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Heed the lessons of the Roman Republic, Mr President


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

South Africa’s story today shows many signs of unravelling with some very similar travails to parts of the Roman republican period.

In Harriet Flower’s book Roman Republics, she examines the crisis of the Roman Republic over 84 years between 133-49BC. Flower’s preferred articulation of republican politics, however, is to place it in rather more distinct periods, thus accommodating the shifts and changes in the republic itself. 

Her aim is to start “a renewed discussion of Roman republican political culture, of its evolving nature, of the kinds of challenges it faced and overcame over time, and of the precise historical circumstances in which it succumbed to a combination of outside pressures and internal violence”. 

As she lucidly demonstrates, “The republic of Cicero is not the republic of Cato the Censor or of Appius Claudius Caecus.

One could usefully apply the articulation of historical periods to post-apartheid South Africa from Nelson Mandela to Cyril Ramaphosa even if the expanses of time pale in comparison. Indeed, South Africa’s story today shows many signs of unravelling with some very similar travails to parts of the Roman republican period. While the Roman Republic was organised very differently from what we might imagine as a modern constitutional arrangement, there may well be some lessons from history for modern-day constitutional democracies and state decline. 

The Roman constitution was not something that was clear-cut and “designed for purpose” in the manner of modern-day constitutions; it evolved according to the needs of the day. As decades wore on, the Roman Republic was equally vulnerable to corruption, abuse of power, patronage, the use of state resources for private gain and subsequent decline. 

Patronage and its consequences are nothing new. In Cicero’s world, amicitia (“friendship”, between those in power and others) was a near institution and what started out as part of the fabric of Roman life quickly became sullied by corruption and abuse of the patron-client relationship. The nobility controlled political institutions through their networks of friends and clients. Roman friendships continually evolved as a “web of expectations and obligations”, creating an environment ripe for abuse, specifically during the period of Rome’s expansion abroad that created many opportunities for such misuse of patronage. It all sounds eerily familiar even in 2020.

The constitutional democracy of Ramaphosa is very different to Mandela’s. To say the very least, the sense of optimism and joy are distinctly missing as we trundle along. Thabo Mbeki’s rather more technocratic state differed vastly from Jacob Zuma’s period defined by State Capture and looting. Yet, for a myriad of reasons, the seed of “crisis” lay in Mandela and Mbeki’s presidencies; Zuma laid bare what the ANC had become by 2007 and Ramaphosa now seeks to deal with the full-blown internal crises within his party. That the state has become contaminated by the ANC’s ethical failures is obvious. 

We do, of course, tend to use the word crisis rather loosely in modern parlance. The effects of the global financial crisis of 2008 still reverberate around the world for instance. South Africa’s crisis of unemployment is structural and stubborn. Added to that, our social fabric is in a state of crisis as rape, murder and crime, in general, have spiralled out of control. We have a shortage of skills, that is a crisis. 

The early root of “krisis” as meaning “to sieve, discriminate or distinguish” is instructive. It also assumed a rather more legal definition as a “dispute, a lawsuit and judgment about a lawsuit”. And still later as a “point of time of deciding anything, the decisive moment or turning point” to “times of difficulty, insecurity and suspense in politics or commerce”.

If South Africa has reached what is now commonly called a “crisis” of a political and economic nature, or rather a moment to “sieve” or “distinguish” truth from lies, solutions from obstacles and the rule of law from lawlessness, then the president may be best served to use his State of the Nation Address (SONA) next week to tackle some of the issues South Africans care about. 

In simpler modern political speak, it really “is about the economy, stupid!” 

Millions remain jobless as the economy stagnates on the back of what is a mixture of government indecision, lethargy and policy confusion. All the while, bubbling underneath the surface of our society is a wave of deep anger and frustration that rears its head more often than we can fathom. As one watches students burn down buildings at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, increased violence against women and children, we know that in South Africa violence begets violence. As we hear the testimony of Frank Chikane and Barbara Hogan at the inquest into Neil Aggett’s death, we understand the gaping wounds in this fractured society.

Ramaphosa’s crises are all of ours to navigate daily. 

Next week, the president comes to town amid the pomp and ceremony and jarring excess that is SONA. It is an important constitutional moment where the president presents his plans to the legislature that, after all, is to exercise oversight over Ramaphosa’s executive. 

It might be nice to see a toned-down version of this event, but politicians enjoy trappings. Cape Town will, therefore, prepare for the armoured vehicles on Philip Kgosana Drive, the police deployed (and bored) in their thousands as working people flee the CBD before the veritable circus comes to town. One wonders why this excessive deployment of the SANDF and the SAPS is necessary. Only a country deeply uncomfortable with itself would value such a show of force. Given our economic woes, a scaled-down event would have been appropriate. That would probably have meant that members of Parliament needed to ditch the ball gowns for ordinary attire. But that wouldn’t be South Africa. 

In November last year, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was challenged by her staff to record a clip of what her government had achieved in its first two years. She was challenged to do so in less than two minutes. Eventually Ardern, truly a leader in a class of her own, finished in two minutes 56 seconds. She rattled off what had been done in simple language and with facts and figures, for instance, “creating 92,000 jobs”. 

South Africa is not New Zealand and our challenges are structural, historic and complex, yet this video provides a lesson in simplicity and accountability. Both are in short supply in the South African government. Instead of yet another yawn-inducing and lengthy SONA next week, perhaps Ramaphosa can follow Ardern’s plain language report-back? It would serve to focus all our minds and also allow the president to finally dispense with the clunky, uninspiring rhetoric of successive years. Ramaphosa, with the power of the Presidency, could try to set the tone in a short, sharp speech. In an ideal world, he would set the stage for the grim news with an honest rendering on the economy and why it is in the state that it is in. 

He would then discuss state-owned enterprises and outline what is being done to get each of them on track. Jobs should surely be at the heart of his speech: what has been done and what hard decisions will be taken to grow the economy? The back and forth confusion regarding expropriation without compensation and the proposed folly that is the National Health Insurance fund should be explained carefully. More than that, Ramaphosa will need to address these matters in a way that reignites confidence in his government and indeed in him. He needs to convince us that he will do what he says he will do. 

If Thuma mina! was a rallying cry that has somehow fallen flat given the political reality, Ramaphosa needs a more workman-like call which he will be able to live up to over the next year. 

It remains to be seen whether SONA can be a platform for decision-making, or will our political and social crises simply be prolonged through indecision, inaction and the ANC’s tedious and destructive divisions?

If we are at a “decisive turning point” of a time to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff then things cannot remain as they are. 

The Roman Republic’s drawn-out decline, preceded by a series of social and political crises, had a bloody end. The lessons of history should not be lost on us next week and in the year that lies ahead. The historical settings are not entirely analogous and Ramaphosa’s wars are figurative ones, yet they are for us at this point in our history as precarious as any. DM


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