Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
14 April 2009

Freedom is costly, but worth it. . .

The last time I visited Vietnam ten years ago, it was a very poor communist country with loudspeakers on every corner blairing out party political propaganda twice a day. Now – despite still being called a “socialist republic” – it is an exploding capitalist country with a growth rate of  between 8-12% annually. New roads, a new bus transport system, new railways and flashy shops and restaurants are to be seen everywhere.

There are so many motorbikes in Hanoi that I fear there will not be enough place to park them at night when the streets go quiet. I even see a motorbike with a wire cage on the back stuffed with about twenty live chickens: a two-wheel chicken minibus taxi. Giggling bare-chested young men pull small carts loaded with anything from pipes to toilet bowls down the street and old woman with the traditional lampshade-like hats balance flat woven baskets filled with fruits and vegetables on sticks over their shoulders while dodging the people and the motorbikes in the crowded alleys.

It is still a tightly controlled society with no democracy and little social and political freedom, no free press and a communist party that ensures “social stability” by supressing any kind of disent. No taxi blockcades or strikes here. No political mobilisation either. There is only one political party and it is firmly in charge.

I meet up with Du, a young fresh-faced graphic designer, who whispers to me that personal freedom is not high on the list of priorities of the government or society in Vietnam. One is free to shop and make money, but not to decide how you want to live your live. Du is gay but still lives with his aunt and will have to get married one day to please his family.

Politics is absolutely not spoken about and it is considered a grave social blunder to mention it. At nine in the evening Du furtively glances at his watch and says he has to go back home as he will be in big trouble with his relatives if he stays out later. “Family, not know I am gay,” he explains before jumping on his motorbike and speeding away from his lonely secret life, back to his obligations and his family.

He leaves me at a street cafe sipping my ice cold beer (which is cheap and very good), pondering why Vietnam has been economically so succesful and South Africa has not.

Of course, South Africa has the vestiges of apartheid to contend with: a highly racialised, highly skewed, economy and – because of the migrant labour system – very weak social control exercised through family ties. We had Bantu education and discrimination which makes economic and social “transfromation” an ethical as well as a political and practical necessity.

We also have democracy, which means we can moan and criticise the government, ridicule the President with his shower head and dark cloud hovering over his head – for the time being, at least. We can laugh at the absurdity and self-importance of our rulers and can point out how selfish they are. We can even blockade the streets to make a political point and those of us who are not hungry can even vote for an opposition party if we feel like it.

For a second I think that maybe MORE social and political control will not be such a bad idea for South Africa. Then I realise I would not want that control to be imposed on myself – only on others – and that freedom might perhaps be costly, but it is surely a non-negotiable.

How does one measure the benefits for our human dignity and self-respect that came with the arrival of social and political freedom to South Africa in 1994? It is, as the famous advertisement says, “priceless”. Our economy is never going to grow at 12% like Vietnam and maybe that is not so bad. At least we are free. This freedom is precious and as citizens we should guard it and fight for it because politicians do not like freedomvery mucg

As I amble home I remember another thing Du told me. Only last month two state officials were sentenced to life imprisonment after being implicated in a corruption scandal regarding state tenders. There were, he whispered, rumours of torture. The party is ruthless about corruption and as there are no other political parties, membership of the party is not a requirement to do business.

I want to ask Du more questions about this case and about corruption in Vietnam, but he only smiles and bats his eyes flirtatiously before changing the topic. “Do you have special friend at home?” he asks whistfully.

No wonder the Vietnamese economy is booming and the South African economy is not. Corruption will do that to an economy. Luckily we are getting Jacob Zuma for President because at least he does not have the dark cloud of corruption hanging over his head and he, too, will have zero tolerance for this cancer that eats away at the prosperity of a nation and keeps people poor.

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