Victims of intimidation

2008-07-25 00:00

It seems to me that the word “intimidate” literally means to “make timid”. Yet it has assumed more sinister connotations in the course of history and my dictionary now defines it as “to frighten or overawe”. In some contexts, even this is euphemistic since intimidation has become systemic to the extent that people have become ingrained with fear. Abject subservience to the intimidators of our world is not a modern phenomenon by any means, but one might have expected that the universal adoption of democratic liberalism, the culture of human rights and constitutional liberation of the type with which we are blessed in South Africa, might have reduced the extent of such subservience.

In a certain way, it has become even more insidious because it is cloaked by the rectitude and trappings of democracy. The fascism of the 20th century relied on state power that was generally considered legitimate in the hands of the leaders. In many quarters democracy, far from being the utopian objective of progressive and liberal states, was the weakness which brought countries to their knees. Even those countries far to the left had to use totalitarian and brutal means to achieve what was thought to be in the best interest of the people. Travelling from West Berlin into East Germany en route to the safety of West Germany in the early sixties, I remember the irony of being searched for “anti-democratic” literature by the agents of the German Democratic Republic. We counted it fortunate that we had been advised to send the pamphlets and brochures that we had collected in West Berlin ahead of us by post.

To my shame, I was almost oblivious to the rampant intimidation which was both implicit and explicit in the government of our country at the time. Such was the depth of this intimidation that the freedom that was gifted to us in 1994 has proved inadequate in both quantity and form to erase the effects of it after 14 years. Yet even before this has been accomplished, new varieties of intimidation perpetrated by different despots have pervaded our society. Among these are those who perpetrate crime, for their modus operandi for ongoing success thrives on the fear which they are able to generate. So successful are they that with a combination of bribery and threat, they are able to corrupt even those whose responsibility it is to maintain order. The point has been made by many researchers into violent crime in South Africa that fear has pervaded the very fabric of society and is significant among those factors that impede the construction of a national pride in which everyone may share. It is evident in suburbia where there is a siege mentality. While security gates and fences keep unwelcome people out, they also imprison, albeit psychologically perhaps, those within.

In particular, those who have never been free of some intimidation or another are relatively easy to intimidate even now. This was evident when taxi services were withdrawn recently as a gesture of sympathy for the Cosatu strike. In order to improve the action’s effectiveness, some leaders made threats of violence. Commuters were fearful of dire consequences if they did not submit to the stayaway. Taxi operators, who might have seen an opportunity to do more business in the absence of competition, were no less intimidated by the intimation that “vehicles will be burnt”.

During the first week in August, the public show of support for Jacob Zuma when his trial takes place in Pietermaritzburg will not be spontaneous, but carefully orchestrated as a means of showing the independent court which judgment will find favour. It highlights another aspect of the intimidation which characterises our society at present and that is the fear of being out of favour.

Among the most precious freedoms is the right to disagree without alienation. This is not a constitutional matter, but one which reflects, rather, the democratic deficiency of those who hold the view “if you are not for me, you are against me”. The most critical thing about this adage is the personal pronoun, for it is the tendency to reduce disagreement to the level of personal conflict which tends to bedevil our politics, at least. Many contemporary debates are not about issues or principles at all, but about which leader is, or is not, being supported.

Perhaps in the long term being “made timid” is no less perfidious than being made fearful, for it is this timidity that enables those who wish to manipulate power to their own ends to do so without hindrance. What an indictment it is on human nature that intimidation, in so many forms, remains omnipotent across our society. What an equal indictment it is that we should allow ourselves to be its victims.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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