Writing in his memoir about the rise of Nazi totalitarianism in Germany, The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig noted how “the few among writers who had taken trouble to read Hitler’s book [Mein Kampf], ridiculed the bombast of his stilted prose instead of occupying themselves with his programme”.
He further noted “the big democratic newspapers, instead of warning their readers, reassured them day by day, that the movement … would inevitably collapse in time”.
Zweig retrospectively observed that Hitler attained power with the assistance of “invisible wire-pullers” — the self-interested groups and individuals who believed they could manipulate the charismatic maverick for their own ends. They were in for a surprise.
To draw a comparison between the rise of Nazi totalitarianism and the signs of the rise of totalitarianism in South Africa might seem extreme. But is it? A president who has been found by the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, to have violated the Constitution, continues to govern South Africa.
The very same president has spoken proudly about his friendship with a family — “invisible wire-pullers” — that has been exposed for their attempts, at times with success, to manipulate the levers of the state for their own benefit. The Gupta family, together with the president’s son, has captured a significant part of the state with absolute impunity.
To sanitise these actions, they hired a PR firm, Bell Pottinger, famous for propping up dictators, to stir up racial tensions in our country. When Nazism was on its rise, squads of young people, Brown Shirts as they were called, were hired guns who violently disrupted any meeting when instructed to do so. Sound familiar? The Black First Land First (BLF) “movement” is a stormtrooper group whose only mission is to violently constrain other people’s rights, and they do so with impunity.
The ANC, through Zizi Kodwa, has called for the arrest of members of the BLF and the minister of police has publicly come down on the BLF. But the shadow state may already be in charge and so nothing happens.
In addition to state capture, the South African political debate is now poisoned with populist rhetoric, which serves no other purpose but to distract the nation from the rot that has beset it. Just like “the big democratic newspapers” and “ the few among writers” in Germany, progressive South Africans are hoping against hope that the “stilted prose” of such rhetoric as “white monopoly capital” and “radical economic transformation” will “inevitably collapse in time”.
In this regard, we seem to forget the futility of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy with the Nazis. Zweig demonstrated that what might seem trivial and irrelevant can have disastrous consequences if society is not vigilant.
This reminds me of the often told story of a suburban train from Naledi Station to Park Station full of passengers. In it thugs emerge and rob people. Some passengers look the other way, hoping against hope that the thugs will not come for them. But, alas, the thugs also go for them.
There is an often repeated retort that many people use in our country, that “we live in a constitutional democracy” and, therefore, the rise of totalitarianism is not plausible, let alone possible. The Constitution acts as a bulwark against irrational behaviour. It puts brakes on the emergence of tyranny. According to the historian Timothy Snyder, the early American drafters of their Constitution sought to avoid the evil of tyranny. In this connection, “they had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit”.
The existence of a constitutional democracy is not enough to forestall determined efforts by rapacious rent-seekers to undermine the Constitution by creating the structures of a shadow state, as alluded to by the recently released Unburdening Panel, a report by the South African Council of Churches, and a report by academics titled Betrayal of the Promise: The Anatomy of State Capture.
Therefore, the defence and protection of our way of life as inscribed in the Constitution rests with all of us — poor and rich, urban and rural folk, men and women, and black and white. The founding spirit of the Constitution has to animate all South Africans and our democratic impulses. In this regard, we should encourage a campaign that seeks to promote constitutionalism as a common platform for action.
Our independent judiciary has risen to the occasion to defend our freedoms and point us to the democratic values of our republic.
Much of the pushback we have seen in recent times comes from civil society groups, which include nongovernmental organisations, faith-based organisations, the media, labour and business. It is this resurgent movement that is largely responsible for campaigning for the latest positive developments in state-owned enterprises such as SAA, the SABC, the South African Social Security Agency and Eskom.
On July 18, more than 130 civil society organisations and 600 people convened to discuss and devise ways of combating state capture. At this conference, our understanding of the extent of state capture and corruption was deepened. We got an insight into the corrosive effect of state capture on the delivery of public services, such as health, education, social grants and the whole project of social justice to South African citizens. The emergence and development of civil society voices is an important milestone in our democracy.
The greater part of resisting authoritarianism and incipient totalitarianism still remains with the people. The danger of totalitarianism is that it generates fear. There is a palpable numbness and quietness among the people, which was last seen in the 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the apartheid system.
This numbness has forced many good men and women to live in the false hope that the totalitarian tendencies will miraculously disappear. Some in the ANC believe that our revolutionary movement will self-correct.
The fact is that the ANC and its allies consist of human beings who are fallible and to some of them the virtuous path is but a distant memory. The reconstruction of the ANC into a vehicle that serves the aspirations of the people’s will requires men and women who are prepared to live a life based on truth.
In The Republic, Plato uses the allegory of the cave to illustrate the difference between objective reality and a lie that can be taken for reality. A group of people, chained together, live in the cave. It has a small opening to the light of the outside world. Through this opening they only see the movement of shadows. This is the only reality they know. When one of them comes out of the cave, he finds another reality — that the sun is the real light of the world and source of all perception. His fellow prisoners are still trapped in their world of make-believe, moving shadows and a glorious past. They believe what they dimly see is “reality”.
Present-day South Africa requires all citizens to have the courage to challenge the political-economic status quo. In other words, it is time to move out of Plato’s proverbial cave and begin to see the world for what it is.
We must act before it is too late. Authoritarianism and totalitarianism do not announce their arrival, but the signs can be seen. These include a society characterised by the emergence of paramilitary groups, citizens becoming desensitised, cowering and obeying (without realising their own power), self-censorship seeping in and hate speech becoming the norm. If there is no vigilance during the early stages of this phenomenon, there will come a time when it is no longer possible to change things.
As Zweig noted, by 1939 “not a single pronouncement by any writer had the slightest effect … no book, pamphlet, essay, or poem” could rouse the people of Germany to rise against Hitler. By then it was too late.
Mandla Nkomfe is the deputy chairperson of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Board. The views expressed here are his own