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
31 January 2011

Why a free flow of information is important

Throughout the 20th century, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) had held complete power at the state and federal level in Mexico. For 60 years the PRI won regular elections of various degrees of freeness and fairness. Because Mexico was a one party dominant democracy, the dominance of the PRI created its own momentum and it became almost unthinkable for the majority of voters not to support the PRI.

To get ahead in the civil service, to win government tenders, to be appointed as a school principle or police chief, one had to be seen to be a supporter of the PRI. And because of the overwhelming electoral support enjoyed by the PRI it was easy for it to discredit and even de-legitimise opposition parties. Only the PRI spoke for the masses of the people and only the PRI could be trusted to govern the country and to bring revolutionary development and change to the people (along with enormous prosperity and wealth for PRI leaders and those who knew them). 

And because of its dominance and its control of much of the media, it managed to win elections despite increasing allegations of corruption and nepotism levelled against it. There just was no one else to vote for and no one to trust. But this could never last: In the end Mexicans began to  distrust everyone – including the leaders of the PRI. While  some still believed that it would be in their interest to continue voting for the PRI and returned the PRI to power after every election, many people did not vote at all.

Thus the support of the PRI slowly began to recede in the late 1980s, but especially since the 1990s with the emergence of new forms of technology like cell phones and the Internet, with the growth of a more confident and informed middle class who eventually voted into office a former Coca Cola Executive as President. (That is like South Africa voting into office a former CEO of Anglo-American or the Rembrandt Group.) In 1989, the first non-PRI governor of a state was elected (at Baja California). It was in 1997, that PRI lost its absolute majority at the Congress of the Union, and in 2000 the first non-PRI president was elected since 1929.

Mexico shed its one party dominant character and today politics are robust and open. Although Mexico has many problems – drug lords seem to be able to terrorise citizens in many part of the country and effectively control the government in some parts – it did not go through the kind of violent convulsion we have seen in the last three weeks in Tunisia and now in Egypt. This is because Tunisia and Egypt have been authoritarian police states propped up by the USA government, who has poured more than $1.5 billion in military aid into Egypt each year since Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel.

Egypt holds regular elections but it would be a stretch to call it a democracy as there are severe restrictions on freedom of speech, the government has ruled under emergency powers for more than 30 years and there are severe restrictions on political organisation and mobilisation. Egypt is therefore more like Zimbabwe than South Africa. It is ruled nominally by the National Democratic Party (NDP), but this party is little more than an extension of the will of the President.

Watching the NDP headquarters in Cairo go up in flames on Al Jazeera on Friday night, my first thought was whether, thirty years from now, we will be watching Al Jazeera and seeing Luthuli House go up in flames during a revolt by unemployed and relatively educated youth which would shake the hold of the ANC government on the country to the core.

No political party can govern for ever. Even a liberation movement like the ANC will someday stop governing South Africa. This will probably happen either because the ANC was successful enough to create a big enough middle class whose interests does not coincide with the traditional working class constituency of the ANC and the one or the other class would desert the party (as happened in Mexico), or it would happen because the ANC would have lost all credibility and legitimacy because of increasing repression, linked to enormous corruption and nepotism and rising unemployment.

In the first instance the change might well come peacefully. The last ANC leader in power will lose an election and will retire peacefully (maybe opening an institute focusing on democracy building or anti-corruption efforts). This is what happens in a relatively free and open society: at some point the political party in power loses support and another party with different ideas win the election. Once that happens, South Africa would have become what political scientists call a mature democracy.

But if the ANC becomes more repressive – if it passes the draconian Protection of Information Bill, then a Bill creating a politician appointed Media Appeals Tribunal, then start taking measures further to limit political freedom and the ability of both parliamentary opposition groups and social movements to organise and to present a vehicle for those disaffected with its increasing corrupt and autocratic style, if it amends the Constitution and packs the courts with unprincipled lackeys – the last ANC leader in power might well have to seek political asylum in Zimbabwe or perhaps in the USA if he or she wants to escape the wrath of the people.

If the SABC becomes an ever more vocal mouthpiece spouting ANC propaganda, if we also start saying as they do in Egypt, that one cannot believe any rumour until it has been officially denied on state TV, if media laws restrict or completely repress the free media and monitor the Internet and anyone critical of the regime is fearful of talking on his or her phone because that phone will most certainly be tapped by the intelligence services, then a peaceful change becomes ever less likely. It is then that we will see the burning of Luthuli House and the storming of the SABC’s Auckland Park offices, when hundreds of thousands of people will march through the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town and the army will scramble to see if any of their tanks are actually working so that they could be ordered into the streets to try and quell the demonstrations.

This is the lesson I take from what is happening in North Africa: in the end in the modern world with Internet and sattelite TV and mobile phones and rising levels of education amongst the population, political opression and control of the media can never ensure that a political party remains in power for ever. All it would do is heighten the chances of a violent uprising that will destroy the incumbent political party who tried to stay in power by repression. As Parliament deals with the Protection of Information Bill which – in its present form – would allow more than 1000 organs of state, including Zoos, universities, and Arts councils,  to classify documents deemed a threat to state security – I hope that they remember that often a restriction on information in the long term is more dangerous for those in power than openness and transparency could ever be.

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