Dangers of violence

2008-01-08 00:00

Recent events have re-minded us how quickly some societies have been able to collapse into turmoil, rioting and killing. Pakistan has been unstable for some time — indeed in its 60 years of existence it has had no period of solid democratic stability — but the assassination of Benazir Bhutto has almost torn the fabric of its society apart. Kenya, on the other hand, has been regarded as one of the most stable countries in the unstable continent of Africa — although the unsteadiness of some of its neighbours has perhaps made it seem somewhat more solid than it is — but the recent election, and what looks like the rigging of its result by the party of Mwai Kibaki, who got himself reproclaimed president with suspiciously unseemly haste, has produced effects which have unsettled not only Kenya but Africa as a whole and to some degree the whole world.

South Africa has been rather unsettled too by some recent events, and the watching world has been surprised and shocked: the previously stable and unified ANC has been divided by impassioned allegiances. But could this turmoil in the party, which has so far been held in by democratic rules and restraints, erupt into violence? One would certainly hope not. After all robust struggles for the leadership of political parties are good democratic practice. The case of Jacob Zuma, however, the new president of the ANC, is complicated by the fact that charges have been hanging over his head for some time — charges which have now once again, but in an expanded form, been laid before him. Many of Zuma’s followers are convinced that a political motive lies behind these charges. The charges have now been published in the press, and it is difficult to see how such detailed allegations, which will in any case be fully tested in court, could have been cooked up by people with political or any other in-tentions. What in the nature of things is less certain, however, is whether a number of other high-ranking people might have been charged with similar offences, but have been left untouched for political reasons.

It is a difficult moment for Zuma’s followers, for the ANC, and for the country as a whole. With Pakistan and Kenya erupting in the background, what is needed above all is calm and sober thinking, thinking that is prepared to put before all else the welfare of the country and of its people, especially the poor, who always suffer most at times of upheaval. But Zet Luzipho, a KZN Cosatu leader, has seen no need for restraint. In an angry and staggeringly irresponsible statement — which has since mercifully been “withdrawn” by Patrick Craven, Cosatu’s national spokes-man — he said: “South Africa will be plunged into chaos and there will be blood-letting” as a result of the latest charges. “People are angry … this time there will be blood in the courtroom.”

Fortunately other, wiser voices have been raised. Zuma has called for calm and has said specifically that South Africans must beware of doing anything that could replicate the situation in Kenya. And two of South Africa’s most distinguished jurists, Arthur Chaskalson and George Bizos, both of them with strong and well-known anti-apartheid credentials, have issued a statement stressing the importance of respecting both the judiciary and the judicial process, and making it clear that, without that respect, the force of the law is seriously weakened, the very structures of democracy are undermined, and the country’s international reputation is besmirched. It is unusual for senior jurists to enter a public debate of this kind: they clearly recognise how disastrous it would be if voices like that of Luzipho became dominant.

Perhaps by now Luzipho is deeply regretting his statement. I hope he is. But I am going to dwell on it, because it illustrates neatly how the words of a demagogue —that is, a political leader who appeals to popular feelings and prejudices instead of using rational argument — can shake the institutions of a young democratic society. In a more established democracy, a Luzipho would be no threat at all. He wouldn’t be taken seriously: words of the kind that I have quoted would destroy his reputation. The idea of “blood in the courtroom” is preposterous: it is like recommending child-rape. But in a recently established democracy, where many people have not fully internalised the importance of a judiciary which is independent, impartial and sacrosanct, the idea of expressing one’s anger by going to court and acting violently might seem attractive. And once mob-thinking develops — as the Kenyan situation illustrates — there is no knowing where it might end.

• Colin Gardner is a former ANC member of the Msunduzi municipal council.

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