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AUTHORITARIAN DRIFT OP-ED

Autocrats rule, OK? It’s time to badmouth the ANC’s pivot away from democracy

Autocrats rule, OK? It’s time to badmouth the ANC’s pivot away from democracy
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

We are getting to a point where democracy needs to be defended against the government’s autocratic drift. Calling for a suspension of public criticism of the government and building a global club where autocrats call the shots is nothing less than an assault on democracy.

Don’t say you weren’t warned. The ANC, facing growing pressure over its many failures, wants South Africa to pivot away from democracy and accountability and towards a closed society which is politically controlled.

It is no feat of investigative journalism to uncover this. It is happening before our eyes as the government very publicly moves to align the country with undemocratic authoritarianism such as in Russia, China and Iran.

This week, President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his admiration of China’s lack of freedom of expression: “In China, nearly everyone is a messenger — every Chinese is a messenger for their country, they never badmouth their own country. Never badmouth your country.”

In the same week, Minister in the Presidency Maropene Ramokgopa refused to release the government’s assessment of the performance of Cabinet ministers.

Ramaphosa’s spokesman Vincent Magwenya defended the decision, saying: “The purpose is not to embarrass anybody or hang out anybody to dry in public, the purpose is to be constructive.”

This amounts to saying that the hurt feelings of Cabinet ministers are more important than the public’s right to know how their money is being spent on governance.

China fantasy

Of course, Ramaphosa’s extraordinary generalisation that the Chinese “never badmouth their own country” is totally untrue. Many Chinese are critical of their government. It’s just that they are quickly silenced, sent to re-education camps or worse, disappear.

Ask the Uighurs. Or the relatives of the 50 million who Mao’s version of totalitarianism killed from starvation, forced labour, mass executions and his grotesque experiments in social engineering, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

But this is not just old history.

Despite this pall of fear, and perhaps because of it, protests continue today as people object to President Xi Jinping’s reversion to the Maoist politics of social control.

In September 2022, there were large protests against Xi’s Covid regulations with protesters chanting “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!”

These protesters were among many hundreds of thousands who have risked their lives and their liberty to speak out against authoritarian rule in recent years. Protests have been going on for decades. In 2011, the residents of Wukan threw out their unelected leaders and voted in their own leaders. The response from the state was predictably harsh.

Protest in China is not confined to villagers. In 2021, Jack Ma was China’s leading businessman and leader of a company with a market capitalisation of $61-billion. Then he made a speech comparing China’s state-owned banks to pawn shops and said regulators were stifling innovation.

Ma “disappeared” from public life for three months while Chinese regulators mounted an assault on his company which lost half of its market capitalisation.

Ramaphosa appears to have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the Chinese narrative that its country is one great big happy autocracy where all revere the leader.

In contrast, he is deeply disappointed with South Africans.

Populist feint

“Here, some people have made it a sport to badmouth the country, to say all sorts of negative things, and we say we need to be patriotic and acknowledge that we have challenges and problems. But at the same time [we] say that our love for this country is much more important than the negativity, so therefore we must be positive about SA. That is the only way this country can move forward.”

The key phrase here is that “our love for this country is much more important than the negativity”, a classic populist feint which casts critics as people who don’t love their country. Quite the opposite is true and was demonstrated very well by Ramaphosa himself and the ANC in the dark days of apartheid.

Patriotism, like identity politics, is a refuge for scoundrels and those seeking to cover up the costs of their own inadequacies. 

It appears to have passed Ramaphosa by that it is quite possible and perhaps even likely that those who criticise the government do so precisely because they love their country dearly. The “government” and the “country” are not the same thing unless you are thinking like Mao.

South Africa’s pivot away from democracy is not limited to its admiration for the chimera of a closed society where all heap praise on the President, poor fellow. It includes the embrace of a list of countries that actively hate democracy and engage in tyranny against their people, where patriotism, fealty to the party, ideology and theology are common bedfellows.

The international relations minister’s fawning visit to Iran after the 7 October attacks in Israel is one such unfortunate choice of friends. Whatever you might think of the conflict in Gaza, embracing a country which sponsors global terror is beyond the pale.

The decision to look past large African democracies such as Nigeria and Kenya in the expansion of BRICS, and to include Ethiopia, where democracy is suspended while a vicious civil war unfolds, and Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is another lamentable illustration of this malaise.

This is no mistake. Russia and China call the shots in BRICS and they prefer their politics from the top down. The prospect of hanging around with more tjatjarag African democracies that vote against them at the UN is too ghastly to contemplate.

No less an autocrat than Russia’s Vladimir Putin was moved to praise Ramaphosa’s management of the BRICS’ pivot away from democracy.

Out of touch

There is an election coming up and Ramaphosa would do well to think more clearly about how out of touch he and his party are with most South Africans.

He played no small part in bringing free expression to South Africa and he should know that this is deeply cherished. Our research clearly shows that most South Africans condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and they believe alignment with “the West and other democratic countries” is better for the country than alignment with BRICS.

With no apparent irony, Ramaphosa said: “We have got gains of our democracy that we must defend; there are those who want to get into power and if they were to — which they will not — they will reverse the gains.” While he equates freedom with continued rule by the ANC, his utterances in praise of autocrats would suggest quite the opposite.

We are getting to a point where democracy needs to be defended against the government’s autocratic drift. Calling for a suspension of public criticism of the government and building a global club where autocrats call the shots is nothing less than an assault on democracy. 

This slide should be another nail in the ANC’s election coffin. If not, don’t say you were not warned. DM

Ray Hartley and Greg Mills are with The Brenthurst Foundation.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mark K says:

    They were not chanting “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!” This is fake news, as all comrades know.

    What they were actually chanting was:
    习近平,下台 (Xi Jinping, step down)
    共产党,下台 (Communist Party, step down)

    See how the American imperialists reverse what was actually said. :-p

  • David Mitchley says:

    Totally agree with the authors, one can love South Africa without loving the ANC. A South African citizen is expressing their love for their country when they criticise the rubbish policies and laws that the government implements.

  • Val Ruscheniko says:

    “Absolute power corrupts absolutely!” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th Century French philosopher and revolutionary.
    “My fellow South Africans, wake up and smell the ANC’s legacy of corruption and malfeasance – no smell of coffee, I’m afraid it’s been stolen, and anyway there’s loadshedding on 24/7 so think of what you can do for your country, and not for what the ANC promised to do for you” – Cyril Ramaphosa, 21st Century bigot politician and erstwhile revolutionary.x

  • Jon Quirk says:

    When was the last time that we saw Ramaphosa being properly interviewed and questioned in detail by journalists?

    We have adopted the mode of dictators the World over, where he only does pre-scripted, staged, television presentations to “fellow South Africans” with no critical questions, no follow up and questioning of “the message” he wanted to put across.

    He virtually never goes to parliament and even then there is never an opportunity to quiz and put questions to him, and would it not be good for our supposed democracy to see him, and all his cabinet members, being properly questioned by some of our best reporters?

    Accountability is the bedrock of democracy and we have been getting further, and further from Democracy, since Mandela stepped down.

    • Dave Shipman says:

      Well said John 100% correct. Accountability is a word that has been eroded over a short space of time.

    • Derek Jones says:

      100 % Jon Quirk, it is amazing how changes creep up without one noticing. This needs to be taken up properly by all media and made very public. This man is a snake.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      I don’t believe the supreme leader has ever been interviewed by a group of independent journalists….the occasional one from SABC doesn’t count.

    • Carsten Rasch says:

      Have you been thinking Ramaphosa and his cohort are democrats? Remember his statement that he will boil us like frogs? The boiling point is near…

  • Denise Smit says:

    Mantashe was going to appoint somebody to monitor the media expressions? Does anyone know whether that happened. Just think if media and freedom of expression is clamped down on, because this is what it is coming to, we will all be in the firing line

  • Hiram C Potts says:

    Karl Marx: “Democracy is the road to socialism” -This is clearly the ANC govt’s. end game.

    Democracy fails when voters are uninformed, politicians are corrupt & their political rhetoric is full of lies.
    Excellent article & we’re well on our way…..

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    The ANC was always going to be more ideologically aligned to Countries like Russia & China.
    You see it in their approach to SOE’s which is one of centralized control & in their Cadre deployment policies
    In its most benign form its a policy where a capable State looks after & protects the welfare of its people.
    The problem is that the ideology is premised on ‘things working’ & with committed & capable Comrades making the things work.
    In a sense it also assumes that the rest of the World stands still or at least moves in a direction favorable to you. That’s the problem with nailing your colors to the mast of ideology. The world doesn’t stand still & we are not some island magically cut off from it. The World moves quickly & you either keep pace with it or fall behind & suffer.
    The point that I am trying to make is that we should not be surprised with whom the ANC aligns – cos it’s central to their group think. The problem is when you hang onto ideas & notions that no longer hold true or cause ‘self harm’
    That’s the real problem here! The ANC & it’s Alliance Partners are stuck with their feet & minds in a past that is ‘out of step’ with the tide of progress & if we continue down this road we will become a vassal state to countries like Russia & China unable to determine our own destiny

  • Ashley Stone says:

    Perhaps democracy was never the goal but rather self enrichment.

  • Andrew Martens says:

    Ramaphosa has been consolidating power for a number of years now – removing political enemies, moving powers into the presidency and using unelected structures to govern. No crisis has been wasted. The danger is that he succeeds in solving some problems, and these autocratic ways become seen as desirable and/or necessary.

  • John P says:

    It is with fear and trepidation that I await the 2024 elections. The ANC will show a huge slide in popularity and we may even end up with an ANC/EFF coalition. Ramaphosa and the rest of the communistic ANC know this and know that they could eventually face losing power. It is not by accident that we drift into autocracy, rather I fear it is the intention to create a one party state and move closer to the Brics standard.

  • Peter Dexter says:

    It would be very interesting to understand the correlation between countries with sound democratic values and human rights laws versus quality of life, possibly represented by GDPPC. It appears to me that autocratic rule generally results in poorer outcomes for most of the population (Obviously, excluding the political elite.) North and South Korea being the best control experiment. Why then do so many follow this ideology?

    • Andrew Martens says:

      One can easily see the path in our country –
      1. The state fails so badly that it cannot be trusted to perform its functions, so that
      2. It becomes logical to do what is needed outside of the usual democratic structures and
      3. People are desperate so anyone seemingly competent quickly gains in power.
      4. Power is consolidated and increased, while democratic institutions lose value and ability.
      5. Return to step 1.

  • Hilary Morris says:

    A very worrying aspect of Ramaphosa’s comment is the complete conflation of ANC and country. We ALL love our country, it’s the bloody ANC that is busy destroying it, and at increasing speed, that we hate. It’s difficult to assess whether he has any insight at all into our condition. There are so many negative attributes that it becomes increasingly difficult to even listen to his voice. And his new spokeswoman oozes poison as she opens her mouth. Let’s hope (ironically) that by the time the election arrives, they will have done enough for even the least educated to see that the only way out is to rid ourselves of the ANC – and convincingly!

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    We are not an American colony once more. I think the two authors forget what Mandela told Bill Clinton in 1998 conveniently. American enemies are not necessarily our enemies in particular Cuba, Iran and at that time Libya. We have an American war criminal that has passed away referred to as a diplomat after carpet bombing one million Vietnamese and supported the murder of Allende in Chile and the criminal regime of Pinochet. Al Jazeera are reporting the celebration of his death in Latin America. That is is the thug called Henry Kissinger. We know about the Chinese Uighurs but it is Americans who are the biggest trading partner of China that the two authors conveniently leave out. Though China is a massive trading partner of South Africa but it pales to the trade between the US and China. The two authors are dishonest. Genocide Joe Biden is not our President and we are not going to listening to his drivel now and in the future. I have stood for the UN Charter and International Law that two authors are selectively standing for. As victims of a colonial past and Apartheid, we will never support Israeli criminal conduct and they can scream on top of roofs. We will continue to have relations with Iran as we have no beef with them. The US and western countries have been supporters of the most putrid regimes and our own oppression. They are not going to lecture to us.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      An unedifying and inaccurate rant Cunningham. You need calm down

    • John P says:

      What on earth does this rant have to do with this article?

    • Pieter van de Venter says:

      I am not sure what your outburst has to do with the article. It is about democracy!!!

      Mandela was unfortunately part of the planning committee of the cadre fest. He and his old guard benefited very early on already from private sector gifts and bought lavish houses and cars. This path to socialism was also planned from the early days on to capture power via the voting booth (like Hitler) and turn it into a one party state.

    • Michael Thomlinson says:

      Yep Cunningham you have lost the plot.
      This article is about South Africa, the mess the ANC is making of it, and our president who is aligning himself (without our mandate) with countries who have dire human rights records and not anything to do with the USA.
      Cyril is trying to conflate love of counrty with love of the ANC. You can hate the ANC but love your country and that so why many of us ordinary folk are so angry with the ANC because we see the destruction that is taking place and we feel powerless to stop the theft of public money and the corruption. South Africa should be the powerhouse of Africa with employment for millions but this will not happen while the ANC with their dustructive policies remain in power.

  • Peter Slingsby says:

    Ramaphosa can do none of these things without suspending the constitution. As soon as he does that his government will become illegitimate and open the doors for a new armed struggle, this time against kleptocratic autocracy. South Africa might become a very unpleasant place – for a while. Better to do everything we can to remove the ANC via the ballot box, if they don’t pull a Zanu-PF style theft of the election – which seems increasingly probable.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Cyril the spineless and useless is an outright fraudster in the sense that he is completely false, totally treacherous, highly treasonous, exceptionally hypocritical, immoral to boot and duplicitous to the core. He is your typical champagne communist that lives in the lap of luxury (gifted his wealth) but leaves just about the rest of the country to languish in poverty and misery. “I’m all right Jack” is his motto and he fakes caring about the nation if it doesn’t conform to his warped beliefs and thinking, as witnessed many times over including his love/support for the most vicious, murderous and bestial tyrants in the world. This is who is he is no matter how much spin & sugar coating he tries. He and his vile party are a huge ball & chain around SA’s neck, dragging us down into the gutter and the only way to reverse this is to get rid of these criminals, thieves and parasites! Cyril – you are the last “man” on earth and totally ill-equipped to lecture us about being patriotic and wanting to emulate China, Russia, Iran etc. Be true to yourself for once, practice what you preach and go and live there. Take your hideous party with you and leave us alone! The anc party/government have done massive damage to the country and we are really far better off without you lot.

  • Mark Wade says:

    The only way that the ANC can continue to rule is through oppression, be that through the nationalisation (expropriation without compensation – ‘property’, healthcare etc.), the suppression of free speech (hate speech bill), or BBBEE (education, employment, supply chain contracts, access to water for farmers, the suspension of export rights unless BEE accredited), or cadre deployment (the placement of their families and friends into all positions of power; the judiciary, government, provinces, municipalities and SOEs). They’re creating a totalitarian dictatorship – and aligning with governments of the same ilk (Russian, China and Iran).

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Banana republican kleptocommies accelerating the drift towards totalitarianism? Who could have predicted that.

  • George Olivier says:

    Please publish this article in the Sunday Times and City Press.

  • Alley Cat says:

    “Ramaphosa appears to have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the Chinese narrative that its country is one great big happy autocracy where all revere the leader.”
    And this is a mistake we all make. Cyril is not stupid. He is well aware of the problems in China. His motives are far more sinister as pointed out by many commenters here. We assume his ignorance at our peril and the same applies to Malema, who is no dumass but a scheming, self-serving creep.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      On the money. He is an accomplished confidence trickster with an act that is perfectly pitched at the low average IQ of the electorate. At the height of ramaphoria I was removed from many christmas card lists for harping on about him being a skelm and that a ‘good’ person couldn’t possibly become the president of the anc let alone zuma’s deputy. The useful idiots who bought his schtick, some of whom wrote puff pieces on him here at the time, should be embarrassed at being so credulous.

  • Arnold Muscat says:

    It is too late the damage is irrepairable

  • Egmont Rohwer says:

    “In contrast, he is deeply disappointed with South Africans.” – More accurately, we (South Africans) are deeply disappointed with Ramaphosa. As the president he is about as useless as a vrot cabbage.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    As far as I know, The President has never faced a press conference; there would be too many unpleasant questions to answer, but now he is starting to show his real face.

  • Ken Shai says:

    The article wants to produce a misleading impression that Ramaphosa is siding with BRICS including China and Russia because he does not like democracy. Americans of course call any country allied with US as “democratic” and countries on the opposite side of the fight for global domination as “autocratic”, but those are purely propaganda labels. The fact is Biden’s victory in 2020 is quite similar to ZANU-PF victory recently in Zimbabwe, although of course US has more propaganda and media resources to lie about it than ZANU-PF. And any country that does not want to be rules by US as a colony should side with China and Russia, and that has nothing to do with democracy considerations.

    • John P says:

      Ken you appear ton be confused with the definitions of Autocracy and Democracy. Perhaps the below quotes from the Oxford dictionary will assist
      Autocracy – “a system of government by one person with absolute power.”
      Democracy – “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The problem with this president is that he blames us, the people, for their failures. And he is using guilt to try and ram it down our throats. But it’s way to late for that. Only a cadre or an imbecile can still vote for this clutch of losers.

  • Tony B says:

    The only reason why many haven’t left is because we love this country. There are many opportunities elsewhere.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    As a good South African I would never criticise our government

    …if and when we actually get one.

  • Trenton Carr says:

    The wheel turns, and ramauseless does not and never will have the power to rewrite history, our children will know his utter lack of ability or spine.

  • William Dryden says:

    Ramaphosa must be living in a dream if thinks that if another party gets into power, they will reverse the gains? What gains have the ANC made in the last 25 years (ziltch Nada) unless he means reverse the corruption and theft cycle by the current party. That would work.

  • PETER BAKER says:

    Reading all of the comments it seems that we are pretty much of one mind. el Presidente Ramaphoria and his malignant ANC have and are continuing to bring about the demise of South Africa Inc faster that a speeding bullet. But WTF are we doing about it? What can we do about it is the $64000 question? We can start by SPEAKING out about how the ANC has made everyones’ lives more miserable and brought suffering to the very people WE are in contact with every day. The guy on the street, the shop keeper, the guy directing traffic, pumping gas, the office person we deal with, the cop, work colleagues, from corporate to pick and shovel. We must speak up about getting the ANC out of office and mostly, just vote. If we all do not do this as an exponential (sic) exercise, SA Inc. will certainly become a hopeless failed state.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Normally i always apply a balanced approach when dealing with issues but when it comes to the ANC the other wheel is off boom!! no support, they are really indefensible actually they are a disgrace

  • Shane Hunter says:

    We are not bad mouthing South Africa, we bad mouthing the ANC. There is a big difference there.

  • I am at a loss for words. Can I just scream from the rooftops about everything the ANC and Ramaphosa are doing? Will that be hate speech?

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