Guest Column

The curse we face

2018-02-18 06:09
Jacob Zuma - now just another SA citizen with pressing legal problems. (Walso Swiegers, Bloomberg)

Jacob Zuma - now just another SA citizen with pressing legal problems. (Walso Swiegers, Bloomberg)

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Yoweri Museveni, Paul Kagame, Denis Sassou Nguesso and Jacob Zuma. Besides being African leaders, these characters have come to personify what is referred to as “big man syndrome”.

A ready-made explanation often trotted out to explain this phenomenon of leaders overstaying their political terms is that it is African “culture”. But to understand it, we must begin with a simple assumption: Those who do not have power want it; and those who have power want to keep it.

Another short answer is: because they can. Electoral systems operate at the discretion of the president. In practice, the president make the rules, breaks them and changes them when he wants to (yes, it is normally a he). Museveni, for example, in effect controls Uganda’s electoral commission and the coercive apparatus of the state. Who controls the count, wins the election. In the lead-up, the police and the army harass and intimidate the opposition, while the president campaigns uninterrupted.

Likewise, equating popular will with the president’s person is key – “cult politics” – where symbols or songs are used to promote individuals. The late Fidel Castro’s dying wish was that his name and image not succumb to a “cult following or blind idolatry in Cuba”. Castro wanted no statues, busts or other effigies of himself to be erected in future.

The president is always patriotic and it is only the president who is willing and able to do what is needed. Zuma, like Kagame, wanted his political party to give him about three months to “wrap up some things” before he left. Kagame’s defence was that it was not that he wanted to extend his rule: “It’s the people, you see, they want me to stay on.” And therefore it should be acceptable that the president always needs more time to fulfil his agenda. Museveni needs five more years to do something he could not accomplish in the previous 30.

Also, the presidency is turned into a family business and there is no future or monetary gain outside politics. Accumulating wealth and business opportunities are tied to controlling the state. So are the economic fortunes of “friends”, party officials and, crucially, the president’s family. Once they are out of office, they fear losing their ability to steer contracts or get a cut of the profits. After their tenure, the former president, or his allies, risks prosecution either for embezzlement or other forms of profiting from the state.

Zuma’s recent stance against the ANC is worthy of a deeper analysis to understand this disease. You see, the ANC (and Africa) has a history of developing political strongmen the way other parts of the world sprout economic progress. It was the ANC that reminded us of these great men when it invoked them at the celebration of its birthday.

Like most countries, the ANC has changed one strongman for another without fear of dissent from democratic traditions. Until recently, no matter how admirable leaders appear, as their popularity grows, never has an inclination to cling to power become a latent disease. And, as Lord Acton said, and we were reminded of in the past few weeks: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In our quest to understand where this disease derives from, we must admit that people became complicit in their own violation. In Philip Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, one learns how societies systematically create evil. In our correctional centres, career warders are terrorised by inmates to the point when they accept the situation. ANC politicians rationalised Zuma’s mistakes to a point where it became abnormal to question his breaking the law and oath of office. In so doing the organ of people’s power (Parliament) became a tool to preserve Zuma’s (mis)rule.

Today, one can feel the loathing and malice the people direct at the Zuma administration, the ANC and authority. Any attempt to work for the public is suspect, since no one expects any public service. Any attempt to go against the grain gets you ostracised and disciplined by the system – the political order to be precise.

The only way for locals to survive colonial oppression was to publicly comply with and privately undermine the system through pilfering and deception. This continues today, as the way the average citizen deals with the elite and government.

Göran Hydén, author of African Politics in Comparative Perspective, makes the point in his description of the “princes”: The prince is a clever observer and manipulator of lieutenants and clients. He tends to rule jointly with others by presiding over their struggle for benefits. He encourages it and recognises that it is the source of his own legitimacy. Princely rule is sufficiently flexible to allow for a politics of accommodation.

The key descriptor that defines a prince (read Kagame, Zuma, et al) from other types of rule is “sufficiently flexible”. A prince has only a moderately high amount of public legitimacy because he has traded some of it for personal security.

Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia had both historical and divine legitimacy. His defiant stand against Benito Mussolini’s brutal invasion in the 1930s won him worldwide fame. Restored to his throne in the 1940s, he stood as the symbol of an independent Africa that all nationalist leaders living under colonial rule aspired to achieve. He was monarch of a state that traced its origins back to biblical times. According to the Ethiopian Constitution, the emperor was descended directly from the marriage of Solomon and Sheba and among the titles with which he was graced was “elect of God”.

This legitimacy was enshrined through the use of traditions and religious ceremonies and by having Selassie’s name on everything from schools to bridges. However, he was not afraid to use public funds for sustaining his personal rule. As Hydén writes: “What helped to sustain his power was the considerable extent to which the emperor, together with the Coptic Church and influential aristocratic families in the provinces, owned and controlled land and thereby the livelihood of millions of peasants who worked it.

“Peasants were required to pay 75% of their produce to landlords and provide seemingly unlimited unpaid services.” To this end, says Hydén, Selassie “governed as an autocratic monarch, dispensing titles, appointments and land in return for loyal service and holding together the empire of its 27 million subjects through a vast network of personal ties”.

Selassie, and princes in general – that is Museveni, Kagame, Nguesso and Zuma – thus possess enough public legitimacy to extract resources from their population, but also use the funds to dispense goodies to those who can promise personal security.

We can keep decrying “bad apples” – the dictators and megalomaniac leaders – but without attempting to cleanse the entire population, any apple that rises to the top is already sick. A population-wide approach is needed to halt the epidemic; the apple barrel needs fumigation and each apple cleansing.

Each person should become a responsible participant in growing a healthy democracy, no matter their current status, since everyone is a potential leader, instead of being vocal critics waiting for his/her opportunity to loot.

Let’s start the discussion on ways to inoculate the whole population against big-manism and ignite progress.

Maxon is a public servant


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