Return to barbarism

After ending the past century on a somewhat civilised note and putting in place systems to deter killing, we have entered the 21st century a killing species. And in this, the fourth year of the century, we find ourselves as a human race taking a gigantic step backwards. Never mind the technological advances, the ever-growing store of knowledge and the globalisation of communication. Morally we have regressed.

A world that once respected rules and order is now increasingly appreciating chaos and disorder. Who else to lead us back to the era of barbarism than the nation that holds itself up as the guardian of liberty and enlightenment?

It was Njabulo Ndebele who earlier this year decried the destructive effect on the human mind of the war in Iraq. Pointing to the use of such terms as “shock and awe”, “hammer time”, “operation decapitation”, “smart bombs” and “targets of opportunity” to glorify horrific acts, Ndebele bemoaned this abuse of language.

“It is the language of terse encapsulation that strains towards poetry, but unlike poetry, yields not insight but cleverness that supremely admires itself. The expressions underscore a phenomenon of war without a transcendent goal or cause. It is a war obsessed with its own techniques.”

This blood thirst was no more evident than in United States President George W Bush’s comment to a US television network this week. “He [Saddam Hussein] is a torturer, a murderer and they had rape rooms … This is a disgusting tyrant who deserves justice, the ultimate justice.”

Here was a head of state publicly calling for murder. How then can we expect the sanctity of life to be respected if the world’s most powerful man so nonchalantly calls for someone to be killed, regardless of international conventions?

Even by the standards of the American government, its disregard for international law and for the civilised way of doing things, this remark surely marked the lowest ebb in the US’s conduct since 9/11.

The barbaric attacks on the Twin Towers and other landmark structures ironically brought out the worst of the Republican right wing — of which Bush is the high priest.

The aftermath of the attacks saw Bush lead us back into the era of barbarism, back into a time when rules did not matter.

This is, of course, a world where the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thrive. He too relishes in the sport of killing. His language, and the language of his Cabinet members, is peppered with loose talk of killing.

For every suicide bomb exploded by the militants, the Israeli state — a legitimate constitutional state — hits back by committing equally atrocious murders. These targeted, state-sanctioned assassinations are inevitably followed by dastardly counter-strikes by Palestinian militants then followed by murderous reprisals from the state. The killing spree is caught in a vortex resembling far less civilised times.

And so killing becomes acceptable. It becomes acceptable to Chechen secessionist fighters, warring factions in Liberia, bombers in Colombia and the common criminal everywhere. We have indeed regressed.

On home soil we, too, had our share of killing — albeit not of the bloody variety.

South Africa’s 2003 was characterised by regression to the apartheid-era way of doing things. After spending a decade building a model democracy to symbolise an aversion to the ways of the past and to plan a prosperous and stable future, much of 2003 was spent killing the good values and the institutions that we had built.

This regression was epitomised most by the return of that death warrant — the “impimpi” label.

In his quest to defend himself from prosecution, liberation-era hero and former Cabinet minister Mac Maharaj resorted to the whispering campaign — a most effective weapon during the 1980s uprisings.

National Director of Public Prosecutions “Bulelani Ngcuka was once an apartheid spy”, the campaign began. And that is why he has now turned against those he once pretended were his comrades, it continued.

As if that was not enough, the whispers alleged that Ngcuka was also in the pockets of businessmen with political ambition and he was only investigating the likes of Deputy President Jacob Zuma to pave the way for these individuals. The non sequiturs abounded; the illogic at odds with a nation built on the foundations of rationalism and pragmatism.

We should therefore kill him politically, the lynch mob shouted as they bayed for his blood. As various investigations peaked, all and sundry joined in the feeding frenzy: the Kebble family, the Shaik family, African National Congress bigwig Kgalema Motlanthe, the ANC Youth League, a disgruntled employee and anyone with half a gripe against the prosecutorial authority.

It was not only the head of the authority that they wanted to kill. It was the entire prosecutorial authority which, we were now informed, was clumsily constituted and should have its powers neutered. In fact, even the media and anti-corruption campaigners came under fire.

Ngcuka’s detractors also argued that it was he who was trying to kill the good names of those he was investigating. The legacies of the likes of Zuma and Maharaj were in jeopardy as the Scorpions were assassinating their characters.

So kill first, the logic went.

Since 1994 the public outrage against corruption and malfeasance has been overwhelming. Those caught doing wrong were never hailed as heroes. We were building a system that respected right and shunned the slightest sign of wrong.

This year we killed that. Suddenly those who investigated and convicted Tony Yengeni and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were counter-revolutionaries being used by dark forces from our past.

Zuma, who has yet to provide clear answers about his extra-curricular activities, was celebrated and defended as a victim of overzealous investigators.

Our government openly spoke out in defence of Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, a rotten former liberation movement that bears no resemblance to the principled party that brought about that country’s independence. In order to justify our failed quiet diplomacy approach we killed principle and threw in our lot with the oppressors of Zimbabwe.

But we must recover from the setbacks of 2003. As we enter 2004 we need to create a mindset that eschews barbarism and seeks to protect the gains that humanity has made. The ideology being propagated by Bush and Sharon, with its sub-text that there is virtue in murder, must be resisted by right-thinking people.

We here on the southern tip of the African continent can begin creating that mindset by simply taking the side of human progress. South Africa cannot be the defender — no matter how subtle — of a morally repugnant government that encourages the rape of its women and the murder of its opponents.

This country has also got to be clear that its views on good governance and public morality are unshakeable. It is no good saying that as long as things are all right in our backyard that’s all that counts. This argument makes a mockery of the African Union and its most exciting innovation — the African peer review mechanism. Each of us is our brother’s keeper.

The next year — the 10th anniversary of our democracy — will be a crucial one for South Africa because all we have defined ourselves as will come under scrutiny. We have to work hard to repair the integrity of our institutions and restore respect for the principles enshrined in our Constitution. We owe it to our future to protect the good we have created.

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