Ubuntu defines us as primarily other-
oriented rather than selfish, and means that the more
we consider others, the more fully human we become.
Deriving from an oral tradition, Ubuntu is ‘still in the
making’ (Wiredu 1980: 36) and is generally understood as
an ‘ideal’. This means that while it can and has, at times,
been misappropriated (see Tomaselli 2009), this does not
make the principles it embodies any less pertinent.
Among these principles is non-partisanship related to
harmony. While the idea of the public sphere (Habermas
1962) requires sincere and authentic deliberation, it
does not necessarily view varying interests as inherently
complementary (Karlberg 2010). Ubuntu, on the other
hand, is conducive to non-competitive forms of decision-
making and favours unanimous, consensus-based
deliberation (Wiredu 1996; Bujo 1997; Gyekye 1997; Metz
2014). This takes place in many African communities,
where ‘discussion continues until a compromise is
found and all in the discussion agree with the outcome’
(Metz 2007: 324). Leadership is shared and community
members explore matters together, coming to decisions
by agreement that incorporates ‘both majority and
minority viewpoints’ (Blankenberg 1999: 46). Wiredu
(1996: 135) describes this as a non-party polity, where
political candidates do not answer to a constituency but
rather to the public as a whole.
Sceptics of (African) consensual democracy suggest that
it is essentialist and has historically excluded non-Africans
(see Ani 2014) and women. Yet the principle of Ubuntu is
not to be conflated with the history of African consensus
or democracy. While many describe its manifestations in a
particular society at a particular time, Ubuntu in its ideal
and normative sense provides an opportunity to explore
contemporary applications of ‘I am because we are’.
Through the normative lens of Ubuntu, which assumes
that human affairs are not divergent but rather deeply
bound-up, instead of negotiating or maximising the
widest set of interests (see Lyon 1984), harmony for the
common good (i.e. other-orientation) is a default premise.
Related to this, Ubuntu engenders a notion of power
that distinguishes itself from predominant conceptions
of power in noteworthy ways (see Tavernaro-Haidarian
2018a). In brief, the idea of balancing or eliminating power
inequalities, as associated with concepts of deliberative
democracy (see Bessette 1980), suggests that power is
something to be had or held in the first place. Deriving
from traditional ideas of domination and submission,
power, in this context, is thought of primarily in terms
of material resources, potential abuses and struggles for
ascendance (or, at best, a balance) (see Tavernaro-Haidarian
2018a). This derives from and entrenches oppositional
identity formation, the idea of conflictual human interests
and the need for partisan posturing. Conversely, and
building on alternative, capacity and capability related
— including feminist — notions of power (see Miller
1982; Giddens 1984; Boulding 1990; Nussbaum 2011),
Ubuntu foregrounds immaterial and entirely force-based
understandings, where power is thought of as that which
emerges between people only when they collaborate and
the more they collaborate (Tavernaro-Haidarian 2018a).
As a result, Ubuntu eschews the ideas of domination
and submission in favour of channelling richly textured
yet complementary forms of identity formation,
bound-up conceptions of human interests and non-
partisan approaches to democratic deliberation that
focus on the realm of common ground and harmonious
coordination. This provides a noteworthy nuance. By
viewing interests as richly textured and diverse, the idea
of complementarity contrasts both with Wiredu’s (1980)
assumption of the sameness of interests and Ani’s (2014)
supposition of their divergence. The latter stems from
the view that democracy’s primary role is to manage
competitive energies (see Ani 2014), though there is no
reason why the idea of ‘by the people for the people’
cannot be systemically premised on cooperative energies
instead.
Implications abound. Through the lens of Ubuntu,
the media are not seen as gatekeepers and watchdogs
of power but rather as mediators for the purpose of
nurturing consensus among members of society as well
as between people and the government. In pursuing
common solutions to social problems, citizens look
towards themselves rather than (only) toward the
political elite. This is particularly significant in places with
diverse language and socio-economic or values-based
backgrounds (Wasserman & De Beer 2005; Gassner 2007).
Public discourse, according to Ubuntu, has the role of
maximising and bringing diversity together in mutually
enriching ways. In this context, the media become ‘gate-
openers’ (Wasserman 2013: 78) for narrative wealth.
Examples of this can be found in the South African talk
show scene, where case studies show that ‘gate-opening’
happens when a traditional binary framing of issues is
replaced by an open-ended one that invites deliberation
and mutual exploration in place of persuasion and
partisan posturing (Tavernaro-Haidarian 2018b: 42–43).
Journalists and hosts draw out contrasting (rather than
conflicting) angles and cultivate an overarching ‘we’
identity that nests a wide range of richly textured sub-
identities. Time is taken to probe and clarify the underlying
motives of guests in order to find common ground, while
participants exercise self-reflexivity and contextualise
their views and experiences.
Of course, and importantly, this does not mean glossing
over differences or speaking in artificially polite tones to
preserve a dominant narrative. On the contrary, epistemic
richness and freedom of expression are encouraged as
participants engage in informed, probing, critical analysis,
while expressing themselves with care and moderation.
Diversity is regarded as an asset and the perspectives,
concerns, insights and expertise of a wide range of
Tavernaro-Haidarian: Deliberative Theory and African Philosophy 23
participants is drawn out. This, it is often assumed, can
only be ensured through a ‘confrontation’ of opposing
views that are framed in terms of ‘pro and contra’, even if
to amplify a ‘weaker side’ (Manin 2017: 44). Naturalising
partisan positions, however, can be reductionist as it fails
to address the full complexity and layered nature of reality,
obscuring common ground where it does exist.
In this context, healthy criticism (see Manin 2017) is
not absent, yet it is detached from partisan posturing.
As individuals express their experiences and views, these
become a collective resource and stand to be adopted,
refined or discarded according to group wisdom. As such,
consensus (including that which is derived by majority
agreement) means that a decision is wholeheartedly
adopted and carried out without dissent or sabotage,
so as to probe its validity. If the chosen strategy proves
misaligned, it is reconsidered (Tavernaro-Haidarian
2018b). Collective enquiry and deliberation then become
a collective process of learning through continued
planning, action and reflection.
Because of this, impartiality, neutrality and objectivity
are ‘neither necessary nor desirable’ (Fourie 2001: 37). The
journalist sees herself as an active part of the community
rather than an outsider or observer, and has a personal
stake in collating and interpreting events (Blankenberg
1999: 49–50. As a participant, her assumptions are
incorporated into her presentation of the views of
others. In this context, Christians (2004: 247) talks of
authentically disclosing’ or historically and biographically
contextualising one’s views — be it as a journalist or as
a member of the community. This means expressing
one’s perspective without being wholly identified with it
or defending it at all costs. In this sense, a wider set of
interests and concerns opens up (Duncan & Seloane 1998;
Rodny-Gumede 2015a), and citizens move from passivity
to active participation in the process of self-governance
(Carey 1997: 139), and listening becomes more important
than persuading (see Wasserman 2013).
However, rather than thinking in terms of distinct
models of journalism, discourse and democracy, anywhere
can be seen to exhibit Ubuntu to the extent that some of
its characteristics come to the fore. Insofar as authentic
disclosure and contextualisation emerge, for example,
a news story or television programme can be seen to
exhibit Ubuntu. The same story or television programme,
however, may also focus on controversy and partisan
posturing, thereby reducing the extent to which Ubuntu
is evidenced. For example, an article exploring the motives
of a man behind a shooting may ask: ‘Does [his] grin convey
a sense of accomplishment or complete disengagement
from the consequences of his actions?’ (see Kelly 2013:
n.p.). This framing implies a binary between deliberate
action on the one hand and insanity on the other and
suggests they are mutually exclusive. Reality is presented
in terms of two possibilities, one of which must be true
and the other false, obscuring many other combinations.
Coverage exhibiting Ubuntu, on the other hand, may
include both the perpetrator’s feeling of achievement and
his detachment from his actions as two (of many) possible
and possibly interacting factors in what the author would
authentically disclose as his personal reading of a mugshot.
In other words, media makers have space to elaborate
on their coverage, on their choice of framing and their
analysis in order to contextualise their own voice as one
of many in an ongoing discourse between researchers,
specialists, commentators and ordinary citizens who have
a perspective to offer on how different causal forces might
interact and interrelate. As such, nuances are dialogised
rather than polemicised (Fairclough 2003).
Ubuntu views public life in terms of deep communal
relations and reciprocity, and the media as facilitators of
critical consciousness that enable ‘communal relationships
between residents as well as between residents and
the state’ or other groups, individuals and civil society
organisations (Metz 2015: 83). Ubuntu, then, engenders
an ethos that combines the role of the media as nation
builders with that of serving the public, rendering this
not as a compromise but a strength. It caters to a wider,
more representative conception of the citizenry as a
whole. By assuming other-orientation, rather than self-
interest, as the chief motivator of human nature, Ubuntu
directs the idea of deliberative democracy towards deeply
harmonious outcomes.
Some Challenges and Limitations
Ubuntu may be critiqued for its potential to threaten
the sacredness of individual freedom (Metz 2011: 532).
Ubuntu, the thinking goes, is better suited to small-scale
or traditional societies rather than large-scale modern
or industrial ones. However, Metz (2011) suggests
that Ubuntu is well placed to inform a public morality.
Its moral conception of human dignity builds on the
capacity of individuals to construct community through
identifying with and exhibiting solidarity towards others.
For journalism, this means that the media must show
empathy with and minimise harm done to the people
about whom they report. It also questions the truth
criteria associated with Western culture, by valuing rather
than trying to disregard cultural and social interpretations
within a community. Whatever is deliberated or reported
on is assessed from the perspective of the impact on
the community as a whole (Fourie 2011). Overall then,
the purpose of democratic deliberation, and that of the
media in the service of deliberative democracy, is to play a
developmental role.
Of course, a consciousness of Ubuntu is not ubiquitous,
and it exists alongside various other values and ideologies,
all of which shape current realities and social practice.
Within prevailing partisan systems, still largely beholden
to economic dynamics, the substantive, principle-
based discourse of deliberative approaches struggles to
flourish. Within the space of journalism, oppositional
spectacle continues to dominate the political economy of
advertising-financed media. Such media organisations are
pressured to increase their profit margins and therefore
amplify the most dramatic and irreconcilable positions
to feed a cultivated taste for drama that directs viewers
towards advertisers for profits (see Jhally 2006).
Yet cultural trends and politico-economic realities are
not essential human truths. What is attractive and sells
Tavernaro-Haidarian: Deliberative Theory and African Philosophy24
today can very well change tomorrow and so audience
tastes can be seen as ever-evolving. Viewed from this
evolutionary perspective, value becomes relative. This
was certainly the case with societies moving from
totalitarian and authoritarian structures to democratic
and libertarian ones, and it is echoed in the concepts of
press freedom and freedom of expression. These can be
appreciated as historic strides, while further efforts can
be made to refine and mature democratic sensibilities in
the form of harmonious, cohesive interactions. At the end
of the day, just because something is viewed as idealistic,
this does mean that it is not possible or desirable to
achieve. Many social movements, for example the one
against climate change, while entirely inconvenient to
the status quo, are increasingly seen as non-negotiable.
The question, then, becomes not if but when a sense of
urgency will overcome a critical mass of people in favour
of harmonious and cohesive approaches to governance
and public discourse.
Conclusions
This piece explored the pressing need for and future
trajectory of deliberative democracy in contemporary
societies by examining the role of the media and the
obligation of journalists within contexts of post-colonial
societies transitioning to stable democracies. These
ideas, of course, can be extended beyond post-colonial
fledgling democracies to include established ones that
are changing through increased multiculturalism (see
Duncan & Seleone 1998). In European countries, for
example, unprecedented numbers of immigrants are
transforming the ethico-cultural fabric of society and
contributing in new ways to established democratic
processes (Aslan & Ebrahim 2016). A predominantly
adversarial approach to governance and social practice,
including prevalent forms of discourse and journalism,
may be maladapted to meet the needs of these diversely
constituted societies. Instead, the collaborative and
cohesive strategies of deliberative democracy are better
suited to not only manage but maximise complementarity
in diversity.
As an enrichment to and progression of deliberative
democratic thought, the African moral philosophy
of Ubuntu provides a basis for such strategies. What
characterises Ubuntu’s unique contribution is its
assumption that human beings are fundamentally other-
oriented, that power is a mutually created force for
progress and that the most effective way to organise is
not partisanship but togetherness and harmony. Ubuntu
offers some vital contributions to the field of deliberative
democracy and suggests that, though an emphasis on
competitive and conflictual forms of social organisation
currently prevails, the potential exists for many
contemporary divisions to be bridged through cultivating
a deeply relational attitude of ‘I am because we are’.
Whether this can be achieved ‘only after unimaginable
horrors precipitated by humanity’s stubborn clinging to
old patterns of behavior or is to be embraced now by an
act of consultative will’ (Baha’i International Community
1985) remains to be seen.
Competing Interests
Dr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian, PhD is a member of the
Editorial Board of the Journal of Public Deliberation.
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How to cite this article: Tavernaro-Haidarian, L. (2020). Deliberative Theory and African Philosophy: The Future of Deliberation
in Transitional Societies.
Journal of Deliberative Democracy
, 16(1), pp. 20–26. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16997/jdd.389
Submitted: 17 September 2019 Accepted: 10 June 2020 Published: 26 August 2020
Copyright: © 2020 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution
4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
Journal of Deliberative Democracy
is a peer-reviewed open access journal published
by University of Westminster Press. OPEN ACCESS
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