Rogue leaders are hacking at the legal fabric of civilisation

William Saunderson-Meyer on what the Mugabes, Trump, Zuma and Duterte have in common


Robert and Grace Mugabe, Donald Trump, Jacob Zuma and Rodrigo Duterte are national leaders who collectively span the political spectrum. But for all their ideological differences, they share a characteristic that bodes ill for us all— a chilling indifference to the rule of law.

It has been a spectacular week for this motley crew, as they hack at the judicial principles that are the framework from which all civilised life is delicately suspended.

On Monday, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe told a Heroes Day ceremony that those who killed white farmers during the country's controversial land reform programme are immune to prosecution. “Why should we arrest them? No judicial decision will stand in the way we have adopted to acquire the land.”

On Tuesday, US President Trump, who had outraged many with his initial failure to condemn neo-Nazi violence that left a young woman dead, got himself deeper into trouble. He softened his belated criticism of the “alt-right’, by saying that there were “many sides” to the story, implying that they had been provoked.

On Wednesday, Philippines President Duterte’s campaign to end drug abuse through the summary extra-judicial execution of dealers and users alike, had its most successful day ever, with the police shooting dead 32 people. On Thursday, another 26 were killed and Duterte told police that if human rights groups got in their way by “obstructing justice” then the police should simply shoot them, too. 

And meanwhile, all week in South Africa, Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe was ducking and diving while trying to evade criminal charges. Grace allegedly physically assaulted a young woman who seems to have been dallying with her playboy son in a luxury Sandton hotel. 

Despite a flurry of assurances from buffoon Police Minister Fikile Mbalula that Grace had or would hand herself over to the police, or would be arrested, none of these things happened. And similar statements that she would appear in the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court, or maybe the Randburg one, proved equally untrue. 

Grace, the putative presidential heir when 93-year-old hubby Bob eventually snuffs it, was a no-show. She had gone to ground while Zimbabwean officials hastily tried to negotiate post hoc diplomatic immunity for her, although experts in international law say that immunity cannot be awarded for criminal acts by someone who holds no official position and who was here on private business. 

It is a sequence of events, as yet unresolved, that is either comic or sinister, depending on your point of view. While it is sometimes difficult with President Jacob Zuma's government to determine whether its actions are the result of political duplicity or merely its habitual gross administrative incompetence, the result is the same — it’s an erosion of the law, both international and criminal, and a diminishment of the protection that every citizen is constitutionally entitled to. 

On the other hand, it is in scale probably no more scandalous than retaining the services of a homophobic, violent deputy-minister who last week admitted to having assaulted two women who called him gay. Nor is it remotely as bad as deliberately allowing the departure from SA of a genocidal foreign leader, despite an international arrest warrant and in defiance of a High Court order. 

Just another random week, another set of random political rogues. But it matters.

To trace the history of democracy is to follow the painstaking ensnarement of tyrants in a web of laws. While each single legal thread is fragile, they have a cumulative weight that eventually renders despots, at least in the Western world, unable to exploit and abuse their citizens with impunity.

Upon a time, this seemed a pretty much irreversible historical process. By the 1990s, think-tanker Francis Fukuyama felt confident enough to assert — in a seminal book that was influential in popular discourse in a manner that esoteric philosophising very rarely is — that democratic government had proved itself superior to all other ideologies. 

Totalitarianism was discredited and finished, said Fukuyama, whose ideas were prominent in the debate that followed the unbanning of the ANC. When, just a couple of years later, the most avidly followed and protracted liberation struggle of contemporary times ended in the installation of a democratic government in SA, the theory appeared vindicated.

It’s, of course, never that simple. Fukuyama has since revisited his over optimistic predictions and while reiterating the immense power of the democratic ideal, warns that it can temporarily be derailed by corruption, crony capitalism, and political decay. 

To prevent collapse, states have to be accountable to the rule of law. When the law is twisted and principles of justice are eroded — whether it is through the buffoonish machinations of the Zuma administration, the blunderings of Trump, or the dangerously brazen actions of a Mugabe or a Duterte — a miserable future lies ahead.

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