A modern cautionary tale

2018-02-04 06:01
Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya

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Towards the end of 1989, the winds of rebellion that were sweeping communist governments out of power in eastern Europe finally reached Romania.

That country's corrupt and despotic president, Nicolae Ceausescu, returned from a state visit abroad on December 20 to deal with the situation. On the night of his return, he gave a televised address and then had the Romanian Communist Party organise a mass rally in Bucharest's central square the following day. Between 80 000 and 100 000 people were bused in from around the country to support Ceausescu and denounce those behind the rebellion.

He believed the people loved him and that the regular, orchestrated rallies where they chanted his name and that of the party were proof of the population's loyalty.

The day started in normal fashion. The crowds chanted appropriately and waved the placards that had been handed to them by state and party officials. Then the mayor of Bucharest introduced Ceausescu and told the people how fortunate they were to be graced by the "beloved and esteemed leader of the people", "the eminent revolutionary and patriot" who had spent six decades working for the "prosperity, freedom and full independence" of Romania.

When Ceausescu spoke, he blamed the protests on agitators working with foreign aggressors to undermine the wonderful work his government was doing for the people. Sound vaguely familiar?

He rallied the people to come to the defence of Romania's integrity and sovereignty.

He had a surprise for them, a goodie bag of gifts that would uplift their lives. From the first of January – roughly a week from that day – the minimum wage would be raised, children's welfare grants would go up and pensioners would get more in their pockets. Recognise this stunt?

Instead of getting the staged cheers he was used to, Ceausescu was stunned when, eight minutes into his speech, his words were met with jeering and booing.

As the jeers spread throughout the square and security agents were unable to control them, the leader and his wife, Elena, tried to restore order. They alternately screamed "sit quietly" and "stay calm", but the noise got louder as the people found their power in united defiance.

"What's wrong with you? Be quiet," screamed Elena, further agitating the people.

As the anger levels grew, the Ceausescus fled into the building. The revolt spread beyond the square and protesters clashed with security officials, who unleashed volleys of gunfire on unarmed civilians. Believing he still had power and influence, Ceausescu tried to address the masses again the following day. This time the people stormed the building. The dictator and his wife were forced to flee by helicopter. Thousands died at the hands of armed forces before the security chiefs and the foot soldiers defected to the revolution and turned on Ceausescu. But even after police had captured and handed him over to a hastily constituted provisional government, he refused to accept that it was over for him. Ring any bells?

The delusion that he was still in power continued when he was put on trial for the deaths of the thousands who perished in the revolution, for theft from the fiscus and for "undermining of the national economy".

The Ceausescus refused to recognise the legitimacy of the trial and cooperate with the court. They argued this was "because we have worked hard for the people all our lives" and "sacrificed all our lives to the people. And we will not betray our people here." I'm sure you've heard this line.

They denied stealing from the people, saying "we had no account in Switzerland. Nobody has opened an account," despite there being ample proof of this. Where have we heard such denials before?

As his fate became crystal clear, Ceausescu remained defiant, telling the prosecution that they were "simple citizens" and "I am the president of Romania and the commander in chief of the Romanian army. I am the president of the people."

The stubborn and defiant stance by the powerless Ceausescu, who had not only lost the support of the armed forces, but also of his lieutenants, mattered little. He and his wife were convicted and sentenced to death. On December 25 they were lined up against a wall and shot by a military squad. Reports at the time said soldiers clamoured to be part of that shooting squad, so eager were they to leave their imprint on the closure of this horrid era.

Now this last part must not give anybody any wild ideas.

Ceausescu was just one of a string of leaders in modern history who got wrapped up in a delusional bubble, and believed the people loved and needed them. Even as they stole from the people, abused state resources for the benefit of their families and associates, they convinced themselves that they were performing a public good.

These Ceausescu-type leaders were so magnificent and benevolent that they invented phantom enemies to blame for the people turning against them. Rather than read the signs, they tested the patience of the people and raised the anger of the masses, who wanted them gone. More often than not, they met ugly ends, as the Ceausescu did, or experienced the ignominy of a jail cell or a lonely exile.

This is just a cautionary tale and bears no relation to any contemporary events.

Read more on:    mondli makhanya  |  romania

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