James Myburgh: Aristotle’s guide to tyranny; alive and well in Zupta-run SA

Wisdom begins with an appreciation that we don’t even know what we don’t know. And expands through to appreciating that the wise get that way by learning from the experiences of others rather than having to do it themselves. But the acceleration of wisdom only occurs once we realise that the human brain has evolved little in 200 000 years – so there is much to be learnt from those who walked the earth before us. Oxford University-educated Dr James Myburgh appreciates all of this and in this brilliant assessment of the state of South Africa, shares the guidance of Aristotle, one of the most gifted of those billions of dead guys. Myburgh, founder and proprietor of the exceptional Politicsweb, rarely gets the time nowadays to apply his own considerable talents to an opinion piece. But when he does, it is often exceptional. This is one of his very best. – Alec Hogg

By James Myburgh*

Over the past few weeks South Africans have witnessed the bewildering spectacle of the African National Congress government actively setting about trying to destabilise itself. The Hawks’ mala fide investigation into Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has progressed from low level harassment to, it seems, an effort to effect an arrest in order to provide a pretext for his dismissal from office. Should this happen, it is very likely that Treasury’s efforts to rescue the country from a sovereign ratings downgrade will be scuppered.

In Business Day on Tuesday Carol Paton, one of the best-informed analysts of the ANC, noted that “the part of the ANC that is controlled by a powerful clique that includes the president, several key provincial leaders and the leadership of the leagues, also supported by the majority of the national executive and the majority of the Cabinet, has the rest of the ANC in a stranglehold.” This faction, bound together by the objective of holding onto power and keeping it, is set to “continue on their path to annihilate the Treasury, manipulate the prosecuting authorities, attack the banks and control procurement in state-owned enterprises.”

Read also: ‘Those were the days’ – 30 days that shook the ANC

Although it was unlikely, Paton suggested, that the ANC could save itself from itself at next year’s national conference, the consequences of this faction’s overreach would be made clear in the 2019 national elections. As, she observed, “textbook politics will also tell you that to succeed, you must be able to persuade society at large that your cause is theirs, and that your goals are theirs, too. In the Zuma case, this is becoming glaringly untrue.”

On the face of it, some of the recent moves by the Gupta-backed Zuma faction certainly make little sense. If you are an entrenched governing party, and the dominant faction within that party, taking actions that could well trigger a severe economic shock seems inadvisable, to say the least. It is clearly risky too for a highly corrupt faction to seek to prosecute its political enemies on the basis of contrived charges, or relatively trivial misdemeanours, as this is to invite serious payback down the line. These are not actions that suggest that plans for a graceful, negotiated exit from power are in the works.

The contradiction of the Guptas fleeing South Africa for Dubai says it all. More magic available at www.jerm.co.za
More magic available at www.jerm.co.za

But as Zanu-PF have shown over the past 16 years– and through waves of Western press features on the ‘endgame’ in Zimbabwe – the systematic ruination of a country can actually be a very effective strategy by which a small ruling cabal can entrench their control. Today, not even Death is finding it easy to pry power from the grasp of Robert Mugabe’s cold, bony hands.

As noted several years ago, the prescriptions through which Mugabe and Zanu-PF secured their hold on power post-2000 have an ancient and terrible pedigree. And, if South Africa is to avoid a similar fate, it is important to understand how a ruling clique governing by the dictum ‘the worse the better’ can secure its hold over power.


Greek philosopher Aristotle

In Politics, written in 4th Century BC, Aristotle identified the three ‘true’ forms of government as Constitutional Government (government by all citizens); Aristocracy (government by the few and the best); and Royalty (government by a single kingly ruler). Of each of these three forms there existed a perversion: “of royalty, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of constitutional government, democracy.” The basic distinction between the ‘true’ and ‘perverted’ forms of government was that while in the first the one, or the few, or the many, governed with a view to the common good; in the second they ruled only with regards to their own interests.

According to Aristotle of all the forms, true and perverted, the worst was tyranny. “The idea of a king is to be a protector of the rich against unjust treatment, of the people against insult and oppression. Whereas a tyrant, as has often been repeated, has no regard to any public interest, but only to his private ends; his aim is pleasure, the aim of a king, honour. Wherefore also in their desires they differ; the tyrant is desirous of riches, the king, of what brings honour. And the guards of a king are citizens, but of a tyrant mercenaries.”

Tyranny also possessed the vices of the two other perverted forms. “As of oligarchy so of tyranny, the end is wealth; (for by wealth only can the tyrant maintain either his guard of his luxury.)” Both mistrust the people, and seek to disarm and disperse them and thereby deprive them of the ability to effect their overthrow. From democracy meanwhile tyrants have “borrowed the art of making war upon the notables and destroying them secretly or openly, or of exiling them because they are rivals and stand in the way of their power; and also because plots against them are contrived by men of this class, who either want to rule or escape subjection. Hence Periander advised Thrasybulus to cut off the tops of the tallest ears of corn, meaning that he must always put out of the way the citizens who overtop the rest.”

Among the other characteristics of a tyrant, according to Aristotle, are that he hates all those with dignity and independence as an “enemy to his power”, while distrusting even his friends “because he knows that all men want to overthrow him, and they above all have the power.” By contrast, tyrants are “always fond of bad men, because they love to be flattered” and because “the bad are useful for bad purposes; ‘nail knocks out nail’, as the proverb says.” Another mark of the tyrant, Aristotle wrote, “is that he likes foreigners better than citizens, and lives with them and invites them to his table; for the one are enemies, but the others enter into no rivalry with him.”

Although South Africa remains, for the moment, a constitutional democracy (of a type) there is no shortage of evidence of the real inclinations of President Zuma and his clique. There is, for instance, no serious suggestion that the President or his allies place considerations of public interest over those of personal accumulation, or that the aim of his rule is honour, rather than pleasure. There is no sign either that those who assert their independence within party or government are viewed with particular fondness by him. Indeed, those who have grown too high have tended to be lopped off, a fate Pravin Gordhan is currently trying to avoid. He has proven completely disloyal to the friends (the Shaiks) and the political allies (Julius Malema, Zwelinzima Vavi, and now the SACP leadership) who kept him out of jail and put him into power in the first place.

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma.

When it comes to making appointments to senior executive and state positions – from the security services, to the SABC, to the upper echelons of the judiciary – he invariably follows the dictum of the ‘less deserving the better’. Bad men (and women) with tainted pasts and few of the requisite qualifications for office are useful for bad purposes and can also always be kept in line through ongoing blackmail and the threat of (wholly justified) dismissal.

The Zuma faction’s reliance upon ‘mercenaries’ to shore up their rule remains a largely unexamined question. But Ivan Pillay and Johann van Loggerenberg were the victims of a highly sophisticated intelligence operation, way beyond the ken of the average Zuma loyalist in party or state; and it is not impossible that Anwa Dramat, Zwelinzima Vavi, and others, were as well.

Zuma too is famously fond of a certain foreign family, the Guptas, who are central both to his family’s bourgeoning fortunes, as well as to his cabal’s continued hold on power. In the past the various ANC extraction schemes in state and parastatal institutions were controlled by a number of different party barons. The resultant loot thus passed through a number of different hands – though a tithe usually was meant to be paid to the ANC – and the knowledge about these different schemes fragmented and uncertain.

Centralising control over rent-seeking in the parastatals in the hands of this shrewd, energetic and highly capable family means that the dominant faction has the resources to ensure that those in the party who need to be bought off can be bought off. But, perhaps more importantly, anyone who has accepted an offer to ‘eat of the curry’ will live in holy terror of exposure thereafter, and will do what they are told to do. As they do.

Zuma’s mode of rule has, thus far, been disastrous for good governance, and destructive of the ANC and the Alliance, but it has allowed his faction to entrench control over party and state. This grouping is in a far stronger position within the ANC than Mbeki’s was, at this particular point of time in their respective presidential terms. This despite his personal unpopularity; the declining performance of the ANC at the polls; the precarious economic situation; and, the fact that the clock is (in theory) running out on his term as President. His loyalists control the NPA, the Hawks, the intelligence services and SARS. They have recently started moving from a defensive posture – keeping Zuma & Co. out of reach of the law – to an offensive one, of targeting opponents for investigation and prosecution.

The road to ruin

National_Treasury_Logo_Mar_2016Up until now Treasury has performed its historic post-apartheid role of keeping overall expenditure, however badly or corruptly spent, within the limits of what could be raised through taxation (or revenues, in the case of the SOEs) or borrowed. The ANC government’s overspending in Zuma’s first term in office, particularly on public service salaries, combined with the end of the commodities boom, has forced Treasury to put a squeeze on expenditure in order to head off a further ratings downgrade. The cumulative effects of two decades of ANC mismanagement of the SOEs are also now making themselves felt.

As we now know Nenegate was a first failed attempt to seize control of Treasury by the Zuma/Gupta faction. This grouping is now circling Treasury again in the hope that, with Pravin Gordhan wounded, they will have another chance to strike. If they succeed they will likely inflict a fatal blow to any nascent economic recovery going into the 2019 national elections, if they have not already done so, and greatly increase the cost of government borrowing. They will, in other words, put an end to any prospect of the ANC successfully reforming its way out of its current political and economic predicament. It will open, however, huge new avenues of plunder.

It would be a mistake to believe that economic decline or even collapse would somehow lead to the political system automatically self-correcting. As Aristotle noted, in order to hold onto power, the tyrant “should impoverish his subjects; he thus provides money for the support of his guards; and the people, having to keep hard at work, are prevented from conspiracy.” (My italics). This basic insight still holds. The poorer and more desperate ordinary people are, the more dependent they are on party and state patronage for basic survival, the less likely they are to successfully challenge their rulers. If the people are always kept under, Aristotle noted, “they will learn to be humble”.

As the examples of Uganda under Idi Amin, Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko, and Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe have shown, the dispossession of a prosperous racial minority is a highly effective means of achieving tyrannical ends. Indeed, it kills three birds with one stone: It brings ‘notables’ down or drives them into exile, it impoverishes the country, and it unlocks funds both for luxuries and the payment of the ‘guards’ and for a now desperate populace to be bought off at election time. If the act of dispossession triggers a brief popular frenzy of racial jubilation, then all the better. The checks on any government going along this path in South Africa in the future have been progressively weakened over the past few years through the undermining of foreign investor protections, legislation and regulation, and the rulings of the black nationalist majority on the Constitutional Court.

Read also: African presidents under siege: Will life be better after Zuma, Mugabe? Expert analysis

Like Zimbabwe in the late 1990s South Africa does have an independent judiciary, though there are some very bad apples on the bench. It also has a relatively free and independent media though its reach into the rural areas, where many voters reside, is limited. Although many of our most influential race-activists do tend to express undisguised contempt for Zuma, their aggressive race-baiting plays nicely into the hands of his faction’s agenda. The sowing of racial mistrust keeps society distracted and divided, and it prevents black and white South Africans from establishing the mutual confidence needed to effectively defend constitutional government. As Aristotle observed “Another art of the tyrant is to sow quarrels among the citizens; friends should be embroiled with friends, the people with the notables, and the rich with one another.”


The challenge facing South Africa over the next few years is twofold. Firstly, how can the country rescue itself from rule by a narrow self-enriching clique? And, secondly, if this is done, how can the system be reformed to ensure that government is once again directed towards pursuing the common interest?

Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @Lean3JvV
Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @Lean3JvV

It seems unlikely that Zuma’s opponents within the ANC will be able to mount a successful challenge to him, or his faction’s preferred candidate, at the party’s elective conference next year. If that is the case it could well be that the Zuma faction comes out of conference with a tighter hold over the ANC National Executive Committee and Top Six, than it has now. If the ANC cannot be rescued from within, this means that the country only has a single chance over the next eight years to rescue itself from our current rulers, and that is in the 2019 national election.

While economic and electoral trends may be running against the ANC going into that election, the ruling party will still possess huge advantages: A base of support very close to fifty percent; control of the state broadcaster; huge funds at its disposal; control over the security services; a ruling clique with the overwhelming incentive to win by whatever means necessary and foreign allies willing to assist in this endeavour.

A successful opposition challenge, by contrast, would require continued opposition cooperation and for the Economic Freedom Fighters to resist the temptation of cutting a deal with the ANC along the way, whatever it gets offered. It probably also requires anti-Zuma groupings within the ANC to make common cause, at some point, with opposition forces. There will be a lot to rue, by all South Africans, if this opportunity is missed. As Zimbabwe has shown, the poorer and more broken a society becomes, the progressively harder it is to wrest power from even the worst of rulers.

  • Dr James Myburgh is the editor and publisher of Politicsweb. He earned his doctorate at Oxford University. This article appeared first on Politicsweb.
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