South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: Civil disobedience, revisited

Analysis: Civil disobedience, revisited

The unending litany of reports of waste, fraud and mismanagement in government sends J. BROOKS SPECTOR to search for comfort in American philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay on civil disobedience.

Anyone who reads the newspapers, listens to television or radio news, or follows a website like The Daily Maverick can easily be thoroughly depressed by reports of waste, fraud, mismanagement, ineptitude or just plain theft from state agencies. Like an unrelenting ostinato, almost every day also brings news about funds that have extracted from the coffers of state-owned enterprises or by yet another government agency for the self-enrichment of well-placed officials, rather than the purposes for which the funds were intended.

For many people, the sluicing away of state funds has become such a repetitive, dreary story that a terrible ennui has begun to set in, in place of outrage. Anger has gone out the window. Instead, people may find themselves thinking along the lines of Kurt Vonnegut’s world-weary refrain – a phrase used some 106 times in Slaughterhouse-Five – “So it goes” that in Vonnegut’s novel underscores the repetitive heaping up of mindless death and destruction.

The question of how an average citizen – a someone who is nobody special, nobody famous, nobody in particular – can actually carry out a principled objection to a regime and make it stick has engaged many social philosophers and writers through the centuries, starting perhaps with Sophocles’ classic drama, Antigone, and then on through to a modern guise in The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona.

The argument is that the withholding of obedience or support is designed to be a principled statement against a regime’s behaviour, regardless of immediate consequences – even fatal ones – to the withholder. And by extension, the idea is that if enough people refuse to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, Caesar’s regime will have to desist because it no longer has the necessary legitimacy or taxes to pay for its behaviour. Alternatively, there is also the idea that withholding payment for perfectly reasonable things can become a generalized tax strike that helps bring down the government.

Henry David Thoreau’s highly influential essay on the concept of principled civil disobedience ultimately influenced both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among many others. In Thoreau’s case, he had refused to pay a special tax designed to help finance the US war against Mexico in 1845, a war that Thoreau had understood would actually extend the writ of slavery within the US. Consequently, Thoreau refused to pay the required tax, the authorities arrested him, and he spent a night in jail in protest instead, at least until his friends quietly bailed him out.

Reflecting upon this question, Thoreau had written, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison…. where the State places those who are not with her, but against her, – the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with hono[u]r… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”

Thoreau’s protest obviously didn’t stop the war, end slavery, or incite the majority of his fellow Americans to follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, his statement did encourage generations of others in the US and elsewhere around the world to carry out their own principled oppositions to the actions of their own governments.

Closer to our own time, Gandhi’s march to the sea to avoid paying the British Indian tax on salt helped demonstrate the futility of political control when simple actions could be used to negate the legitimacy of a state – just as long as that state felt constrained not to employ its near monopoly of lethal force on protestors for fear of provoking yet further protests, of course.

While stemming from rather different ideological premises than Gandhi’s – in this case a desire to cut back government social welfare expenditures via halting the rise in property taxes that were occurring because of rapidly increasing land values – two private citizens, Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, doggedly pushed for a citizen referendum that would take place in a California election on limiting increases in property tax rates (the state largely depended on property taxes for much of its revenue). This referendum, called Proposition 13, was a proposed amendment to the California state constitution that would sharply limit any increase generated in state revenues via property taxes. Once it eventually passed in a state-wide referendum and survived a Supreme Court test, Proposition 13 represented the philosophical beginnings of a modern tax “revolt” in American politics, helping fuel on-going, continuing Republican efforts to lower taxes and limit government social welfare expenditures sharply.

In South Africa, of course, a similar kind of tax and fee protest action on the part of black South Africans had become quite real in the 1980s, in response to the on-going repression, succeeding states of emergency and near-continuous police actions in the nation’s townships. Many thousands of households simply refused to pay rent for their homes, or declined to pay water and electricity rates (assuming their homes were electrified). So many followed that path that local authorities responsible for managing infrastructure in many townships found themselves in acute cash crunches. As a result, this mass act of civil disobedience made a significant contribution to the government’s decreasing will to carry on the fight against social and political change.

This largely non-violent, prolonged rent, rates and taxes strike has had other effects, of course. Most importantly, many people continue to refuse to pay municipal electricity bills and carry out illegal reconnections whenever local authorities actually disconnect non-payers. Estimates are that local authorities are losing significant amounts of owed revenue that results from a simple refusal to pay and then illicit reconnections whenever the power or water is shut off. While some of this refusal to pay may stem from a more narrow self-interest to save money, more of it probably comes from a continuing dissatisfaction with the quality of or even lack of service delivery in so many spheres of local infrastructure.

Running parallel to this, of course, is the growing middle class anger over the unending revelations of the many millions of misspent or purloined rands as a result of sloppy, inept or corrupt decisions that benefit individuals at the expense of an increasingly besieged taxpayer. The first real sign of this, perhaps, was has been the public disgust over e-tolling and the unwillingness of most Gauteng motorists, still, to even register for one of those detested electronic gizmos, let alone pay the resulting bills they may eventually receive, after not registering for electronic pre-payment of their tolls.

The result of this relatively spontaneous citizen revolt may be generating a slow-motion rethink by some in government and even in the governing party over the long-term viability of this e-tolling/overhead gantry solution (along with its shadowy foreign partners and less than transparent local shareholders) to pay for road improvements. However, the way forward towards an actual policy reversal to a new funding model as a result of this groundswell of opposition remains unclear. Will the general refusal to participate in the tolling persist – if a few frequent, highly visible users who have received invoices with really big amounts due are actually prosecuted – or worse?

But then there are all those other appalling spending decisions as well, where parties have been spending the nation’s tax rands, as if the funds were their own funds to do as they wished. Without giving a full inventory, these certainly must include those massive upgrades on the president’s personal compound at Nkandla, the repeated SAA bailouts that will almost certainly stretch off into a permanently receding future, that mysterious, potentially R1 trillion secret Russian nuclear reactor procurement effort, the massive website development contract for the Free State government, and the unending probes and counter-probes in the national police service. Then there is the duplicity or worse inside the SABC and on its board over the absence of appropriate academic qualifications and the presence of high fees for excessive numbers of board meetings and self-granted massive salary increases. But there is also that astonishing Eskom contract to spend some R43 million on breakfast sponsorships and still more on an executive exercise facility and bonuses as the power utility monopoly finds itself in a deep financial hole. And these represent just an abbreviated list of some of the most recent outrages that continue to stir expressions of outrage.

And, of course, none of costs of these original insults include all the legal costs involved in various duelling court decisions from efforts to seek court protection by one part of government from another part, or attempts to avoid the repercussions of investigations by the relevant branches of the country’s government. In reality, no one really knows the total cost of such things, although one recent report from the nation’s auditor general said that waste, fraud and mismanagement cost the country nearly R35 billion – or about R700 or so for every man, woman and child in the land.

As a result of all the indignation about these insults to the body politic, one must surely begin to wonder what, if anything, the average citizen will do in response. Thoreau’s advice in his US of the 1840s, of course, was not to wait until the next election for an opportunity to run the rascals out of office.

Instead, Thoreau had determined that the responsibilities of active citizenry demanded a more immediate, more direct response, as in his refusal to pay that wartime poll tax. Or it was the case when Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King refused to follow the law of the land at the time and they were willing to accept the consequences of their refusals, arguing, in effect, a government is incapable of arresting its entire citizenry (unless you live in a state like North Korea, perhaps).

And so, inevitably, the question presents itself, would South Africa’s middle class, the bulk of the taxpaying crowd, actually reach a point where they would decline, en masse, to pay that despised TV licence in protest over the expensive shenanigans in Auckland Park, or, perhaps, would they decide to deduct a pro rata share of their municipal rates, and income and property taxes in revulsion against that litany of waste, fraud and mismanagement, as a kind of South African homage to Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann?

But, of course, really crucial questions remain unanswered. For example, who would – or even could – organise a surge of resistance among a largely law-abiding, even timorous, middle class? And would that citizenry be prepared to spend a night in jail over such an abstruse principle as a demand for good, clean, efficient and effective government?

The problem is that when there are millions acting in unison, it becomes much easier to follow an increasingly well-worn path of resistance; but who will sacrifice themselves, their pleasant home and their family’s comforts to the ball in motion to straighten out the woes of Eskom? That is the cruel dilemma that must reside in the heart of everyone who rails against government disasters on social media platforms, in an angry letter to a newspaper, or via an anguished call to a talk radio station. DM

Photo: Rioters throw stones during a protest at the Phomolong informal settlement, outside Pretoria, March 23, 2010. Reuters/Stringer

Read more:

  • Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau at the University of Virginia website

  • Antigone, by Sophocles at the MIT website

  • The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, complete script from


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.