Guest Column

From combat boots to Gucci shoes

2016-04-22 09:06

Susan Erasmus

The skills required to be a good soldier don’t often translate well to the skills required for desk-bound administrative jobs. Here’s why few liberation movements manage to form effective and democratic governments.

Liberation movements the world over often have a few things in common:

- they feel as if they are fighting for justice

- they unite in the face of a common enemy

- their purpose appears to be clear, minimising internal differences

- if they win the battle for freedom, the chances are high that they will be swept into power on a voting euphoria in their country of origin on the back of promises of a better life for all.

And that’s just where things start falling apart, as many soldiers returning from the battlefront find it difficult to adapt to life in peaceful times.

Soldier vs. administrator

Think about it for a moment: an effective soldier is physically fit, alert, single-minded, takes autocratic orders or gives them, believes in his/her cause, acts fast, and often on instinct, is prepared to die for their cause, is prepared to kill for their cause, and brooks no opposition. (Don’t forget the occasional looting and pillaging - some battlefield habits are hard to kick).

Few of these skills will serve anyone well who heads up a large state department or government, who is deskbound, who has to sit through endless meetings where all points of view have to be considered, forms filled in in triplicate, decisions have to be made by committees, and one is expected to serve the interests of a diverse community of sometimes difficult and demanding citizens – not just your tight-knit band of brothers.

In short, it is inevitable that a certain style of doing things will spill over from the trenches to the benches of Parliament when a liberation movement wins an election. (Think ‘Umshini wami’).

What made Nelson Mandela such an astounding leader is that despite coming from a background as a liberation fighter (before his 27 years in prison), he was a remarkable statesman. The things which often trip up new politicians – money, status and power – appeared to have had little attraction for him. And ironically this was what made him one of the most powerful people in the world.

Autocratic spill-over

But for many others, however just the cause of any liberation movement, it takes a real deep-seated belief in the working of a constitutional democracy for a soldier to lay down his AK47 and bow down to the wishes of the electorate and the requirements of constitution. Combat boots today, Gucci shoes tomorrow – it’s an awkward transition and one that is seldom effectively negotiated. The attraction of the bling that surrounds a life of power is just too strong for most people.

Fighters and good civil servants are seldom cut from the same cloth. The elections that sweep a liberation movements into power are often the last real fair and open elections that a country sees.

Once someone with a military mindset takes control of the government, the autocratic top-down style of the battlefield tends to win the day. Think Mugabe, think Hitler, think Napoleon. But this autocratic style is typical also of some hereditary leaders, who brook no opposition, who are Narcissistic, and who see their positions of power as God-given and natural. Think of Louis XIV’s words “L’etat c’est moi” (I am the state) and you will hear echoes of Mugabe’s referral to ‘MY Zimbabwe’.

Hitler used the back-room dealings and institutions typical of a dying, crisis-ridden and confused democracy to get to power in the early thirties. He quickly put an end to inconvenient possible future elections, especially as he had not managed to get an outright majority in 1933 (only 43.9% of the total vote) and got to power by means of a coalition government. Once through the door, he locked it firmly behind him.

When a political party has an effective majority, it can easily start to take on the appearance of a one-party state, as has happened in South Africa. What we are seeing in our country at the moment is a singular self-interested and autocratic battlefield mindset coming into conflict with a constitutional democracy.

Civil servant – to whom?

Who do you serve? The ANC, or the state? The former soldier will serve the ANC, and a real leader the state. But Jacob Zuma takes it one step further – he is using the ANC and the state to serve his own interests, a fact that is difficult to conceal from voters who have access to social media. The world has changed so much since the early eighties when you could lie to the electorate.

What does a soldier do who has his back to the wall? He shoots. At the public protector, at the opposition, at the ConCourt, at the electorate (he called black voters ‘lazy’ two weeks ago), at the justice system, at government protocol. If given any real choice, a former soldier will not hold a free and fair election, or any at all, if there is any significant chance he/his party may lose.

And within 22 years of the first democratic elections in SA, the enemy of our president is now the electorate itself: after the National Assembly voted to keep him on (and you know full well what happens to soldiers who disobey disorders in wartime), he is no longer fighting the struggle against apartheid. His only real enemies are now the voters – only they can remove him from power and cost his party an outright majority. Pesky things, free and fair elections.

So postpone (or even better, cancel if you can) them for as long as you can. And cling to power for all you’re worth, just like a general sending a whole army into the Valley of Death rather than admitting the error of his ways. While he chuckles from the sidelines.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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