Monday, June 28, 2010

DA Newsletter 28 June 2010

The "Thugocrats" that threaten our future

The longer people live in an "open society", the more they tend to take its advantages for granted. So much so, that many of us do not know what the concept means nor understand its significance.

Our constitutional negotiators in the mid 1990s considered the concept of "openness" so important that they include it in the first clause of the first chapter of our Constitution.

It is a sign of the progress we have made that many South Africans today exercise the rights and freedoms of the "open society" without thinking about them. They speak their minds, make their own decisions, and express themselves boldly even if their views run counter to popular opinion. They reserve the right to change their opinions, if new information arises. This culture is the bedrock of democracy, sustainable development and technological progress. It creates opportunities for growing numbers of people, and encourages them to take responsibility for improving their lives.

For those who take this culture for granted, it is sobering to remind ourselves that South Africans who live in our country's "open society" enclaves are probably outnumbered by those who don't. There are millions of South Africans who fear speaking their mind, taking their own decisions, or expressing a view if this contradicts the dominant position of "the collective". Ironically, this "collective" generally consists of a small clique of self-appointed individuals who assume a mantle of legitimacy by describing themselves as "the community".

They set themselves up as "gatekeepers" over all the people living in a defined geographic area, prohibiting any alternate channels of communication, and claiming to represent the "collective will". And they do not hesitate to use intimidation and violence to impose their views. They control resources and manipulate patronage. They use labels to smear any opponent. This is the iron grip of the closed society that throttles democracy, smothers development, and prevents people from using the opportunities available to improve their lives.

Here is just one small example (among very many) that came to my attention in recent weeks.

A few days before Bafana's final match against France, an enterprising woman in an informal settlement, without electricity, decided to make the match accessible to her neighbourhood. She managed to source a generator and a donation of petrol to run it. She sought assistance to hire a small hall. She then began spreading the news of the event. Before long she was visited by a few individuals, who forced her to cancel her plans, because she had not been authorized by "the community" to screen the game. The "community" consisted of a few self-appointed individuals who arrogate to themselves the right to decide what may happen and what may not in the settlement where she lives. They are more accurately described as the local "warlords".

This is not an isolated incident. It is the daily reality for millions of South Africans. I have experienced this autocratic and unconstitutional authoritarianism in countless contexts in the course of my work.

This is a well known phenomenon throughout our continent and one of the main reasons why so many attempted transitions to democracy have failed.

In his excellent book "The Shackled Continent", Robert Guest graphically describes the situation in Mogadishu, Somalia (the ultimate failed state). In Mogadishu, says Guest, nothing happens without the permission of the local warlords, whom he calls "thugocrats". They often exercise their sadistic control over no more than a couple of city blocks, but that ground is their fiefdom. Their tools are intimidation and violence.

A senior employee of a soft-drink company described how difficult it is to distribute the product to the few local shops that still operate in Mogadishu. To enter or pass through any one fiefdom they must first pay the local warlord and his coterie with crates of cooldrink. To get to some shops requires crossing several of these small fiefdoms, paying each time -- otherwise the trucks are hijacked or burnt.

This may be an extreme example. But there is no shortage of "thugocrats" in South Africa. Many well-intentioned people help to tighten their control by facilitating their gatekeeping role, abetting their patronage, and entrenching their power abuse. South Africa's legal and regulatory framework, that requires a great deal of "public participation" also often has the unintended consequence of extending the thugocrats' control, by devolving decisions on the allocation of resources to these self-appointed spokespersons of "the community". Sometimes they are even given fancy titles, such as "community liaison officers", an Orwellian description of people who are more often involved in preventing individuals from expressing divergent opinions. This is the foundation of the "closed, crony society" that results in endemic corruption and eventually, a criminal state.

Recently, this downward spiral took a retrogressive step-change when the SA Human Rights Commission recognized a group of "thugocrats" as the legitimate spokespersons for an entire community -- after this group of bully-boys had intimidated people and destroyed their toilet enclosures against the wishes of the people themselves.

The World Cup has given South Africans a great confidence-boost and a glimpse of what we, as a nation can be. But there is another South Africa just beyond the reach of the fanparks, fanjols and stadiums. It is a South Africa in the grip of feudal authoritarianism. As we celebrate the nation-building of the past four weeks, let us redouble our efforts to include all South Africans in the "nation" envisaged by the founding fathers who crafted our Constitution.

Helen Zille

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