“No rubbernecking,” I was told by an official when I crossed into Zimbabwe from Botswana in the late 1990s. I immediately understood that as a journalist I am allowed entry as long as I don’t “snoop around”.
Zanu-PF’s resistance to being held accountable, also by “outsiders”, had already by that early stage infiltrated the lower levels of the state bureaucracy. It was spurred on by growing democratic demands amid worsening socio-economic conditions, demands apparently unfathomable to the minds of the rulers.
This way of thinking resonates with Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele’s recent obfuscating response to questions in Parliament. He refused to comment on what he called the media’s “interpretation or misinterpretation” of his accusation that civil society opponents to the Protection of State Information Bill are “proxies for foreign agents”.
His accusation also resonates because it is intended to sow suspicion about a “rubbernecking” civil society, to use the Zimbabwean official’s ominous phrase.
Cwele seems to be in step with his defence counterpart, Lindiwe Sisulu, who has succeeded in stonewalling Parliament’s attempts to hold her accountable for the operations of her department.
Thus it is no surprise that defence spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya untruthfully denied that a shadow plane followed the presidential plane into the US. He then reportedly declared that the defence ministry does not have to justify itself to anyone, a ridiculous claim to make in a constitutional democracy.
Such denials and name-calling form, along with the secrecy Bill, part of a seemingly intensifying drive by the government’s security departments to place them beyond public scrutiny.
In analysing this thinking, it is useful to consider the suggestion from Dr Ivor Chipkin, author of Do South Africans Exist?, that nationalist elements within the ANC harbour an aversion towards democratic challenge because of the misperception that the party is identical with “the nation”.
If “the party is the nation”, it means non-supporters are to be excluded from “the nation”. Being equivalent to “the nation” also means that “the party is the state”, a mode of thinking that Sisulu shares. She declared last year that the defence department would have been “honoured” to fund her party’s centenary celebrations.
This conflation of party, state and nation creates an insider-outsider dynamic in which name-calling is wielded against opponents and critics, along with other authoritarian moves. In lieu of policy changes and improvement in state service delivery, these moves are about retaining power despite deepening political discontent over socio-economic divisions.
This is the context in which opponents become branded “proxies for foreign spies” or, more frequently, “counter-revolutionaries”.
The term “counter-revolutionaries” as way of stigmatising political opponents did of course not originate with the ANC. It featured almost 100 years ago when the new Bolshevik government in Soviet Russia set up the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, known as “Cheka”. Cheka was set loose on counter-revolutionaries, with deadly results.
I am struck by such similarities in discourses, having just returned from visits to Germany and Hungary, which have both suffered through successive totalitarianisms of the National Socialist and the Soviet varieties.
While it would be a serious error to make easy comparisons with these murderous systems, we should pay heed to their insider-outsider dynamics as both ideological currents feed into South African politics.
French thinker Michel Foucault stated that these systems link in that they both expelled and annihilated “enemies”. For the Nazis the circle of “social undesirables” “infecting the master race” included Jews and even epileptics.
For the Soviets, those threatening the revolution-with-a-capital-R were the “class enemy”, but this was not a fixed category, which is the difference between the two systems. It was adapted depending on shifting power relations outside and inside the ruling party to ultimately target all those considered a political threat.
To illustrate the difference, the Nazis would mark someone interned at a concentration camp such as Sachsenhausen outside Berlin with a sign indicating their offence against “racial purity”: a pink triangle for homosexuals, a yellow Star of David for Jews.
In contrast, many prisoners arriving at the Soviet Special Camp created in the exact premises of Sachsenhausen after World War Two had no idea why they had been rounded up.
The flexibility of the term “class enemy” allowed for the internment of a category of persons known as “unreliable” by Hungary’s Soviet-aligned regime.
The Hungarian Communists’ notion of ““reliability” was not far removed from the position of their National Socialist predecessors in the Arrow-Cross Party. The latter called their branch headquarters in Budapest the “House of Loyalty”.
South Africa is not a political island. Fascist tendencies fed into the National Party, of which some former members still hold positions in both the state and the ANC.
Stalinist tendencies are in evidence among those currently in power, some of whom spent years in exile in the former Soviet states. The terms “comrade” and “counter-revolutionary” delineate insider/outsider status in that ideological tradition.
Like South Africa, Hungary is still battling to consolidate its democracy. In a wry historical twist, Hungarians are again facing the threat of fascism in the form of the populist governing party Fidesz.
Fidesz has gone beyond the mostly rhetorical threats against the courts and media that we have been faced with in South Africa to establishing political control over both institutions.
What is happening in Hungary serves as a timely reminder that we must all painstakingly resist every attempt to collapse back into the authoritarian habits of our various pasts.
This monthly column series is made available by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa to monitor the health of our democracy. This column first appeared in the Independent Group’s daily newspapers.