I recall a conversation I had with my Iranian-American friend Farhang Erfani when I was living in the US and despairing for that country after George W Bush’s (to my mind) fraudulent election as president ahead of Al Gore. When I expressed my misgivings about America’s future under ”presidents” like George Dubya, he pointed out to me that while there was much to criticise in the US, one should never forget that the most mercilessly outspoken critics of the US are themselves Americans. I stood chastised — after all, is there a more relentless critic of the US than Noam Chomsky, himself an American, or David Harvey, or Fredric Jameson — all of them Americans?
I mention this to make the point that, whatever one may think of the US, it is demonstrably a democracy as far as freedom of expression goes — no matter how unpalatable an American’s opinion on matters political, cultural, religious, military or whatever, you can articulate it, knowing that you can expect flak in return, but not charges of ”treason’’ if you happen to have said something that is implicitly or explicitly critical of the governing party.
A case in point is Kathryn Bigelow’s recent film, Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the hunt for and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden, which has exceeded even the degree of controversy that Bigelow anticipated. The reason? Many critics (including some US senators) perceive the film — in the making of which the CIA cooperated with Bigelow by making crucial material available to her — as establishing a causal connection between American “enhanced interrogation” (a euphemism for torture such as the notorious waterboarding) and the fact that Bin Laden was eventually traced to a compound in Pakistan.
In South Africa that would probably have earned her a severe rebuke from the ANC, plus a charge of ”treason” from ANCYL. In the US it’s par for the course — she is quite within her rights to make that suggestion, directly or indirectly. Strange as it might sound to those South Africans who shiver in their shoes the moment the governing party’s spokespeople as much as open their mouths to speak, we are quite within our rights to do the same here. And that includes FNB or any other company that runs an advertising campaign which implicitly points the finger at the ANC for not doing its job properly as far as education or crime is concerned (and one can add many other areas of governmental responsibility, such as the terrible state of our roads in certain areas).
This is so especially because all the evidence points to exactly such a state of affairs: no one is secure on South Africa’s streets, or within their homes for that matter. (And not all of us are surrounded by a cohort of bodyguards.) Witness the ”flourishing” private security industry — there’s a reason for this. And our school education system is rated as among the worst in the world. Methinks FNB had every reason NOT to back down when facing threatening discourse from the ANC and ANCYL.
To strengthen democracy and avoid the slippery slope towards one-party dictatorship, one should always keep the following in mind. Do not allow the governing party — no matter what party it is — to bully you into cow-towing to it when you have criticised it for legitimate reasons. Our Constitution enshrines the principle of freedom of expression, and with the exception of hate speech and its variants, citizens of South Africa are entitled to express their disapproval, as well as their approval, of the actions on the part of the representatives of the governing party. Should the latter take exception to criticism freely expressed, it is fine — it is similarly entitled to such exception.
But a negative response to criticism on the part of the governing party, even when phrased in threatening or intimidating language designed to make critics feel guilty, afraid or somehow disloyal to “the country”, should never be allowed to have the effect of critics retracting the criticism they expressed in the first place, especially if such criticism was well-founded. If they do, they strengthen the impression that governing parties are above criticism, or can do no wrong, and they pave the way to one-party dictatorship, or, for that matter, fascist rule.
Remember that fascism — which easily develops, unnoticed, under one’s nose — is characterized by dictatorial, controlling attitudes and intolerance regarding difference of opinion. When such intolerance and dictatorial attitudes first make their appearance on the part of a governing party, it should be repudiated in the strongest of terms, instead of grovelling before the party. Such grovelling reinforces intolerance and dictatorial behaviour because it seems to justify such behaviour.
(See in this regard my earlier post on the signs of proto-fascism.)
The present worrying signs that democracy is under severe threat in this country reminds me of 1989, when I was part of a group of white academics and other professionals who met the ANC in Lusaka to discuss the transition to democracy in the event of its being unbanned. On the trip we also visited Harare and Windhoek, and I recall being addressed in Harare by Didymus Mutasa, who was then (if I recall correctly) speaker of the Zimbabwean parliament. In the course of discussing the prerequisites for democracy, Mutasa (who later became a cabinet minister) evidently felt obliged to correct what he saw as a fundamental error on the part of whites in Africa. Democracy in Africa, he averred, is not like the multiparty democracy us whiteys valorise. In Africa, he insisted, democracy means having one political party and one either belongs to it and votes for it or you don’t.
There was much debate among the members of our group about the merits of Mutasa’s claim and in the end we were largely convinced that he was wrong. Especially after our conference with members of the ANC in Lusaka where we were all impressed by the democratic sentiments expressed by them. But given the recent events in South Africa, which are symptomatic of what I would call un-democratic behaviour on the part of the governing party, I’ve been wondering: is this a manifestation of the “one-party African democracy” (an interesting oxymoron) that Mutasa was talking about in 1989?