Research and Policy Brief: The Totalitarian Risk - 17th August 2010

Aug 17, 2010
Recent weeks have seen much dismay around the behavior of South Africa’s government. For it has tabled legislation to restrict access to government information, publicly endorsed a proposed media tribunal answerable to the ANC-dominated Parliament, detained a journalist, and snatched mining rights from two companies. Taken on a case by case basis these developments have done much damage to the reputation of the country. Taken as a whole they suggest that South Africa is beginning to display some of the early attributes of a totalitarian regime.

Political theorists have long sought to define the nature of totalitarian regimes. A 1956 book Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (New York: Praeger) identifies six characteristics that defined totalitarian governments. The six are as follows:

1. A driving ideology
2. A single dominant party
3. A terroristic police
4. A monopoly on communications
5. A monopoly on the possession of arms
6. A centrally controlled economy

South Africa’s Government is coming to display elements of each of these six defining characteristics, although clearly not to the extent that was evident in more extreme case studies of totalitarian dictatorships such as Cuba, North Korea, Myanmar, the Soviet Union, and Zimbabwe.

On the first point of a central driving ideology the ANC, by its own admission, is guided by the principles of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). The philosophy underlying the NDR is that in order to correct historical imbalances the State needs to assume control of wealth and redistribute it from formerly advantaged to previously disadvantaged groups. In order to do this successfully the ruling ANC needs to exercise direct control over all levers of power in both the public and the private sector – an attribute of any totalitarian system. The practice of ‘deploying cadres’ to all manner of institutions across South Africa is one example of the NDR at work.

On the second point, South African politics continues to be dominated by the ANC, which governs with a very large majority both at a national level and across eight of South Africa’s nine provinces. There is little to indicate that this majority, admittedly acquired at the ballot box, will be broken in the near future.

On the third point of a violent and ‘terroristic’ police force, South Africa is moving closer to qualifying. ‘Shoot to kill’ and ‘shoot the bastards’ policing has become a refrain from senior leaders of both the ANC and the Government. This year alone media reports indicate that negligent and reckless members of the South African Police Force have shot and killed a number of civilians who were misidentified as criminal suspects or who were simply caught up in the crossfire. In clamping down on political protests our police are quick to resort to opening fire on civilians – though with few fatalities. Complaints of police brutality to the Independent Complaints Directorate number in the thousands. This week the Independent Complaints Directorate asked the police to act against a number of officers from the organised crime unit implicated in the torture of suspected criminals. The burning of 50 shacks outside Pretoria by the Tshwane Metro Police some weeks ago is an example of the manner in which South Africa’s police officers may come to brutalize whole communities.

All of the above is admittedly ‘thuggish’ rather that terroristic behavior. But the recent case of the lawless arrest of a journalist, who was subsequently held by the police without access to legal representation and contrary to the wishes of the local prosecuting authorities, is a good example of the extent to which the State and ruling party are prepared to use the police to intimidate citizens. So too are allegations that factions in the ANC Youth League have used the police as a tool to fight party political battles. Allegations of torture have been leveled against the police by community activists including the Landless People’s Movement and by service delivery protest leaders. A very unsatisfactory situation is that the same police-force alleged to have committed these violations is responsible for investigating the allegations.

The fourth point of a communications monopoly is also increasingly applicable to South Africa. The State dominates domestic news media through the SABC. It further controls the granting of broadcasting licences. In addition to this domination it has recently introduced legislation to allow for extensive tracking and recording of cell phone communications via the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act. The ANC is currently seeking to introduce a media appeals tribunal. At the same time it is seeking through the Protection of Information Bill to restrict access to information held by the State.

On the fifth point the introduction of the Firearms Control Act has given the State wide discretionary powers over who may possess a firearm and for what purpose. No clear and objective criteria govern the circumstances qualifying an ordinary citizen to own a firearm. In a number of recent court actions, judges have been scathing about the manner in which the police have used the Act to restrict private ownership of weapons.

On the final point of the centrally directed economy, South Africa still possesses a vibrant private sector, albeit one that has come under increasing interventionist pressure. Again by its own admission, the ANC regards one of its responsibilities as to bring about a ‘development state’ wherein the State will play a primary role in directing capital investment through industrial policy and the like. The strong interventionist thrust of empowerment and equity legislation has allowed the State extensive powers in regulating some of the activities of private investors in South Africa. The abuse of those powers in the recent Kumba and Lonmin mining rights cases shows the dangers inherent in the powers that the State has assumed over the economy.

South Africa of 2010 is very far from a totalitarian state. However it is showing tendencies of the six classical attributes of such a system. Many who read this will argue that it is too early to identify this risk. However at what point in the evolution of any totalitarian state does it become appropriate to raise the risk? When on the path to totalitarian rule in Zimbabwe would it have been appropriate to raise the risk of totalitarianism? When the State regulated the free press? When it appropriated land rights? When it introduced price controls? When it rigged elections or intimidated its judiciary?

It is easy to respond on a case by case basis to abuses by the State such as police brutality or the snatching of mining rights. It is therefore important at times to take a few steps back from the day to day events and to ask whether they point to a trend that is more dangerous than its component parts.

- Frans Cronje

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