Dictators don't come from the sky!

2017-10-22 06:07
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: Halden Krog

President Jacob Zuma. Picture: Halden Krog

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Dictatorships are often unexpected. They have arisen among prosperous, educated and cultured societies that seemed safe from a dictatorship – in Europe, Africa and South America.

Consider Germany, one of the most paradoxical and dramatic cases. During the late 19th century, it was widely considered to have the best educational system in the world.

If any such system could inoculate people against barbarism, surely Germany would have led the way.

It had early childhood education – kindergarten. Secondary schools emphasised cultural training. Germans developed modern research universities.

Germans were especially distinguished for their achievements in science.

Karl Benz invented the gasoline-powered automobile, Rudolf Diesel invented the compression-ignition engine, Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of electromagnetic waves, Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen invented X-rays, Friedrich August Kekulé developed the theory of chemical structure, Paul Ehrlich produced the first medicinal treatment for syphilis and, of course, there was theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.

Historically speaking, the transition from democracy to dictatorship has appeared in forms including military coups, civil wars, election tampering, using patronage and rent-seeking that benefit friends and family, and “emergency” situations requiring “special” powers.

The South African president’s growing authority fits into the latter two categories.

Although dictatorial forms differ radically in their appearance, they have common features.

A dictatorship cannot be formed from the heavens.


In every instance there must be a background of interests and groups that aide the regime with finances, apologetics or aggressive support – I am sure you are already making comparisons with our situation.

These interests have a historical background, originating from their position as beneficiaries of the economic arrangement of society.

Dictatorships have been, with few exceptions, performed in the service of a minority; they have always represented the interests of the financial elite.

By limiting the definition thus, we are able to make connections with the fascists of Italy, Japan and Germany, to the century-old dictatorships of the neocolonial world.


It’s common cause: it is in the interests of any ruling class to maintain government control by “democratic” means, since the effort required to maintain order is less taxing and the ease of channelling discontent through compromise and concession is increased.

The question arises: Why do these groups, who already have tremendous wealth and prestige, trouble themselves by resorting to the barbaric and complicated policies that are implied by dictatorship, rather than keeping the less conflicted relationships that are found under a more democratic government?

We must dismiss the shallow answers of greed or insanity, especially when there are more sensible answers.


To the dismay of the ruling elites, the social conditions of society change in a way they have no control over. As corporations follow the rules of profit making, at the same time they inadvertently create an ever-widening polarisation of wealth.

As the rich get richer and the poor poorer, social conditions change, until the exploited classes suddenly start making demands, or begin acts of “anarchy”: strikes, violent protests and rebellion.

On the other hand, social inequality has increased steeply in the last 10 years, to the point where there are now (realistically) 30.4 million people living in poverty (according to Stats SA).

The richest 1% of the population has 42% of the total wealth (Oxfam, 2016).

There are 159 241 people in prison (Institute for Criminal Policy Research, 2015) and, with a profit-based globalisation and politics of patronage being the order of the day and harsher criminal penalties in place, the numbers will inevitably rise.

To quote Bob Dylan: “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister?” We’re all Mister now.

It’s the wildest political season in the history of South Africa. What was it the Nazis called the Jews? Oh, yes, “rootless parasites”.

For Stalin they were rootless cosmopolitans. Just saying!

Societies slide into dictatorship more often than they lurch, one barrier falling at a time. “Baba kaDuduzane,” people say, “and vulgar”.

And then it’s too late.

Let’s be forthright enough to admit that our country seems to have developed a leadership cadre that has an inclination towards dictatorship. The events that we see today are not new.

They’ve happened somewhere before. It’s just that we don’t want to learn from history.

We must admit that this dictatorship is the evil born out of the natural processes of capitalism.

Heightened executive powers are timeless policies used to combat a disgruntled populace.

They are needed to suppress civil unrest, create social stability and ensure the industries essential to the “nation’s” economy are not disrupted by strikes; and to destroy civil liberties that allow protest, organisation and freedom of expression.

Dictators sometimes come to an end just as chaotically as they began. Adolf Hitler committed suicide after the Allies beat the Nazis.

Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was shot by communist partisans and his body stoned by civilians.

Manuel Noriega was captured after the US invaded Panama.

He was sentenced to 30 years in a Florida prison for racketeering, money laundering and drug trafficking.

He died in May last year, aged 83, following complications from brain surgery.

Saddam Hussein was deposed after coalition forces took control of Iraq. US soldiers found him hiding in a hole in the ground near his birthplace of Tikrit, in December 2003.

The provisional government of Iraq hanged him on December 30 2006.

I’ve been reminded of the passage in Fred Uhlman’s remarkable novel Reunion, in which a proud German Jewish physician, twice wounded in World War 1, and convinced the Nazis were a “temporary illness”, lambasts a Zionist for trying to raise funds for a Jewish homeland:

“Do you really believe the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish?

"How dare you insult the memory of 12 000 Jews who died for our country?” Germans fell for the rubbish. The South African citizenry continues to fall for garbage.

Life is like that these days for many citizens: implacable and disorienting.

As loyal supporters of the ruling ANC contemplate the general elections in 2019, many say they would never vote for the ANC, but they feel overwhelmed.

Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister?

Maxon is a social and political commentator

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Read more on:    anc  |  stats sa  |  poverty  |  democracy

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