Illusion of a benevolent dictatorship in South Africa? – Martin van Staden

Martin Van Staden discusses the idea of benevolent dictatorship in South Africa, particularly in light of research that shows a significant number of South Africans would accept a dictatorship if it solved the country’s pressing issues. The article argues that benevolent dictatorship is a contradiction in terms as dictatorship necessarily means the dictator gets to dictate and is a negation of democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law. Van Staden proposes that the closest relative to dictatorship that is harmonisable with a free and prosperous society is constitutional monarchy. Further, it also suggests that many of South Africa’s problems are the result of democracy being misapplied. Find this article

‘Benevolent dictatorship’ is not an easy egg to unscramble 

By Martin Van Staden

Sokutu is not alone in this sentiment. CapeTalk noted research presented at an Electoral Commission (IEC) seminar in September 2022 that shows many South Africans would accept a dictatorship ‘provided the leader solves the country’s pressing issues’: based on 2021 polling, Afrobarometer found that some 65% of South Africans might be willing to give up on democracy if a non-democratic government delivers. 

Afrobarometer asked, ‘If a nonelected government or leader could impose law and order, and deliver houses and jobs, how willing or unwilling would you be to give up regular elections and live under such a government?’ 

Herein lies the problem: there is no ‘willing or unwilling…’ qualification when it comes to dictatorship. One cannot frontload a dictatorship by saying it must be ‘progressive’ or must ‘solve’ problems. Such sentiments attempt to apply constitutional thinking to an extra-constitutional phenomenon. 

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Benevolent dictator

The term ‘benevolent dictator’ is contested. Economist William Easterly attempted a broad definition when he described benevolent autocrats as ‘leaders in non-democratic polities who receive credit for high growth.’ The regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile between 1974 and 1990 fits that definition. Despite suppressing all political dissidence and overseeing the torture and killing of thousands, Pinochet’s regime heralded in an era of unrivalled prosperity for the South American state. Paul Kagame’s regime in Rwanda has also, under similar criteria, been characterised as a benevolent dictatorship. Other frequently cited examples include Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. 

But the mere existence of benevolent dictatorships historically or today must not delude one into thinking that it is a common occurrence among despots. Most other dictatorships are miserable, poor, repressed, and lack future potential. 

Without minimising the human rights abuses of the respective dictators, the Chileans, Rwandans, Singaporeans, and Turks got very lucky. Depending on how religious one is, it was either by grace or coincidence – not by design or institutionalised eventuality – that these states’ dictators were ‘benevolent’. 

The nature of dictatorship excludes the possibility of institutions guaranteeing benevolence. We cannot adopt an Act of Parliament or enact an amendment to the Constitution that secures a benign dictator, because dictatorship necessarily means the dictator gets to dictate. The dictator does not obey the law – the dictator dictates the law. Dictatorship is a negation not only of democracy, but of constitutionalism and the rule of law. 

In Chile’s case, ironically, prosperity only came about during Pinochet’s regime because he implemented economic policies that circumscribed the power of government. This was out of character for a dictator – dictators tend to expand the power of government in the economic and civic realms.  

One must never assume simply because Pinochet (and the few other benevolent despots) did some notable things that dictators tend not to do, that ‘our dictator’ will somehow also buck the trend.  

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Constitutional monarchy

The closest relative to dictatorship that is harmonisable with a free and prosperous society is constitutional monarchy, because the monarch is not allowed to bring about social or political change by mere act of will. And this is why the notion of ‘constitutional dictatorship’ is a contradiction in terms.  

There are, of course, also many errors and shortcuts taken in democratic thinking. Democracy must always be conceptually limited in its scope and application, especially by considerations of individual liberty on the one hand and objective reasonableness on the other. If democratic thinking leads to a denial of the agency of the individual, or if it demands that which is not possible, the democratic process is best replaced by constitutional mechanisms or judicial veto.  

Many of South Africa’s problems – which Sokutu and others wish for a dictator to address – are, at least in large part, the result of democracy being misapplied.  

For instance, the fact of the matter is that the South African taxpayer cannot afford to pay for a national health insurance scheme. It is simply not possible in South Africa’s current economic reality, and will for many more decades not be possible.  

Yet, the African National Congress (ANC) has ignored reality and, in the name of democracy – of giving effect to its electoral promise to implement such a scheme – thundered ahead with bills and plans that can never be translated into practical reality. This creates expectations among the population that cannot be met, causing resentment. 

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Fewer and more achievable goals

If the ANC government had promised fewer, and more achievable goals, it is likely that we would not be in this situation where its three decades of political dominance are at an end. Unbounded democratic thinking – whatever ‘the people’ want, the people must get; practicality, logic, and liberty be damned – contributed to getting us here. 

Democracy is not the be-all and end-all, and it should not be treated as such. But democracy has within it an important mechanism that limits the scope and power of government in favour of the people that cannot be ignored. 

While the rent-seeking and majoritarian excesses of democracy are well-documented, democracy also makes the future politically unpredictable for governments, and this is a good thing. It additionally provides a non-violent mechanism for the removal of an unpopular government. 

Dictators are assured of tenure – to the extent that they are able to manage the necessary relationships and patronage that keep them in power. A democratic government has no such assurance. This causes the aforesaid rent-seeking, as democratic politicians seek effectively to purchase votes by (to simplify) taking wealth from non-supporters and ‘redistributing’ it to supporters. But at the same time, this means democratic governments spend more time on civil programmes rather than military and security programmes designed only to institutionalise their own rule. 

Once constitutionally limited government is set aside in favour of what one hopes will be a ‘progressive’ dictatorship, it is only luck, providence, or coincidence that will make it so. Without supreme courts, watchdogs, or independent civil society to keep powerful politicians in line, it is far more likely that repression and destitution will result. 

There are constitutional mechanisms to make democracy more rational and effective. Going down this route must be preferred over trusting in the benevolence of a despot. 

*Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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