Reading the papers can be scary. Earlier this week, while attending a conference in The Hague, I read in the London Guardian about a country where the most popular political interviewer was fired from his job at a TV station because of pressure from the president of the country. For the liberals and the opposition this was a shocking event, but part of a pattern.

They argue that the country’s democracy is increasingly at risk. Secret police files and wire taps are being used to discredit or intimidate opponents. Public TV has been purged of pluralism. A new anti-corruption body enjoys draconian powers of investigation and arrest and is being wielded as a political club.

An editor even warns of a creeping coup d’état.

The country in question is, of course, Poland, where parliamentary elections will be held on Sunday. Poland is a member of the European Union, but the right-wing government there has been accused of gross abuses of power.

Reading about Poland, it is difficult not to see parallels with South Africa — but somehow I think critical South Africans would be more deeply depressed and fearful of the future than those liberals in Warsaw. The question is: Why are we so hysterical about Thabo Mbeki when this kind of abuse of power that our President is now making himself guilty of is rife in other respected democracies?

Are we not perhaps all guilty of a kind of internalised racism that Mbeki always warns about? Are we so pessimistic merely because we live in Africa and assume all Africans will be power-hungry and corrupt? Do we not see a president out of control and immediately think of darkest Africa and, more pertinently, Zimbabwe? Instead of looking at the bright side of our thriving democracy, we have all decided that we have reached the end of the democratic road.

Why don’t we focus on the free press — remember, unlike Poland, we still have our Debora Patta exposing the acting director of public prosecutions as either a complete nitwit or a shyster? Why don’t we point to our fiercely independent Constitutional Court that might well overturn Vusi Pikoli’s removal from office if challenged there? Why don’t we celebrate the Treatment Action Campaign, our own homegrown civil society organisation that has managed to change government policies on ARVs through brilliant political and legal activism?

If the TAC could force the government to change its policies on ARVs, then surely if we organise and resist, if we are prepared to do the hard work, we will be able to overcome Mbeki — no matter how malicious or revengeful he becomes and no matter how mad his actions seem to become.

Why then are we all so alarmed? Yes, it is of course deeply troubling if the president of a country starts believing he is the state and the law and begins acting accordingly. And, yes, we do have a special place in our hearts for our special Constitution — the symbol of our new democracy. We therefore need to make a great noise when this symbol of our democracy is being abused.

But perhaps we are even more hysterical than we need to be because we — the elites, the chattering classes, the journalists — do not trust the voters and the ordinary members of the ANC to be on our side and do the right thing. Don’t we worry at least a little that racial solidarity and struggle solidarity will keep the masses of our people safely at home when the time comes to protest against our government abuse of power or a creeping coup?

President Thabo Mbeki often points to the fact that the ANC keeps winning elections with a larger percentage of the vote (but he does not say that each election fewer voters actually vote for the ANC) to shut up his critics. We can do what we want because we have the people with us, is his attitude.

The problem is that people do not vote for Mbeki because he illegally fires the national director of public prosecutions or because he questions the link between HIV and Aids. They vote for him because he is the leader of the ANC, which is the leader of the liberation movement.

All the hysteria around Mbeki is also, I would suggest, based at least partly on a fear by the chattering classes that the people are stupid and will wake up too late — yes, like in Zimbabwe — and that without the people on our side, our beautiful Constitution and our free press and our independent judiciary won’t help us much.

We cannot admit this, though, because we believe in democracy and thus we have to believe in the people. But the people are only as good as their leaders, and we look on in horror as December is creeping up on us. We ask: Without good leaders, what will the people do?


  • Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics, including gay rights, the right to equality, social and economic rights, and affirmative action. Since October 2006 he also publishes a blog, Constitutionally Speaking.


Pierre de Vos

Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics,...

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