Ramaphosa’s China emulation sparks concerns of authoritarian shift – Ivo Vegter

In a recent meeting with stakeholders, President Cyril Ramaphosa urged South Africans to emulate China by refraining from criticizing their country. Dismissing this call as “absolute hogwash,” Ivo Vegter argues that citizens can love their country while holding the ruling party, the ANC, accountable for mismanagement. Drawing attention to China’s repressive regime, Vegter emphasises the stark contrast with South Africa’s constitutional values. Ramaphosa’s endorsement of China’s approach is labeled as “terrifying,” signalling an aspiration to emulate the authoritarian control wielded by Xi Jinping.

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‘Be like China.’ This is how China is.

By Ivo Vegter*

The president wants South Africans to be more like the Chinese, and not ‘badmouth their own country’. Here’s what he’s asking for.

TimesLive recently reported that at a meeting with stakeholders (of what, the paper didn’t say), President Cyril Ramaphosa was touched on his studio over ‘what he termed “severe lopsided” public criticism of the government’.

It’s worth reproducing the exact quotes the paper carried:

‘Everyone must be a messenger. We must be like China. 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,’ he reportedly said. 

‘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 South Africa. That is the only way this country can move forward.

‘…everyone must be beaming the message that does confirm as many people in our country as we have consulted over the manifest review process are saying “yes, there has been progress but we want more progress because much more work still needs to be done”.’

This, to put it bluntly, is absolute hogwash. And dangerous hogwash at that.

Country vs government

Firstly, the people aren’t badmouthing the country. They are badmouthing the ANC. I know that the ANC doesn’t like to make a distinction between party and state, or between the government and the country, but these are separate things.

You can love your country but detest the way it is run. You can be loyal to your country but harshly criticise the ruling party and demand its ousting.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you are loyal to your country, and you are patriotic, and you love South Africa, that you must criticise the ruling party and demand that it be voted out of power.

When public consultation meetings are held, they are not supposed to kiss the president’s feet and glorify the achievements of the ANC. They are supposed to raise problems, because only problems need to be addressed.

Royally mismanaged

The ANC has royally mismanaged the country. It has overseen corruption so widespread that we had to invent a new term for it, ‘state capture’.

All the important state-owned enterprises are not only over-indebted, but over-staffed and failing to deliver basic, and critical, services like mail, transport, water, and electricity.

Entire railways have been stolen, and the cleverest solution the ANC could come up with was to ban the export of scrap metal.

Unemployment is at world-record levels. More than half the country lives in abject poverty. Our children cannot read, or count.

The ANC brags about getting running water to more people and extending electricity to more people. It is true, it did so. But pointing that out would be resting on its laurels. It damns itself with faint praise.

Many people don’t pay for that water or electricity, and half the time it isn’t actually available.

What’s the point of having a tap, if when you turn it on you don’t know whether you’re getting clean drinking water, contaminated water, or no water at all?

What’s the point of electricity if the lights don’t come on or the machine won’t start when you flip the switch?

Taking responsibility

And instead of taking responsibility, Ramaphosa has the gall to tell people who complain to look on the bright side. I’m surprised the mob didn’t take up torches and pitchforks!

What is there to be positive about? Another five years of Thuma Mina? Another five years of the New Dawn? Which saw exactly zero senior people in the dock over stealing the country into poverty? Which saw every economic measure, and every service delivery measure, go down instead of up? Which continued to see every government contract end up with inflated prices, diverted profits, and non-delivery?

Constitutional values

Be like China, Ramaphosa says.

Dear Mr Ramaphosa. You were the chief negotiator for the ANC when South Africa wrote its new Constitution. You, of all people, should know what it means. You, of all people, should know what our Constitutional values are meant to be.

The Constitution stands for freedom. It stands for democracy. It stands for transparency and accountability. It stands for respect for human rights, and the rule of law.

None of these values can be attributed to China. China is repressive. China is a one-party state. In China, there is no freedom of speech. In China, minorities are brutally oppressed. In China, civil society is under siege. So are labour rights. There is no press freedom. There is no judicial due process.

In China, ideological conformity is enforced, on pain of fines or imprisonment. In China, people are graded by their fellows on their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. If they do not display sufficient patriotism, their ‘social credit score’ can be affected.

If that score says they are not sufficiently obedient to the state, or sufficiently nationalistic, or sufficiently respectful of Xi Jinping, they are refused privileges like being able to travel or gain employment or rent an apartment. And these are privileges, not rights. China does not believe in rights.

China in darkest period for human rights since Tiananmen, says rights group.

Repression deepened across China in 2022.

Five Ways China Has Become More Repressive Under President Xi Jinping.

China is state most dangerous to its own citizens’ civil rights, report finds.

China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat.

Large Majorities Say China Does Not Respect the Personal Freedoms of Its People.

Need I go on? Be like China? This is how China is.

Terrifying

That president Ramaphosa invokes China in this context is, frankly, terrifying.

It signals that he aspires to be like Xi Jinping, who, since securing an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, made himself the most powerful dictator since Mao Zedong.

It signals that he admires all the things I have listed about China.

If Ramaphosa wants to know why Chinese people are always messengers for their country, and never badmouth their country, let me explain.

In China, they have a massive firewall that severely restricts citizens from communicating with the outside world, and always monitors what they say. They are not permitted on foreign social networks, for example, and are limited to their own domestic equivalents.

If they say the wrong thing, their internet privileges are revoked, they are forced to make a public apology, and are never heard from again.

Only reliable citizens, with a proven record of nationalism, patriotism and loyalty, as indicated by their ‘social credit score’ and their social media postings, are entitled to senior jobs. Only loyal cadres are entitled to travel overseas. Only obedient yes-men are entitled to speak about China to foreigners.

China is a totalitarian communist state, which violates all the values of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution.

Be like China. Is that what Ramaphosa wants? Yes, yes, I think it is

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*Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission.

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