Defend Truth


Clear thoughts and brave acts will be our armour against dystopian governance in 2024


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

Take heart, South Africans, we citizens do indeed have the ability to prevail over our terrible politicians. 

Recently, the Classical Association of South Africa hosted Professor Mary Beard. The title of her public lecture seemed apt for the times: “Order and chaos: The Dystopian World of the Roman Emperor”. Beard is something of a classics “rock star” and her status is well deserved — her work is accessible but does not compromise scrupulous research and attention to detail.

The lecture provided entertaining and fascinating insights, taking the audience into the world of 218 AD and the strange excesses that marked the period of the Empire under the 14-year-old emperor Heliogabalus.

He was known to serve fake food at dinners, (or so writers of the time tell us) and to display all manner of inappropriate behaviour, including smothering his guests with rose petals. “Capricious craziness” was often a trademark of this dystopian world where the natural order of things was perverted — sleeping during the day and working at night, or Caligula wanting to make his horse a consul.

Pretence becomes reality after a while. In this dystopian world, it is hard to see the truth, unless one searches for it. Meaning is completely disrupted. On the surface, it seems it is farce, but the absurdity of it also causes us to pause and, as Beard asks: “How do these extreme situations depicted shed light on the empire itself? How do we work out how to read these stories of excess (and, as the New York Times put it, tedium) in a world turned upside down?

“How do these exaggerations indicate not only the sclerosis of imperial politics, but also help us think about power and, importantly, how to subject power to scrutiny?”

These are important questions in the analysis of empire and autocracy, and all the more interesting for their current relevance.

A world turned on its head

The dystopian nature of the world today reveals aspects of cataclysmic decline, inequality, surveillance, environmental disaster and technological advances, which create disparate outcomes — advantages for some, leaving others behind — further cementing inequality.

It is a world turned on its head, where lies become truth and excess becomes normalised. And are we not living in a somewhat Orwellian “1984 society” in South Africa, where the behaviour of those in power provides a larger-than-life lens into the nature of power and those who wield it? They know only of excess, and if we didn’t know some of it was true we would think it was farce.

It is the world in which Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi recruits a group of former Department of Correctional Services employees to train the soon-to-be-established Gauteng crime prevention wardens, colloquially known as amaPanyazas. The premier, almost emperor-like, dished out these jobs in January. On the face of it a crime-fighting mission, but underneath yet another act of excess designed to prop up the Lesufi public relations machine.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Whistle-blower says Gauteng crime prevention wardens are unprepared and unqualified

Shauna Shames and Amy Achison, in Survive and Resist: The Definitive Guide to Dystopian Politics, describe the inverted politics thus: “Dystopia is not a real place; it is a warning, usually about something bad the government is doing or something good it is failing to do. Actual dystopias are fictional, but real-life governments can be ‘dystopian’ — as in, looking a lot like the fiction.”

They go on to say: “Defining a dystopia starts with establishing the characteristics of good governance. A good government protects its citizens in a non-coercive way. Good governments use what’s called ‘legitimate coercion’, legal force to which citizens agree to keep order and provide services like roads, schools and national security…

“Political dystopia is often easier to see using the lens of fiction, which exaggerates behaviours, trends and patterns to make them more visible. But behind the fiction there is always a real-world correlate. Orwell had Stalin, Franco and Hitler very much in mind when writing 1984.”

And there are always more real-world correlates of the march towards dystopia in contemporary South Africa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said in Durban recently: “Here, some people have made it a sport to bad-mouth 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 South Africa. That is the only way this country can move forward.”

Ramaphosa sounded almost Nero-like in his fiddling when he said this. He was, after all, in Durban, where sewage floats in the water, the port is dysfunctional, costing the economy billions in lost revenue, and the seafront lies in ruin. And his party in government has everything to do with that. Yet, Ramaphosa exhorted us to be more like the Chinese, more patriotic, and to stop bad-mouthing the country.

Believing the lies

In the dystopian world, propaganda is a beloved tool. Ramaphosa seems to forget that this is a democracy and not a dictatorship. South Africans are entitled to protest and say what we like. Justifiably, and on most days, we lament our miserable, spineless, corrupt government.

But the President and his Cabinet are increasingly believing the lies they tell themselves in this inverted world they inhabit. How else can we describe a President who is seemingly comfortable that our electricity supply flounders and that we do not have a functioning Post Office? The President presides over his government’s abject failures while we sit in the dark, literally. 

And, how else do we explain that Ramaphosa believes that withholding the performance assessments of his ministers from public scrutiny is reasonable? Why? So that their appraisals cannot be used for party-political purposes.

Those in Cabinet serve the people — or at least, are meant to. How they perform is fundamentally our business, and our right to know about their performance outweighs their need not to be embarrassed. Had they wanted us to talk warmly of them they should have performed better, to mangle Anne Lamott’s words.

But these are all indicators of just how out of touch Ramaphosa is, and to whom his loyalties are bound. As a leader he has been largely absent from engaging with the challenges of our country and his fealty remains to the party above the needs of citizens. Daily humiliation is visited upon the poorest and most marginalised in our society by a government that has lost its way. All it can come up with is policy as flights of fancy.

The proposed National Health Insurance being a case in point, or indeed the menacing divisiveness of the new White Paper on Immigration, or the stealth of the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill.

All the while, Ramaphosa retains Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, who claimed, without any evidence, that the private sector has no interest in the development of the economy. Then she accused the private sector of “engineering the collapse” of the ANC-led government.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Banks and National Treasury challenge claims of currency manipulation and market collusion

As a doubtlessly divisive election looms in 2024, it will provide no respite even as most South Africans find themselves exhausted at the end of 2023. Yet, as Shames and Achison remind us: “Fictional dystopias warn of preventable futures; those warnings can help avert the actual demise of democracy.”

As South Africans, we understand what ails us and we draw from a deep well of resilience daily. We understand fully what Rebecca Solnit means when she says: ‘‘You can feel terrible and remain committed, be heartbroken and know the future is being made in the present”. 

How else would we still be straining to create, live, find joy and build community? The way in which South Africans welcomed back the beloved Springbok rugby team shows just how much joy is waiting to be unleashed at any given moment.

Margaret Atwood makes a powerful call for putting shoulder to the proverbial wheel. She says of our choices: “If it’s open democracy, we’ve got some work ahead of us. We must roll up our proverbial sleeves, grab our arrows of desire, sharpen the paring knives of our wits, dedicate our swords to the pursuit of truth, strengthen our resolve, resist the serpents of false argument, hop into our chariots of fire.

“But desperate times require desperate remedies, and our times are desperate. However, instead of all these chariots and swords, I’ll propose something simpler. Don’t panic. Think carefully. Write clearly. Act in good faith. Repeat.”

The year 2024, with all its dystopian threats looming, will be a time to think clearly, if nothing else. We need to scrutinise power, analyse the absurdities and hold to account those who would destroy us by their excess and lies, deftly hidden behind words. Let us not be smothered by proverbial rose petals in plain sight. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 front page


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Cachunk Cachunk says:

    I love Judith’s insight and clarity; she always has her finger on the pulse.

  • Jabu Mhlanga says:

    So true Judith, thank you for high lighting the dystopia of our country. The emperor is naked. Why is there a lack of leadership?

  • Mark K says:

    When Ramaphosa made that comment about the Chinese never bad-mouthing their country, I laughed so much I snorted my coffee through my nose. Ramaphosa assumes that because he doesn’t actually understand Chinese people. A great many of them mock their government just as much as South Africans do. They either do it in coded ways, to get past the draconian censorship, or they reserve it for family and close friends, to avoid a visit from the public security police. You know, the same sort of police as the sinister goons that gave the ANC such a hard time during Apartheid.

    It’s infantile to believe that just because you can’t perceive something, it doesn’t exist. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Ramaphosa suffers from this childish flaw. After all, the ANC is legendary for throwing infantile tantrums and paranoid-delusional blaming of phantom foes when reality does not conform to its ideological fantasies. It runs through the party from top to bottom.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    XXX party politicians (you know the one) – “affluent” or “effluent”?? Or both??

  • Robert Pegg says:

    What are the disadvantages of a democracy?
    The decision making in a Democracy gets delayed as many people have to be consulted. There is no scope for morality in Democracy as Democracy is all about power play and political competition. There is constant instability in Democracy as the leaders keep changing in the Democracy as the elections are held regularly.

    • Gretha Erasmus says:

      Yes, democracy is a very faluty system but of all the political systems out there in the world, ever tried over millenia, it is most the definitely the best. It is better than a monarchy, where only the king decides what and who goes and what/who not, it is better than a communist system where a couple of comrades Huddle and decides what/who goes or not (and in a communist system no hope of ever changing that cabal), it is better than a dictatorship usually ruled with terrible violence as the dictator doesn’t have perceived ordained power like a monarchy, it is better than a fiefdom of different warlords, it is better than a theocracy where the spiritual leader is the dictator and rules with arbitrary interpretation of the relevant holy books. Democracy is the best option of the lot. Because at least in democracy there is some hope for change every four or five years, one man/party/family/mob will not control the fate of the entire population according to their whims, and a democracy works according to determined laws and rules, that can be voted on in parliament. With all its faults it is the best system, proven over and over and over again, and we better use it this year South Africa!

  • Robert Pegg says:

    I have been to China on business and met Chinese businessmen in South Africa. Not all Chinese are happy with their government, but they compare China 50 years ago with China today. Opening up to business with the rest of the world, has had many benefits to ordinary Chinese people. Restricting population growth ensured over population is not a problem.
    Over population is a major problem for South Africa. The economy cannot keep pace with the population increase, so there will always be poverty. There needs to be a drastic change in the culture of black South Africans so they do not have children they cannot afford to feed, clothe and educate. Any future government should make this a top priority. It is impossible to keep paying ever increasing benefits to those who do not contribute to the economy.

  • Andries Breytenbach says:

    Clear thoughts and brave acts offer NO effective armour in a lawless society where criminals and corrupt individuals are the true dystopian power.

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