Lessons in activism in the face of tyranny

Democracies are vulnerable at the best of times, but when presidents repeatedly get away with unethical, corrupt and tyrannical behaviour, they become precarious.

Tyranny is associated with regimes such as that of Hitler or Pol Pot, but we are also facing tyranny in our time. Democracy is in danger globally.

In his new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Yale historian Prof Timothy Snyder presents lessons from history on how to defend democracy and the rule of law; which exist to enhance truth, justice and equality, and to protect citizens from the unchecked abuse of power by a politician-turned-tyrant.

Frequently, laws are not enough when people with tyrannical leanings come to power. As Snyder explains, these leaders exploit people’s collective tendency to respond obediently, adapt to new rules and even harm others physically, verbally, legally or politically if instructed or intimidated to do so.

He says the first lesson from history is “do not obey in advance”. Do not accept the new status quo when authoritarian leaders behave contrary to the good of the people. The more they get away with it, the more they will push.

Standing up to tyranny is easier said than done because people are afraid of the consequences: losing their jobs, being publicly shamed or having their and their family’s lives threatened. Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan stuck his neck out and was axed, vilified and accused of being captured by white monopoly capital. But he went to the back benches of Parliament and serves on committees where he can continue asking questions about performance and accountability.

Snyder’s next lesson is to “defend institutions” — the constitution, courts, the media, universities, trade unions, opposition parties — that uphold truth and democracy. If we don’t defend them, they will be unable to defend us.

He urges people to march against wrongdoing, instead of filling in online petitions: “Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on a screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people.”

Other lessons include “remember professional ethics” and “believe in truth”. He says “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom”. People should realise “the biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights”. Suggestions are the UK-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger, which was handsomely on Oakbay’s payroll, and shone the “white monopoly capital” spotlight to divert attention away from President Jacob Zuma and the Guptas.

Many people are still puzzled about what white monopoly capital means. Prof Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Centre for International Development who studies what drives economic growth, especially in developing countries, says “the creation of this enemy, ‘white monopoly capital’, in SA is based on a lie, and is very counterproductive to the country’s economic growth and stability”. It is not true, he says, that SA’s capital markets and companies are all owned by local white people, “foreigners probably own 30%-40% of these companies and a similar ratio is owned by domestic pension funds”.

While SA needs economic transformation because too many people are unemployed and living in poverty, “making the firms that exist, whoever owns them, the scapegoat for current problems is dangerous”, Hausmann says.

The lesson, according to Snyder, is to ensure we are constantly on the alert for bias, propaganda, untruths, lies dressed up as facts and law-undoing institutions. We also need to be on the alert for people who talk peace, tolerance and equality but who fuel violence, aggression, war and inequality. This applies to the behaviour of leaders in politics, business, organisations, religions and ourselves.

Snyder cites scholar Victor Klemperer, who warned that truth dies in four modes. First, open hostility to verifiable reality when inventions, lies and manipulation are presented as facts.

Then there is shamanistic incantation; the deliberate use of repetition to make the criminal desirable and the fictional plausible. Magical thinking or the open embrace of contradiction is best exemplified by Trump, whose election campaign “involved the promises of cutting taxes for everyone, eliminating the national debt, and increasing spending on both social policy and national defence. These promises mutually contradict.”

Finally, misplaced faith takes the form of the self-deifying claims tyrants make to invoke a belief that they are god-ordained.

While focusing on presidents or “the other” in the defence of truth and democracy, we need to reflect on our own sense of justice, our actions, prejudices and tyranny. We need to interrogate truth and draw on examples from history, literature and politics to distinguish between what we want to hear and what is the case.

First published in Business Day on Thursday, 15 June 2017.