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Beware the perils of groupthink and the siren song of authoritarian rule

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Professor Ian Liebenberg was until recently a professor in political science at the Faculty of Military Science at Stellenbosch University and former director of the Centre for Military Studies (CEMIS) at the same university. He previously taught sociology at the University of South Africa (Unisa).

The leadership of our security forces is increasingly interpreting a ‘State of Disaster’ as a ‘State of Emergency’ (and a few perhaps as ‘Martial Law’). Between these terms, there are huge differences and wrong interpretations can act as a trigger of anger and resistance.

When the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 an international pandemic, most countries opted for a partial or full lockdown. South Africa opted for a full lockdown. A “State of Disaster” was declared, which is provided for by a specific act, The Disaster Management Act. It seemed to be a timely decision, at that moment. In the beginning few, except for a few keen observers, spoke out about the possible future outcomes and consequences on various levels.

Our own position in southern Africa and our economic context faced immense challenges before Covid-19. Before the State of Disaster, the economy was at best sluggish. Simultaneously, other economists suggested that the economy was stagnant or even regressing. Not an enviable position for any country to be in. The National Development Plan (2012), despite it being announced with great fanfare, had not delivered what it should have in terms of the goals set for the assumed developmental state. Now, the economic situation, due to the lockdown, is much worse.

At the moment some are speaking about the Covid-19 situation in apocalyptic terms. What the “Apocalypse Now” would be depends entirely on your viewpoint. Throughout history, the world as we know it saw many ‘’apocalypses’’, depending on one’s perception. There was always a post-the-crises time where actions were taken to repair the damage caused by the immediate past after major disasters or mass-killings (think about World War I, the Spanish Flu, World War II and Vietnam). The world has seen this over and over again. After Covid-19 is over, we will see this again. That is unless human nature changes – and that is extremely unlikely.

Some nine weeks ago, many argued, and may have been deeply convinced, that the declaration of a State of Disaster by President Cyril Ramaphosa was a wise move. They argued so, perhaps because of the relative calm in our context compared to the global panic with which world leaders and large segments of their populations were seized, that it was necessary.

Admittedly, some countries had very serious outbreaks (in cases confined to certain areas or provinces). However, very little on the outcomes and possible duration of lockdown was reflected upon then and even less said. Afterwards, some argued that the announcement of various levels to exit the lockdown in phases based upon the Covid-19 situation may have been a good thing if it was well managed. Now we are left with serious consequences, uncertainties and subsequent policy choices. In saying so, a few themes jump to mind.

The contradictory state

Prisoners are released, dagga was legalised for personal use a while ago while at the moment cigarettes – making a “rolly”, traditional pipe smoking (remember Boxer, BB, Black and White for the poorer and Rum and Maple and Holland House for those who are better off?) – are all banned. The homeless are pushed into already confined spaces for this time, frequently detained in less than satisfactory conditions, while presumed less-dangerous potential criminals have the space to move around under the rules of Level 4.

The move from Level 5 to Level 4 was supposed to bring more freedom, but in fact brought more severe restrictions. The president of South Africa announced to the nation that the illogical decision to ban cigarettes had been recalled. The very next day, one of his ministers nullified his public commitment, and the president, in a humbling manner, had to retract his statement to the people in a personal letter.

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) found that 35% of the South African population would prefer this ban to be lifted. That is more than a third of the citizenry of South Africa. These citizens received a resounding NO (and at the moment the government refuses to release the minutes of the Command Council where these matters were discussed). Among other reasons, the ban is justified “because persons share cigarettes”. This is in situations where poorer citizens are confined to living spaces barely sufficient for two people but typically five, six or more people are sharing an abode. Shared cigarettes will enhance the spread of Covid-19, it was pontificated. 

The anti-smoking lobby jeered, starry-eyed, without considering the broader consequences. Apparently the Honourable Minister, with her well known decades-long personal vendetta against smokers, forgot that poor households also share crockery and cutlery (that is, if you have them, otherwise you are forced to eat with your hands, despite the lofty NDP).  These same citizens live in conditions where they frequently have no access to potable water.  When last did the minister visit and sleep over in the homes of the poorest of the poor? Somewhere, somehow, this says something about our political leadership, the understanding of a democracy and a constitutional state.

And what it says, apparently, invites no good news about government behaviour during and after the State of Covid-19. If you can ignore more than a quarter of your population on an issue such as smoking a cigarette, what prevents you from doing so on more serious issues?

The Covid-19 armed state

The above is not all. The president “technically” sidelined the parliamentary process (read the Constitution, Act 108 of 1996) when inviting the military into the scenario. It reminds me of Jacob Zuma ignoring Parliament when South African troops were sent to the Central African Republic – without consulting the House. In cynical terms, our soldiers in CAR, it may be said, died “unconstitutionally’’. Recall that further back in time the military in South Africa was brought piecemeal into upholding the apartheid state between 1972 and 1989. The result was an increasingly (irrational) authoritarian state.

The top military leaders willingly, if not enthusiastically, jumped in. The chief of the SANDF compared the situation to a “Third World War” and the chief of the army suggested that the military is “no-ones’ client’’  (sad in the latter’s case, as I have a lot of respect for General Lindile Yam, having worked with him for some years).

In terms of the Constitution, civil-military relations and civil control over the military, the military is both a servant and protector of the citizens of South Africa. When it comes to security forces, strict obligations apply under constitutional rule (remember Chapter 11 of our Constitution?) Chapter 11 was specifically written into the new Constitution because of the bitter experience during the apartheid years when the military (the then-South African Defence Force, or SADF) was invited into a political role to uphold a non-democratic state. 

Using words such as “a Third World War” uttered by the chief of the SANDF? Words objectify themselves, and beget new meanings, once uttered. Young soldiers, the majority of whom had not seen deployment in peace operations where they would have learned and observed from UN forces how to work with the civil community, act on such terminology and the atmosphere it creates. Such war-like terminology invokes a haunting spectre, an inverted logic where dust does not turn into gold but into dangerous [gun]powder. If you tell your troops there is a Total Onslaught, they will behave like that in the immediate context. The killing of a citizen in his own yard and common assault/abuse of others is the entirely predictable result. A dire situation. Complaints are stacking up. This all worsened by an apartheid-style “aandklok reel” (curfew).

More worrisome is that the leadership of our security forces is apparently interpreting a “State of Disaster” as “A State of Emergency” (and a few perhaps as “Martial Law”). Between these terms, there are huge differences and wrong interpretations can act as a trigger of anger and resistance.

The police and their hard-headed and tough-speaking minister are another part of a growing problem. The SAPS as a servant of the people, as its very name implies, reflects an institution where many work hard and diligently. But many are undertrained and less-educated; even less so trained and prepared on how to deal with the civilian population. Police brutality and breaking the human rights’ rules leaves us in an increasingly precarious political and constitutional position with possible unforeseen consequences. It takes one officer under the influence of a hard-talking minister to create a mishap of magnitude (remember Sharpeville, Soweto and Marikana?) For police to render a service rather than suppress people becomes difficult if the lingua of the political leadership calls up aggressive images.

The rise of an alternative economy

The black market in times of severe top-down restrictions almost always fills the gap. In the absence of normal market activities, the black market serves as an alternative market to uphold a staggering and punch-drunk economy. At least, however skew it is, it contributes a trickle to the current economy (but no tax income for the state) and it provides food on the table for some. The question is, should one welcome (or even support) the remaining illicit trickle or stay clear of it? Existential and ethical questions come home unforeseen. Paradoxically, the rise in an alternative economy leads to the decline of the state, something state-builders do not like.

Unintended socioeconomic consequences

The poor are by far the hardest hit under the lockdown, especially the “fourth class”, those without a job. The same applies to part-time workers for whom one or two days of work in the past ensured bread in the cupboard. A recent statistic suggests that 34% of the South African population go to bed hungry. Statistics are distant numbers until you think about the direct human effects and unforeseen costs, namely the death of people of all ages. What is worse is that the mentioned 34% statistic is wrong. Earlier studies indicated that it is closer to 44% of people in SA who go to bed hungry. The numbers of those suffering could hardly have declined under the mass lockdown. 

The immediate consequences of the lockdown could be foreseen. More hungry people. Stopping old aunties from selling their baked mealies and vetkoek on street corners is one way to worsen the situation. Less food, less resistance to chronic diseases. And chronic diseases are not only HIV/AIDS and TB. The downsurge in an economy increases poverty, a deepening in poverty that cannot be quantified yet.

The same applies to malnutrition among children, diabetes and the mental health of multitudes of people. From the political philosopher Karl Popper we have learnt that when policies hurt, they need to be adapted or even scrapped. Not doing so, will invite more (un-)intended consequences. Consequences that could be and are foreseen should the Command Council lend its ears to other advisers such as sociologists, social psychologists, economists and political scientists (perhaps even historians). One simple example: How long can you force people not to work, if they themselves choose to go to work?

Groupthink par excellence

The notion of groupthink is not new. Neither is the fact that groupthink has negative – even disastrous – consequences.  Groupthink is marked by a context where members tend to (unconsciously) develop a common way of looking at a problem (and hence the solutions for it). Such one-eyed mentality creates a framework of abidance rather than creative thinking. Under such circumstances, members of the group develop the propensity to agree with the group’s prevailing attitudes rather than speaking up. Such a dominant and shared mindset does not allow for critical thinking and free speech (here lurks the link with authoritarian personalities).

What is more worrying is how such a frame of mind deals with those who hold other interpretations than the group itself. Criticism and advice are ignored, if not vilified. Political scientists over decades have cautioned that groupthink by a political elite, especially where no outside advice is listened to, is increasingly leading to riskier choices when it comes to policy decision-making. If one looks at the utterances of and attitudes held by members of the National Coronavirus Command Council it is clear that under the state of Covid-19 in South Africa one observes increasing ‘’groupthink’’ that seems not to be one of “people first”, but rather “restrictions first” and the rest will “develop along the way”.

Unless such a mind-frame and attitude is changed, ie, by outside pressures, the opportunity for thinking anew about people and the economy as both “first”, seems remote. Whether the country moves from Stage 4 to Stage 3, the problem of groupthink must be addressed.

The decline of democracy

The way the government’s leadership in South Africa treats the situation reflects an increasingly authoritarian attitude (Whether there is a move from Stage 4 to Stage 3, the same applies). South Africa transitioned from an authoritarian apartheid state to a constitutional state through a bloody interval. Theorists of transition tell us that the liberalisation of politics, the transition to democracy and a relative consolidation of a democracy is possible. South Africans who lived through apartheid saw this happen during the 1990-1996 transition.

The same transition theorists, in fact, any keen observer of politics, can tell you that democratic states can also experience regression to an authoritarian state. Under the “Covid State”, we are seeing a steady slide in that direction. Great challenges with yet unforeseen consequences await civil society and the citizenry if we are serious about sustaining and entrenching democracy. Civil society should not wait for post-Covid.

To uphold hard-won freedoms, preparing for it should start now. DM

Professor Ian Liebenberg was until recently a professor in political science at the Faculty of Military Science at Stellenbosch University and former director of the Centre for Military Studies (CEMIS) at the same university. He previously taught sociology at the University of South Africa (Unisa).

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