Politics. It’s always been the same. People grasping for power, others holding on to democratic principles. The war between dictatorship and democracy is not just a modern manifestation (and by modern I mean from the birth of modern democracy in the United States and/or France). It has been happening for millennia.
Last year I was hooked on Robert Harris’s trilogy about the life of Cicero. His first novel, Imperium, followed by Lustrum and finally, the ominously titled Dictator, is about just that: the balance between the values of democracy and the manipulation of the structures which hold it in place. In the book, Cicero’s slave, Tiro, is the narrator of the book, going into detail about Cicero’s own rise to power, becoming the youngest Consul in Rome at the tender age of 42. He was not infallible, having to sacrifice much to remain the political animal that he was, but he always upheld the values of a democratic Roman republic. Through a series of very unfortunate events and the manipulation of those structures which were in place to maintain the Republic’s values, we read how Caesar and others grew to turn Rome into what we think of it today, a place where a supreme commander ruled with an iron fist.
So now, how do you become a dictator? First, you have to build yourself up, getting the necessary street cred. You can either come from a prominent family or a legacy of money (e.g. Caesar), or you have to come up from nothing (e.g. Chairman Mao, Stalin, Castro, Hitler). The former demonstrates that power runs in your genes, and you can do nothing but follow on from where your predecessors left off. Poor roots, charisma and strength in adversity — these are the ways in which you can rise in prominence and have the ability, through your street-smart ways, to become a leader amongst men.
But all this comes to naught if you don’t have your acolytes, your groupies who dedicate their lives to making sure you are great. You need people to be so dedicated that they will ensure that every move you make, every law you break, every step towards power you take, they’ll be watching you, and your back. Now, this can happen because they think that you’re amazing and will follow you no matter what. But normally it involves some sort of patronage, a bond that will guarantee that both you and they get your/their just desserts (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours).
Second, you need your support base to grow. It’s fine to have a few people in your pockets, but you need to have a massive fan base. Your supporters grow, they spread, they become so entranced by you and your story that you become the darling to your constituency. Your constituency must love you, so much so that there are those who say, “I am willing to kill for you”.
Third, you get into power. Public office is where you can have the ability to change the law to make sure that you and your friends can benefit from not only your actions, but from those of ‘the people’ too. You can create actual legislation that can protect you and your allies from those pesky few (or many) who (much to your consternation) just don’t want you to succeed. You create jobs for your family, your friends and their family, make sure that only good things are reported about you and your dealings in public. You can even reach so high in your pursuit of power that you become the leader of your country (or organisation — remember, the rise to dictatorship isn’t limited to national domination. It can even happen in a communal body).
After this, your mission is complete. There will be rough patches ahead; people will always rebel against your complete power over a governing body. The patches can get so rough that you could land up being assassinated, like Julius Caesar or overthrown via a military coup, like Peron in Argentina. If you aren’t really a dictator but you’ve done something a little naughty, and you live in a country which has basic morals, impeachment is likely.
This is just a rough idea, and to really become a dictator takes a lot of hard work and dedication. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
But now we come to the serious part, the one which matters to us in South Africa. Our country is in a precarious position. We do have structures in place to hold together our ‘new’ democracy, with the separation of powers between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary in place to keep it that way. We have people who remain bastions of free speech, promoters of anti-corruption and responsible for creating a South Africa which ensures that all who live in South Africa (citizens or not) have the basic rights which are afforded to them, from water security to a decent education, all included in the Bill of Rights.
However, we are seeing, through a slow and perhaps deliberate process, the breaking down of the institutions which are so important to deliver South Africans their rights to a free and just society. Corruption on a grand scale, bureaucratic incompetence, a Parliament which houses members who do not vote in favour of principles but rather toe the line to remain in power and attacks on the Judiciary. This does not bode well for our country. With the ANC and President Zuma violating the Constitution and not doing anything constructive about the Constitutional Court’s ruling, like Mr. Zuma resigning or the ANC showing that they have the moral back bone to do something positive for the country, we are in for a rough ride.
When reading books like the Cicero trilogy, I cannot help but be concerned about the future of South Africa and how fragile a country it is. As a collective we do have the power to change things, through voting, joining a civil society organisation or anything else which may make those responsible for any damage see that they need to listen to the people. You choose. However, we can hopefully take note of the past and ensure that all roads do not lead to Rome.