On how to be a dictator

Andrew Donaldson says one cannot rule through fear and violence alone


AT roughly the same time that Robert Mugabe died, a provocative and entertaining new work by the Dutch historian Frank Dikötter, How To Be A Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury), appeared in bookstores.

Currently the Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, Dikötter is renowned as an authority in this field of study. He is the author of the acclaimed “People’s Trilogy” — Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958-62The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 and The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962- 1976

This new book is certainly slim compared to those weighty volumes. But it’s nevertheless succinctly comprehensive in its examination of the tactics used by the tyrants of the last century to create the illusion of popular support — from choreographed parades and rallies to the cultivation of a shroud of mystery through brute censorship — and it questions whether those same methods are being revived by some present-day leaders, particularly in parts of the world where democracy is in retreat.

The techniques of just eight dictators are examined: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Nicolae Ceaușescu and Mengistu Haile Mariam. However, there could have been others. 

“The list of leaders commonly regarded as modern dictators reaches well beyond a hundred,” Dikötter writes. “Some were in power for a few months, others for decades. Among those who could easily have been included in this book are, in no particular order, Franco, Tito, Hoxha, Sukarno, Castro, Mobutu, Bokassa, Gaddafi, Saddam, Assad (father and son), Khomeini and Mugabe.”

These were men who had lied not only to their people, but to themselves. Some were convinced of their own genius, while others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourages. “They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own, with devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people.”

Most had a developed a personality cult of some form, but with a common theme, Dikötter suggests. The term originated in 1956 when Nikita Krushchev denounced the reign of terror of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin, and termed his erstwhile master’s “loathsome adulation” and “mania for greatness” as the “cult of the individual”. “It was translated as ‘cult of personality’ in English,” Dikötter says. “It may not be a rigorously developed concept proposed by a great social scientist, but most historians find it quite adequate.”

Some dictatorships suffered as a result of not developing personality cults. Pol Pot is one example; Dikötter notes that, for a full two years after taking power, his exact identity remained in dispute.

“In Cambodia people deferred to Angkar, or ‘The Organisation’. But as the historian Henri Locard has noted, the decision not to build a cult of personality had disastrous consequences for the Khmer Rouge. Concealment behind an anonymous organisation that nipped in the bud any and all opposition soon backfired. ‘Failing to induce adulation and submissiveness, the Angkar could only generate hatred.’ Even Big Brother, in George Orwell’s 1984, had a face that stared out at people from every street corner.”

This, then, is the paradox of modern dictators — and their greatest challenge: they cannot rule through fear and violence alone, they must be adored as well. “Dictators who survived often relied on two instruments of power: the cult and terror. Yet all too often the cult has been treated as mere aberration, a repellant but marginal phenomenon.”

Instead, Dikötter argues, the cult of personality should be placed “where it belongs, at the very heart of tyranny”.

* * *

IN the hours after his death was announced, former correspondents, retired foreign office types and various other African experts of a pensionable age were all trotted out to share with British radio listeners their memories of Mugabe. 

Their accounts duly conformed to type. There were first impressions, and these all seemed like descriptions of the ubiquitous official portrait, the one that stared out at travellers at the airport: the eyes were cold and unblinking, the lips were thin and humourless, here was barely concealed contempt for in his reptilian gaze. 

There were attempts to assess his character: to some, he was obviously not a good person, and he had fooled everyone with his talk of reconciliation back in February 1980; and yet to others he was a good person, but something happened, and he had changed…

Elsewhere, another well-worn cliché did the rounds: Mugabe’s death, we were told, marked “the end of an era”. 

There was the front-page banner headline in Harare’s Daily News: “End of an era as Mugabe dies, leaves Zim poor, divided.” 

This from Al Jazeera: “His death on Friday at age 95 in Singapore, a foreign land, signals the final end of an era for a leader thrust into power in the 1980s and effectively forced out in 2017 by a de facto military coup.” 

The Guardian: “…the definitive end of an era in the former British colony.” 

And this, from the Voice of America: “Many Harare residents said at the weekend that they were saddened by Mugabe’s death and that it marked the end of an era.”

Ordinary Zimbabweans may be wondering if this is not the same era that had ended when Emmerson Mnangagwa became president. Certainly many may be asking themselves what, if anything, had changed in the 22 months since Mugabe was forced from office. 

During that time, the power of the Mugabe cult had not waned. He had been out of the country since April this year, propped up on a bed in a Singapore clinic and hooked up to the business end of a zombie vampire machine. In his absence, Zimbabwe fell into despond as rumours of plots by scheming generals circulated among Zanu-PF officials. In other words, nothing new really.

Still, the rancour and bad blood endures. Mugabe’s body is lying in state at the Rufaro football stadium in Harare. From here, it is scheduled to be moved to the bigger National Sports Stadium, which is conveniently located across the road from the National Heroes’ Acre monument, where Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, is buried. The space next to her has long been reserved for her husband.

The government wants Mugabe interred here. However, his family, led by his hated second wife, Grace, wants him buried in his home village, Kutama, which is an hour’s drive to the west of the capital, and for now, it seems, their wishes will be respected.

Family spokesman Leo Mugabe told the BBC that after Sunday’s public ceremony at the National Sports Stadium, his uncle’s body would be taken to Kutama and buried there. Only at a later date, yet to be determined but said to be a Sunday, would Mugabe be returned to Heroe’s Acre and finally buried there.

Puzzling questions remain. Would Mugabe’s body be temporarily buried at Kutama? Or would it be kept in the village ice machine until someone has an idea of what’s happening? Are plans in place to tour it before getting it back to Harare, a funeral procession that will take the long way round back to Heroes’ Acre? This, arguably, may be the best way of assuring worried citizens in the outermost corners of the nation that he is, in fact, quite dead.

In South Africa, though, his spirit certainly marches on. The Economic Freedom Fighters, for example, remain emboldened by Mugabe’s example — particularly where his mistakes are concerned. Reacting to the despot’s death, Julius Malema was quick to downplay the notorious massacres of Ndebele civilians by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987.

“Sometimes,” the grieving Malema said, “matters are complex and the solutions that you are providing might not be sustainable or acceptable solutions when history is giving an account of what transpired in the past. We don’t know what necessitated such conditions and we may not want to justify, especially the killing the [Ndebele] people, the young people and the women. It does not make you a lesser hero because of the mistakes you have committed during the course of conducting the revolution.”

Many would prefer to label these mistakes “murders”. And there were lots.

The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe documented at least 2 000, and speculated that the actual number of people killed could be 8 000 or higher. The International Red Cross reported that some 1 200 Ndebele had been killed in the month of February 1983 alone. In 2005, the International Association of Genocide Scholars estimated the death toll at 20 000.

As Malema reminded those at the EFF’s own touchy-feely “Killer Bob” memorial at Orlando, Soweto, on Thursday, “The life of President Mugabe is an exciting life. The debt we owe Mugabe is one we will never be able to repay.”

This is hardly surprising. Those who have dealt with the likes of Malema and his deputy, Floyd Shivambu, can tell you the redshirts seldom, if ever, repay their debts.

* * *

IT is entirely possible that Malema could learn a thing or two from Dikötter’s book but he appears to have a comprehensive grasp of the fundamentals when it comes to tyranny. 

He has got the rant thing down pat, for example, and Eyewitness News reporter Barry Bateman will in future stand well away from Malema following the highly publicised incident in which he was drenched in spittle as the EFF leader went on a racist tirade outside the Hawks’ offices in Johannesburg on Tuesday. 

To make matters worse, Bateman’s spineless employers then told Malema they were sorry that he was a “p***”. Or something like that.

Now Malema has banned “investigative journalists” from all EFF functions. All across the country, investigate journalists sighed with relief. “Free at last, free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!” 

But it’s not enough. Whole slants of other reporters — theatre critics, sportswriters, book reviewers — should now boycott EFF events as well. An injury to one, as they say, is an injury that we can all pretend to suffer from.

Is Malema proper dictator material, though? 

In the closing pages of his book, Dikötter advises that we should not confuse personality cults with “political theatre”. The latter, he says, takes place when democratically-elected leaders groom their image. They do so by posing with children, for instance, and surrounding themselves with flatterers. 

In South Africa, though, the EFF like to pose with their motor cars and surround themselves with their security details. It is a trick they have learnt from the ANC, who use it with winning effect.

“It may be repulsive,” Dikötter writes, “or appear narcissistic and even sinister, but it is not a cult. To have followers proclaim that their leader is a genius is not a cult either. In the first stage of a cult, a leader needs to have enough clout to abase his opponents and force them to salute him in public. But with a fully developed cult of personality no one can any longer be quite certain any more who supports and who opposes the dictator.”

The fear is always there, he says. In the last century, hundreds of millions of people were obliged to hail their leaders even as they were herded off to serfdom and worse. Those dictatorships may have disappeared, but new ones are appearing. 

It is noteworthy that the Communist Party of China, which expressly banned “all forms of personality cult” after the Cultural Revolution, is now turning back to a dictatorship. After his election as general secretary of the party in 2012, Xi Jinping immediately set about humiliating and jailing his rivals, purging the CCP of hundreds of thousands of “corrupt” members, and laying waste to a fledgling civil society by persecuting lawyers, human rights activists, journalists and religious leaders.

For all this, Dikötter suggests, the dictators of today — with the sole exception of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un — are nowhere near as capable of instilling the sort of terror that their predecessors inflicted upon their populations at the height of the twentieth century. 

“Undeniably,” he writes, “for more than a decade democracy has been degraded in many places around the world, while levels of freedom have receded even in some of the most entrenched parliamentary democracies. Eternal vigilance, as the saying goes, is the price of liberty as power can easily be stolen.”

For all that, he adds, even the slightest bit of historical perspective indicates that dictatorships are on the decline. They are, inevitably, their own worst enemies. 

“Most of all, dictators who surround themselves with a cult of personality tend to drift off into a world of their own. They see enemies everywhere, at home and abroad. As hubris and paranoia take over, they seek more power to protect the power they already have. But since so much hinges on the judgments they make, even a minor miscalculation can cause the regime to falter, with devastating consequences. In the end, the biggest threat to dictators comes not just from the people, but from themselves.”