Literacy is Not a Prerequisite for Democracy in South Sudan

Stacks of ballots in South Sudan. (UN Photo)

It has been argued by scholars such as Robert Kaplan in his 1997 article “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” that prerequisites such as literacy are necessary for a nation to have a working democracy. He makes this argument on the basis that a population must be reasonably educated in order for it to interpret government policies and make knowledgeable political decisions. Kaplan argues that democracy needs an institutional foundation of education order for it to be successful. If it does not have this precondition, a democracy will be “composed of corrupt, bickering, ineffectual politicians whose weak rule never had an institutional base to start with” (Kaplan, 1997, 1). Due in part to its years of conflict and instability, the UN states that South Sudan has a literacy rate of only 27%. According to Kaplan’s argument, this would mean that democracy would not succeed in South Sudan.

But the use of literacy and education as preconditions for democracy can have adverse consequences. Literacy can be employed to restrict voting rights by enacting laws that do not allow people to vote unless they are literate. These laws would exclude citizens and limit democracy to the educated. In South Sudan’s case, such laws would exclude a majority of the population, prohibiting them from expressing their interests. Moreover, because women comprise only 12% of the educated, excluding the uneducated from voting would not allow women to vote for their interests (Kaplan, 1997, 1). This is inherently undemocratic because democracy is a system of government that champions equality. Democracy is a system that should be extended to all, and in fact, South Sudan does not need high literacy rates for its democracy to succeed. The nation has other qualities, such as voter solidarity and a strong national identity that suggest democracy indeed could be successful there.