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Red and buried – the day fear with a capital EFF met a gatvol South Africa

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Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

The Red Princes vastly overestimated fearmongering as a tool to mobilise South Africans behind their call to shut down the country.

Many an aspiring autocrat, fascist or bloodthirsty tyrant seeking simple solutions has sniffed around the 16th-century arse-creeper Niccolò Machiavelli’s political treatise The Prince.

It is quoted liberally by those who regard it as some sort of blueprint for leadership, some sort of atavistic guide to political power and how to instil fear, hatred, division and general kakness all round.

“It is better to be stingy than generous. It is better to be cruel than merciful. It is better to break promises if keeping them would be against one’s interests,” wrote the misanthropic ex-jailbird.

The threatened “shutdown” of South Africa on 20 March by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) turned out to be more of a figment of the contemporary Red Princes’ own vivid imaginations. 

We live every day between these forces of crime and politics violently destroying the fabric of societies. Ons ken die storie (we know this story).

So much so that the EFF’s poor Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, MP, tweeted footage proclaiming: “Must Watch: all buses and taxis in PTA CBD have no people inside – empty! They are roaming around wasting petrol because our people are on #stayaway #ItsNotA­NormalDay #NationalShutdown.”

Only problem is Ndlozi tweeted footage of Cape Town’s CBD going about its business thinking it was Pretoria. Propaganda is the tool of fearmongering manipulators, but they must know we South Africans have eyes in the backs of our heads.

Rejecting the politics of fear

If there is a nation of people who have dealt with fear – prolonged fear and anxiety and authoritarian threat and violence – it is South Africans.

We have learnt to live with it, medicate it, drink it away… But one thing is for sure, we have had enough of being verskrik by politicians and their minions in addition to criminals and the fear they sow.

We have nothing now to fear but fear itself.

And that is why the pushback from all over South Africa, from citizens and civil society to the taxi associations and security companies, kicked into place.

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The governing party, the ANC, too rose from its slumber, panicked by the shock of having sat by and watched as an “insurrection” in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng after Jacob Zuma was dragged off to jail resulted in hundreds of deaths and large-scale damage to infrastructure and the economy. 

Citizens themselves, in that instance, helped one another, cleaned up the mess, buried the dead.

In Europe, fear has resulted in a closing of the mind, with many seeking shelter in the warm embrace of right-wing “strongmen or -women”. 

Fear was Donald Trump’s soul magnet.

Over here in South Africa, fear this past week drew us together rather than sending us off to enclaves with guns and knives. We keep doing the opposite of what is happening elsewhere. Why? 

Because we so recently have been there, done that with apartheid and, before that, colonialism and imperialism. 

That’s a long time being bullied by politicians and history.

As the Red Princes and their followers warned and threatened the country, other opposition parties used the Constitution (our secret democratic shield) to hold the EFF to account for any violence or breaches of human rights. 

Businesses in South Africa have not only had enough of the economic devastation caused by Covid-19 and the rolling blackouts since then, but they have also had enough of the threats. 

Well, some of them. Others have wrung their hands seemingly helplessly under Malema’s promises to unleash the forces.

Forces were unleashed a long time ago in South Africa. All kinds of malevolent forces doing the dirty business of politicians and criminals. 

The Red Princes are not yet kings in government, although they hope to be. How they have behaved reflects on any future prospects under these populist nihilists.

Ask all those detained, shot, maimed, forcibly removed, tortured and permanently psychologically scarred by apartheid. They move among us, they remember the fascists and their bad language, their threats, their attempts to humiliate others, the shouting, the aggression, the ugliness.

We live every day between these forces of crime and politics violently destroying the fabric of societies. Ons ken die storie (we know this story).

Political theory in service of masters 

Machiavelli was a disgraced former Florentine civil servant when he wrote The Prince after the Medici family – who owned the banks everywhere – toppled the Catholic republic he had supported. 

This was sometime during the European Renaissance from 1450 to 1650. 

Machiavelli spent time in prison but was later released under a general amnesty, which is when he began to ingratiate himself with the Medicis. 

An arse licker.

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An account of Machiavelli is captured in Sarah Chayes’s 2016 book, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

“To court Medici approval, he went so far as to challenge the timeworn list of virtues that members of budding rulers’ entourage traditionally served up in books of advice addressed to their lords. 

“Piety, for example, fear of God, mercy, and generosity were predictable – if perhaps unappetising – fare,” writes Chayes. 

Among other characteristics for princes, Machiavelli suggested it was acceptable, “even beneficial, to be mean, not generous, to be harsh, not merciful”. 

Unholy pamphleteering

There were loads of thinkers and tinkerers working on mirrors during that period. 

Shortly after Machiavelli, Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus wrote his own mirror for the future Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

John of Salisbury wrote Policraticus as a mirror for King Herry II about different categories of official misbehaviour.

Chayes, in her investigation of the threat of corruption to stability, noted that “nearly all the mirror writers, Christian and Muslim alike, divided by the centuries and by different systems of government, seem to have shared a consensus that eludes many of today’s policymakers: that acute, abusive government corruption prompts extreme responses and thus represents a mortal threat to security”.

Machiavelli’s fame has rivalled, to this day, that of all the other mirror pamphleteers.

He was the nastiest.

Like prince, like underling

The Persian scholar and ruler of the medieval Great Seljuk Empire, Nizam al-Mulk, emphasised rulers’ “ultimate accountability for the doings of their subordinates”. 

He placed strong emphasis on “the accountability of those who wield power for the actions of their underlings because the good and the bad that they do reflects on the prince and his government”.

The Red Princes are not yet kings in government, although they hope to be. How they have behaved reflects on any future prospects under these populist nihilists.

They have run out of ideas and language for a modern world. This is evident from the behaviour of the EFF’s members in Parliament and in public. Good luck with 2024. 

And that is the Red Princes’ biggest threat. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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