Perceptions of power

2009-03-10 00:00

“Where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Some African states provide a striking vindication of 19th-century historian Lord Acton’s views.

Examples of the “big men” who have battened on their countries’ available sources of wealth and left only a legacy of violence, instability and pitiable poverty behind them are Idi Amin of Uganda, Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, Francisco Nguema’s regime in Equatorial Guinea and Joseph Mobutu of the Congo.

The tradition of political gangsterism has not been extinguished as recent events in Guinea-Bissau, the Sudan, as well as the long-running civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is conservatively estimated to have cost three million lives, have shown.

For obvious reasons, however, it is the failed state of Zimbabwe which draws the attention of most South Africans. It is a reflection of its reputation that the recent road accident in which Morgan Tsvangarai, Zimbabwe’s recently appointed prime minister, was injured and his wife Susan killed, was immediately seen to have sinister overtones, although Tsvangarai himself denies the allegations of foul play. Certainly there are worrying signs that Robert Mugabe and his coterie of “big men” are intent on subverting change.

There are important lessons in all this for South Africans on the brink of probably the most important elections since 1994. Democracy is a fragile thing. When we vote, we need to keep in mind the importance of our Constitution in ensuring such checks to absolute power as free speech, a free press and respect for the rule of law.

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